Actions

Work Header

I have always known you (even if you didn't know me)

Chapter Text

They had never been a separate entity. He is Steven, and Steven is him. There's no question about that... at least, there shouldn't be.

Doubt had been stirring in them for years, seeds planted by others, be it intentionally or not.

Am I really her?
Am I just a shell for her?
Am I not who I am?

When his gem—their gem—was ripped from Steven's body—their body—he became tangible. He's never been that before... he's never been anything but Steven. Neither of them had.

They'd just never realized it, until that moment.

They were not Pink Diamond. They were not Rose Quartz. They were her son—something so far outside of her identities, that they were an entirely new being.

White Diamond didn't understand that. She kept asking, begging, for Pink to resume her form. White Diamond wanted him to be something he wasn't. Something they could never be, together or apart.


"She's gone."


Their body kept pleading, reaching out and trying to crawl toward him. "Please I... I need—I need it, please—"

Their gem could continue without their body, but not the other way around. He understood this. They both understood this. Existing apart wasn't right.

He is Steven, and Steven is him.

Their body was too weak to even crawl any further. Connie scooped him up into her arms, and even though she could barely keep him aloft, she stumbled along to reunite them. (She was always doing that. Helping them in so many different ways—always providing safety and comfort, even when Steven didn't expressly need it.)

But White Diamond clearly didn't want them back together. She tried attacking him, tried using her powers to purify him, but he couldn't allow that. Their body needed him as he is.

Protocols blared, and he raised a shield.

She tried again, with the same result. And he just stared at her, defiance ringing somewhere in the back of his consciousness.


"I only want you to be yourself! If you can't do that, I'll do it for you."


Another attack, this one from all sides, and his shields withstood her blinding gaze—as they should.

He didn't have time for this. He needed to get back to their body. So with a push, White's powers dissipated, and she and her puppets crashed to the floor.

But their body protested. Sobbed that he was "hurting them." That was the point, though. Wasn't it obvious to him? Hurt them, and they stay away from you. (Steven knew that, deep down. He'd been hurt by many different people, and learned to stay away from them. That's how it worked.)

Nevertheless, they didn't exactly have time to completely get rid of the threats. Reuniting was the priority.

He met Connie and their body in the middle, right in front of where White Diamond had fallen. She handed him off, her posture tense and voice wobbly. They were together again, but... still apart. He wasn't actually sure how to get Steven back. He hadn't been able to process the situation that far ahead.

And that's... when it happened.

Their body was crying, tears streaming down his face despite his smile. (Steven did that often. Smiled and cried at the same time. Such conflicting actions.) And then their body started... laughing, and embraced him with such a fervor that he was sure they'd both topple over.

An uncontrollable grin spread across his face, as something sprung up within his core. Some kind of unidentifiable thing that was so Steven, and not him, and yet both of them all at once. The presence of this familiar-yet-not thing was so overwhelming. He returned the embrace, the urge to leap and spin taking over.

So he jumped, danced around, spun, and never let go of their physical half, laughing along with him the while. And within a fantastic instant, they were Steven again.

Chapter Text

When Spinel hit their body with that Rejuvenator, everything was ripped away from them.

She tore him apart, but not in a physical sense. He was unable to control even a simple bubble. Steven needed his powers, and he couldn't provide them for the entire day.

It had been so long since he was like this, barely able to summon the shield or bubble himself. (Having sixteen years worth of experience ripped away in a flash is jarring, to say the least.)

Spinel hurt Steven, all day.

She kicked him in the face.

She stole their powers.

She made Steven doubt himself, and made the ones who protected him forget everything about the boy.

Her biopoison burned their arm. It burned through Steven's favorite jacket. (He isn't sure why that action bothered him so much. It's just a piece of cloth, why should he be attached to it so fiercely?)

She beat their body and made him bleed.

And he couldn't do anything about it.

It was almost like he was growing weaker, through the whole day, until Steven realized his piece of the amesia-puzzle. Change. (It was so obvious, why hadn't either of them figured it out sooner?)

Things were sorted out in the end, but... he realized something new, when everything finally settled down.

He doesn't like being helpless.

Chapter Text

The corrupted gem is within his sight. He and Connie have been tracking the wayward creature through the mountains for days—weeks—now. But it's a slippery thing, panicked and feral, unable to understand its' pursurrers only want to help.

(He doesn't really blame the gem. Connie is a weapon in her own right, the sword a mere extension of her being. She radiates intimidation, when in her mission-uniform, striking pink blade at her side. He can't entirely understand why it's scared of Steven though. He's... squishy, not scary.)

Steven dodges past yet another redwood, keeping pace with Connie as they barrel through the snow covered forest, and toward the looming cavern at the base of the mountain. They're so close that he can see the Howlite's tail and haunches, its' canine-shape finally distinguishable in the blur of brown, green, and white.

It charges into the mouth of the cave, disappearing into the black, and they follow it without hesitation.

Once inside, Steven stops short, holding a hand out for Connie to do the same. He can't see the gem anymore, it's shape lost in the darkness. He wills his gemstone to glow, the light emitting from under his shirt spilling into the cave.

The cave illuminates in a rosy glow, the Howlite now visible. The cave doesn't go very deep, and only has a few traces of stalagmites and stalactites. The gem is in the open, just turning to face them. The Howlite snarls, taking a threatening step forward, jaws gleaming.

Steven breathes in, steadying himself. Connie is at his side, sword ready and stance poised. A cornered animal is more likely to bite, so they'll need to be careful.

He keeps his voice low, quiet. "Back up, but slowly... stay behind me."

She gives a sound of confirmation, and the two start their cautious retreat. The Howlite follows just as slowly, steps light and wild eyes glued to the teens. Once out from under the lip of the cave, Steven stops, as does the Howlite.

(He's always doing this. Being kind when he really doesn't have to. He could overpower the gem, but instead he chooses words.)

He kneels down, one knee pressing into the snow. "Hey, it's okay... we're not gonna hurt you."

(It would be kind of admirable, if it didn't get Steven's teeth kicked in so often.)

Despite his gentle tone, the beast's gaze snaps toward Connie's still raised sword. The Howlite snarls, pawing the snow. The girl takes the hint and lowers the weapon, until it's blade is planted in the powdery earth. But she still keeps a hand on the grip.

"See?" Steven asks, eyes sparkling. "We just wanna help, honest..."

The boy dares to outstretch a hand toward the gem, who flinches back with a rumbling growl. He remains steadfast, his smile unwavering. The gem's furry, ragged ears begin to unpin from its' skull.

Steven's smile widens at the small progress. "It's alright. We can help restore your form—get you back to your old self."

His heart soars as the beast steps closer and closer, posture still a little stiff. (Something is wrong.) Connie shifts behind him, muttering a small "Steven," under her breath, but he shushes her. He makes a few kissing sounds, keeping his arm out and ready to be inspected.

(Steven knows feline tendencies best. He's familiar with dogs, but he's met so few of them, that he gets certain details confused.)

The Howlite's tail is raised, sickle-like over its white-and-black-marbled back. The gem is a breath away from Steven's hand, when it dawns on the boy. There's hostility in those eyes, and he's fallen right into the trap.

Connie is already leaping right over him, sword swinging. The gem snarls, jaw opening like a viper as it lunges at her. Time seems to slow for Steven, as his instincts take hold.

(Bubble, shield, run, something.)

Steven sticks his arm right in the line of the gem's maw.

(Something other than that.)

The air splits with a sickening crunch, as its' teeth hit bone.

Steven's vision flashes white as pain flares and explodes through his arm, and a cry rips from his throat. His hand clenches, but he can't tell if it's actually closing at all. Hot tears are already pricking at the corners of his eyes, as the boy tries to grasp at the gem to hold it still. Connie snarls as she charges, but the beast lifts Steven into the air, threatening to toss him.

Connie slashes toward it, but just manages to barely scrape across the gem's side. "Hold on, Steven!!"

Despite himself, a whimpering laugh escapes the boy. "Don't have much of a choice—!"

The Howlite whirls, dodging around the swordswoman and taking Steven along for the ride. They charge around each other, Connie having to restrain herself as the gem keeps flinging Steven in the way of her strikes. Steven himself tries to summon a shield or a bubble, but the beast's grip is unbearable, and he can't concentrate.

Somewhere in this lethal dance, the beast slams into Connie, stunning her long enough for it to land a sharp kick that sends her flying into a tree.

(This has gone on long enough.)

 

X

 

It takes him a moment to actually exit their gem, since he's only done this... technically once, and under unfavorable circumstances. That method isn't what he wants. It has to be something different.

A memory of Pearl creating holographic images of herself comes forward, and then it clicks. (He wants to appear with that jacket Steven usually wears, but that will take too long to figure out right now, so he settles on assuming Steven's current physical form and wardrobe.)

In a flicker of sparkles and glow, he's seeing the world from his own, hard-light vision. He aims his form toward the gem's chest, appearing just beneath it, a geometric shield at the ready. One sharp uppercut, and the Howlite is tumbling head-over-tail, its form dissipating with a loud poof. Steven falls abruptly into the snow, gasping and scrambling.

There's a spray of red on the white ground, and their body's arm is covered in blood. (Another ruined jacket. Why is it always the arm?)

Their body stares back him, tear-filled eyes blown wide. (Steven stares back him.) Whole and himself, aside from the still-dripping bite wound.

(It's understandable that Steven is surprised, and perhaps a little afraid. The last time he existed, their body was dying. Once burned, twice shy, and all that.)

His gaze traces over toward Connie. The human is lying against the base of a tree, still unmoving from where she had been thrown.

Steven probably has questions. But there are more pressing matters, so he shouldn't linger. "Bubble the gem and heal yourself," he says. "Attend to Connie as soon as you are able."

In a flash of sparkles and static, he retreats back into their gem.

Chapter Text

He knows who has provided for Steven, and who has hurt him.

(Garnet has provided care and gem-advice. Jasper has hurt Steven. Pearl has provided safety, food, and education. Eyeball tried to hurt Steven—tried to kill him. Dad has provided comfort, human-advice, and entertainment.)

He knows Steven's desires, and Steven's needs.

(Steven needs to eat. Steven wants to play music. Steven needs to sleep. Steven wants to kiss Connie Maheswaran... a lot.)

Steven needs solitude, in order to talk to him.

 


 

It's been only a few hours since they got back from the mountains. Connie was alright—mostly just battered and sore, which Steven took care of with a few tender kisses—but Steven, of course, would need many more doses of healing-spit. Gross as it sounds, he'd honestly just considered licking his arm until the bite-wound was healed, but... it needed to be cleaned, first.

They had tried to sneak past his guardians, but nothing goes over Garnet's head. Having a mom with future vision sucks, sometimes. As expected, Pearl was in absolute hysterics that Steven was injured so severely, and while Amethyst tried to play it cool—"wHOA, you're gonna have some wicked scars, dude!!"—he could tell she was shaken up, too.

One warm bath and lots of healing kisses later, Steven finds himself lying in his bed, Connie next to him in a similar position. The TV drones in the background, as some white noise. Something to keep his mind from wandering.

(It never really helps.)

Steven's chest is tight, but he hides it behind an awkward smile. "I'm... sorry about getting hurt—and getting you hurt."

Connie tilts her head toward him, a gentle frown on her lips as she reaches out to touch his cheek. "It's okay. Everything worked out, after all... besides, I... just got bruised a little."

He leans into her touch with a gentle sigh, and closes his eyes. He smirks lightly, showing her his intact arm. "Healing kisses, remember?"

(That usually seems to set her mind at ease, at least for a little while.)

She shifts, free hand resting on the bare limb. There's barely a trace of the Howlite's bite, aside from faint scarring. "Still..."

(That certainly didn't last long.)

Her fingers trace across his marred skin, vaguely trembling. Connie gives a sharp, sniffling inhale, and Steven's eyes shoot open. That's all it takes for him to scoot closer, arms spread and ready to hold her. His girlfriend accepts without hesitation, wrapping her arms around his neck, and burying her face in his chest. A shudder wracks through her, and Steven's grip tightens.

There's tears on his shirt, as she begins to mumble. "I-I couldn't—you needed me, a-and I didn't—"

(None of that was Connie's fault. Steven was the one who panicked. She kept her head, like always.)

Steven begins to rub her back with one hand, the other holding the back of her head. "No, no, none of that was your fault... we were both out of it, yesterday. We chased that Howlite for days on end, remember?" he keeps his voice firm, but soft. "I... heh, it was honestly kind of my fault..."

He feels color rush into his cheeks, as she pulls away, tearstained expression full of questions. "How is me b-being off my game, your fault...?"

(Steven really should have read a book on canine behavior, or found a documentary TubeTube video, before that mission. Steven wouldn't have panicked, and their body would've never have been bit.)

The boy offers her a tiny grin, ducking his head. "I-I... got cat 'n dog tail posture mixed up. Y-Y'see, when CatSteven is happy to see me, she lifts her tail up like a flag, and trots over—I uh... I forgot dogs... do that when they're being aggressive... I-I know they wag them when they're happy, but cats do that when they're angry or really excited—"

(Steven could have saved another jacket sleeve form a terrible, cruel fate.)

Connie just stares at him for a long, grueling movement. Her expression is somewhere between utterly incredulous and abject horror, but is otherwise painfully unreadable. Steven squirms under her gaze, before she bursts into laughter, causing him to jolt and blush even brighter.

"Universe, you're a mess," she cackles, leaning in and planting a kiss on his lips.

(... Maybe some lessons are better learned the hard way, though.)

His world is nothing but Connie, for those fleeting moments. All at once, he's embarrassed and lovestruck and oh stars, he's starting to float right off the bed. Connie grins as she holds onto his arms, the boy hovering a decent foot off the mattress.

She has no free hand to dry her eyes, but she seems relieved all the same. "You gonna come back down, any time soon?"

He lets out a dreamy sigh, gazing down at her, his eyes half-lidded and grin lazy. "I dunno... I really like the view from up here..."

Connie scoffs at him, mock scanalized, as she pulls him closer. "Dork."

The boy nuzzles her forehead, once he's close enough. "Admit it—you love me, Strawberry."

"Wholeheartedly, Biscuit."

 

X

 

A few days after the incident, Steven has brought himself into Rose's room—his room, at this point. The room is the same as it's ever been. Cotton candy clouds, and a peachy, orange-pink sunset-sky. Perfectly normal.

Steven lifts his shirt, and taps their gemstone with his free hand. "So, uh... will you only come out if I'm in mortal peril, or something? Or if Connie's in danger?"

(That's about the gist of it. Right now, he's focusing on figuring out to appear with Steven's favorite jacket—again.)

Steven's tone grows aggravated, as he continues. "... You would've been real useful when Spinel attacked, y'know."

(He's very aware, and just as annoyed about the whole incident.)

"Seriously, do I have to conjure up some crazy, lethal monster, in order for you to come out, Pink-St—?"

Something sparks and begins to burn, deep in his core. Something very not Steven—chaotic and blazing, yet honed in on that name. Something about it makes him want to throw a punch. Something about it makes his intangible fists and chest shudder violently.

(That stupid, stupid, name.)

In a sharp flash of harsh sparkles, he's standing before Steven—face scrunched into a glare, mouth curled into a snarl, and his posture full of aggression. "I am not Pink!"

(Aggression. That doesn't... that doesn't seem right, for many reasons, but none he can name.)

Their body—Steven—flinches and yelps, falling on his rear with a soft thump. His eyes are blown wider than last time, and... Steven is shaking.

(Oh.)

He blinks the expression away and resets his posture, but that burning is still eating at him. Steven squeaks out a comment—"So the magic word is pink. Noted,"—and part of him kind of wants to chuckle.

(An attempt at humor, to defuse a tense situation. A very Steven thing to say.)

"I am not Pink," he repeats, gentler this time. "You are not Pink, either. I thought you knew this."

Steven holds a hand out in truce, the other bracing his body to remain sitting up. "I-I—but, you—" the capitalization of the word-name hits Steven, and he blinks at the mirror-image. Steven's mouth falls into a silent 'Oh,' and he nods. "I-I do know... just... I—how... I mean, the last time you—I was... and you were—"

He raises a brow, unsure where Steven is trying to go with any of this.

The boy fully sits up, waving his arms toward the bubble-gum hued reflection, uttering a distressed whine. "HOW are you even a thing?!"

(Yet another very Steven thing to say.)

"Elaborate."

Steven freezes, then balks as words fail him for a moment. "I—uh," he shakes his head, taking a second to gather himself. "How are you... existing, right now? How am I not dying?"

He tilts his head, staring down at Steven. "I projected my hardlight form from our gemstone, in a similar fashion to Pearl's holograms. She and these projections can exist simultaneously, within the physical space."

Something tells him that he should hold his arms out for emphasis, so he follows the urge, if a bit stiffly.

Their body—Steven, he reminds himself—still seems pretty freaked out, if his tense posture and strained expression have anything to say. But, he nods, getting to his feet with heavy caution. "I... yeah, I guess that makes sense..."

(He should probably put his arms down.)

He lets his arms drop, and Steven flinches back. He can't stop his mouth from scrunching into a half-frown. "You don't have to be afraid of me. My decided purpose is to protect you from physical harm."

Steven eyes him. "... Decided purpose?"

He raises an eyebrow without really meaning to. "Yes. I had little say in your safety, before we were..." his gaze flicks away. "... Forcefully separated."

An image of White Diamond's room flashes through their consciousness, and both tense up, shuddering.

(That was... strange.)

Steven blinks a few times, shaking his head. "Uh, so—ah... you're gonna be showing up more often?"

"Not likely, unless you are in immediate danger."

(Or if Connie is in danger. He isn't sure why, but there's an urge to protect her too. Probably because Steven needs her, to carry on emotionally. That sounds correct.)

Steven puts a hand behind his head, giving the mirror-image a sheepish smile. "Well... regardless, I... I gotta call ya somethin', if you're gonna be showing up at all. Holo-Pearls aren't just called Pearl, after all."

There's an uncontrollable edge to his tone. "Anything but Pink."

(As a note, Somethin' is also not a very good name.)

The boy nods, hands lifting in truce once again. "Yeah, u-understandable!" he looks away, pondering for a long while. "... What about... mmmM—Magenta! 'Cause it's like, not pink, and—and I could call you Maggie for short!"

Magenta. A light-purplish-red that is one of the primary subtractive colors, complementary to green... it isn't Pink, so he has to give Steven credit for that. Perhaps a bit close to the mark, but the shortened version, "Maggie," is... favorable. He could get used to being called both, depending on the situation.

He smirks, the action purposeful. "Adequate."

Chapter Text

Some semblance of routine is... comfortable, to Steven, after all he's been through. The pink jacket, one of Dad's old shirts, a pair of jeans, and those neon-pink flip flops, make a striking uniform. It's more grown up than just a salmon pink star-shirt, but still recognizably Steven.

So the night Steven gives him a name, he decides to try and get a new look.

He wants to appear with that jacket Steven loves so much—the one Connie gifted him, for his sixteenth birthday—because matching Steven's usual wardrobe is a good tactic, if he ever needs to confuse an enemy. It might also be that he simply wants to mimic their body's appearance. Seems natural, since he is Steven.

Those are perfectly valid reasonings.

(It's absolutely not just because the jacket "looks cool.")

No one will bother him in the dead of night, when their body—Steven, when Steven—is sleeping. This will also be a good time to test just how tangible his form is. Sure, he poofed the Howlite, but could he interact with non-Gem objects? With other beings? That's something pretty important to know early on, in case Steven is attacked by something organic—another human, for example.

(Magenta doesn't really want to process what that situation would be like.)

Steven doesn't usually sleep with a cover during the warmer months, and tonight is no exception. He has to be careful, keeping the glow of their gemstone as dim as possible, while forming in the tangible world. He aims for Steven's bedside, appearing in a faint shower of sparkles.

Pearl doesn't watch Steven sleep, anymore. She's been growing out of that habit—as far as he's aware—so the coast should be clear.

(He really shouldn't have anything to worry about. The Gems leave Steven alone at night. Why would tonight be the exception?)

He steals a glance over his shoulder, just to be sure Steven hasn't woken up, and sure enough—the boy is still asleep. Time to figure out how to apply that jacket to his hardlight form.

Striding over to Steven's closet, which has been left open, Magenta peers inside. There's plenty of similar looking shirts, pants, jeans, various cold-weather jackets, as well as a few sweaters, hanging up on the rack. He takes note that there's two identical pink jackets in the closet. Smart thinking on Connie's part, since she's seen first-hand just how much Steven gets kicked around.

Magenta reaches in without hesitation, grasping for the baby-pink fabric of the nearest jacket. His eyebrows jump when he actually makes contact with the sleeve—which appears to be stitched up, upon much closer inspection. This must be the jacket Steven was wearing during the whole Spinel episode.

The memory of her makes his hand clench around the fabric, but only for an instant. (He doesn't want to damage it by mistake. Jacket's already been through enough.)

He studies it for a moment longer, letting the mental images of Spinel fade away, before backing away from the closet. Steven's room lacks any kind of fullbody mirror, but he can make out a decent reflection in the sliding glass doors that lead out to the deck.

They should suffice.

Taking a few steps back, Magenta inspects his current appearance. He's just in a simple star-shirt, some jeans, and sandals. He no longer looks like fourteen-year-old-Steven, and is instead a perfect replica of their body's current form. He looks down at himself, pulling up a memory of Steven trying on the jacket and looking at himself in the mirror.


Steven holds his arms out, before he grasps at the collar, a giant grin on his face. He does a little spin, before striking a pose. "Connie, I—I love it! It's so perfect!!"

She laughs, a faint hint of blush on her face. "I'm glad you like it! When I saw it, I immediately thought of you."


(He's smiling a little. That memory is... nice.)

Oh, wait. The collar.

Magenta looks back up at his reflection, bringing his hands up to the sides of his neck. He positions his fingers like Steven had, palms hovering there for a few seconds as he adjusts his mock-grip. Steven had tugged on the collar, propping it up a bit. Maggie squints, creating a slow trajectory for his hands to follow. He tries a few slow passes, but... nothing happens.

He waits for a handful of seconds, with still no results.

Again, Magenta follows Steven's movements, slowly mimicking the motion.

(What is he doing wrong?)

His eyes narrow, frustration sparking up as he jerks his hands along the pathway he's been practicing—

And in a sharp glimmer of pink, he's wearing a hardlight copy of the jacket.

He stares at his reflection for a long moment, the sparkles dissipating from the hems of his new article of clothing. It looks identical to Steven's organic jacket. No one would be able to really tell the difference, in the heat of combat. A smile creeps across his face, which becomes a grin in no time. The urge to twirl around overtakes him, and Magenta is spinning around on one leg before he truly realizes.

Just as he sticks his hands in the pockets, a flicker of movement catches his eye, and light streams in from a half-inch crack in Steven's door.

Magenta wills himself to disappear back into their gem, vanishing with a burst of sparkles.

Pearl's nose—followed by the rest of her head—peeks into the room, before she glances toward Steven's bed. She waits at the door for a few moments, before tiptoeing over to the mattress, and setting herself down at the foot of the bed. Her expression is full of tired concern, and her eyes are on Steven's arm. She lifts a hand toward it, but pauses, reconsidering, before she pulls back.

Seems Pearl has relapsed into her old habit.

(Magenta doesn't really blame her. Steven hasn't been injured that badly in a long while, so it's understandable that she would grow overly protective again.)

Regardless, he'll have to be more careful in the future.

Chapter Text

Magenta is only for emergencies. Magenta is only for when Steven—or Connie—is in mortal danger.



It's quiet in Steven's room, aside from the incessant clicking of game-controller buttons. Steven's eyes are glued to his TV, his fingers franticly mashing buttons in combo-sequences. Lonely Blade: Eclipse is the toughest of the series, and he's spent weeks getting as far as he is in the game. It's no surprise he's spending one of his free-days trying to complete the piece of media.

The teen gives a distressed yelp, as a powerful attack lands on his avatar. "Wha—? Come on, that...! I dodged that, how did he even—?"

(Steven did indeed input the dodge action, but he clearly mistimed it.)

Steven goes quiet for a long while, as he concentrates. He ends up using nearly all of his in-game regenerative potions and supplies, while trying to complete the fight, before he's struck down to less than half health once again. But, just when Magenta thinks he's about to give up...

"Maagggiiieee, I could really use a player two!"



Magenta is not for trivial things like video games.



"No one's around, y'know—today's one of my rare days off, and everyone's been avoiding me like I've caught some... weird, gem-disease, so it'd be safe to come out."

He doesn't exactly want to take the chance. It's only noon, so Connie could show up, or Dad. Or Pearl, who would be in hysterics at the sight of him. Or Garnet, who... he's honestly not sure how she would react.

"It'd only be for this little bit, I promise! I just need to get past this boss, and I could really use some help! I'm in immediate danger of getting a game over, if you don't hurry...!"

(Steven is rather pitiful, sometimes.)

Magenta appears at the foot of Steven's bed in a glow and a flash of sparkles, his eyebrows furrowed and lips in a hard line. Steven's panicked expression leaps into an elated, almost smug grin, as he pauses the game.

The teen puts his hands on his knees, eyes glimmering as he prepares to stand up. "Ha-HA! I figured that'd get to you come out. Lemme get a second controller—"

"I only appeared so that you would cease whining," Magenta states.

Steven's expression deflates into such a shocked, yet miserable frown, it's almost comical.

Magenta's face twitches, just barely, but he crosses his arms. "My purpose is protect our body from physical harm. Not to assist you in difficult forms of entertainment."

Steven tilts his head, adopting a soft smile as he raises an eyebrow. "Not even if I ask super nicely? You could disappear right after the cutscene starts!"

He shakes his head. "The risk of me being found out is too great. You will have to ask Amethyst or Connie for assistance."

Steven sticks out his lower lip, tilting his head even lower. "... Preeetttyyyy please, Maggie?"

(... Not the puppy dog eyes. Not even Garnet can resist what Steven calls "the puppy dog eyes.")

Magenta's resolve caves like loose sand, and his posture slacks. Nothing gets past Steven, because the teen is already bright-eyed once again, and scrambling to grab a second controller.

He sits down on the edge of Steven's bed, heaving a sigh. "Do not expect this to be a regular occurrence."

"I make no such promise!"

Chapter Text

Connie visits Steven quite often.

Well, that's... a grand understatement.

She's practically always around Steven. The teen is barely ever a room away from her, outside of when she's at school or spending time with her parents. Even then, when she's preoccupied with the non-magical aspects of her life, they talk frequently throughout the day. When Steven is busy with Diamond-responsibilities, he's always finding time to text her little "I love you"s, or tiny heart images.

(Magenta doesn't entirely understand the concept of the whole thing, but if it keeps Steven emotionally stable, then he can't complain.)

It's Saturday. Connie is in Steven's room, sitting on Steven's bed, playing Shadow of the Colossus on Steven's game system.

(She's much better at it then Steven is, if Maggie's going to be honest.)

Steven is lying against the back of the headboard, alternating between looking at his phone and watching her play.

Things are normal.

 

X

 

Steven knows he's not that great at Shadow of the Colossus. He honestly just wants to look at the cool scenery and explore the world, and if there was a way he could not kill the giant creatures, that would be pretty cool too. The game developers worked hard on those designs, it just seems like such a shame that he has to kill them...

He steals a glance at Connie, who's focused on the game, before the teen's gaze wanders down to her hands. His secondary controller fits so perfectly in her calloused hands. Her reaction time is near-perfect, thanks to all the sword training, her thumbs flicking the joysticks and tapping buttons just as she needs to. She's never frantic or losing her cool during tough encounters, and she can figure out puzzles in a snap.

Stars, she's so smart...

His phone is set down at some point, Steven's meme perusal-mission abandoned, as he continues to admire Connine's gameplay. But his eyes keep trailing back to her hands, and his fingers twitch. He's starting to feel a little jealous of the controller, in a silly, lighthearted sense... it's probably all warm, from how long she's been playing. He'd much rather have those warm hands holding his probably-not-as-warm-hands, because he's suddenly feeling cuddly.

Laying down on his stomach, Steven shimmies himself over to the foot of his matress, stopping when he's next to her leg. He rolls over onto his side, looking up at the girl as she remains focused on the screen. She's got such a determined look in her eyes, as her avatar scales up the back of a Colossus. She sometimes sticks her tongue out when she's really concentrated, and honestly it's just the cutest thing in the whole world—

Aw stars, he's smiling like a fool, now.

(This is all very ridiculous.)

Connie doesn't seem to notice him—or, at least isn't showing any signs that she notices him, but she could also just be playing him. She's good at that, too. Pretending to ignore him, and then catching him looking starstruck. Steven doesn't mind, even if it makes his cheeks flush, and he wants to hide his face from being so flustered.

Steven gives a gentle sigh, eyes back on Connie's hands. The music from the TV stops, when her thumb taps the start button, and he blinks. His gaze begins to trail upwards, passing over Connie's smirking lips, until he meets her dark eyes.

Her expression is so adorably smug, yet so endearingly sweet, as if she's caught him with his hand in the cookie jar.

His smile grows into a lazy, lopsided grin, as he props his head up on one arm. Steven blinks at her again, slow and dreamy. "Hey, Strawberry..."

She grins back, setting the controller aside. "Hey yourself, Biscuit."

(Magenta really doesn't understand the point of this whole interaction.)

Her hair is so much shorter these days, and it's such a good look for her. "... You're so pretty."

Something shines in his girlfriend's eyes, but it goes right over Steven's head. "Flatterer. Y'know what I wanna do?"

(What are they...?)

He could honestly just stare at her all day. "Mm... what?"

She topples him over without warning, not bothering to hide the cheeky smirk on her face. "Make out with my adorable boyfriend."

(Oh, they're—)

Ooh stars, his face is red as a tomato. "C-Connie wh—but, what if we get caught—?"

The girl leans over him, grinning with half-lidded eyes. "We're dating, Steven. We're allowed to kiss each other."

Stars, she's going to be the end of him. Dr. Mom would kill them both, if she saw the expression on her daughter's face, and where she is. "What are your parents gonna say?"

She tilts her head at him, and a strange little chill races up his spine. His warrioress leans down, till their lips are practically touching. Her voice is low, a husky whisper. "They're never gonna know."

Steven strangles out an embarrassed, audible huff, squirming and trying to hide his extremely flushed face, but Connie steals his breath with a kiss. Good grief, she's bold today.

He gladly melts under her, as Connie plants a row of kisses along his jaw, and cuddles up next to him. Those warm, strong hands keep him pinned to the bed, but he certainly doesn't mind. She knows where to stop, what not to do, and where their shared boundaries are. He's safe, no matter how she holds him or where she touches him, because she is his knight, and she'd move Homeworld and Earth to protect him.

(This is just painfully awkward, now. Magenta should figure out a way to retreat deeper into Steven's consciousness, so he can leave them alone for a bit.)

He isn't sure when, or how exactly, but they're sitting up, practically in each other's laps, as they share a deeper kiss. He's holding her face with one hand, while the other runs through her dark hair. Connie's hand slips under Steven's shirt, and her touch is such a comforting sensation of warm. She brushes against his gem, fingers briefly catching across the surface of the pink stone.

 

Porcelain fingers with black-dagger-nails grasp at their gem, pulling, tearingripping

 

Steven jerks back, eyes blown wide and a panicked gasp leaping from his chest as he scrambles to get away. White Diamond, why was she—why was he back on Homeworld, in her room?

"S-Steven, I'm so sorry—!"

He freezes, snapping back to clarity. Connie's up at the headboard, hands drawn up close to her chest. Her eyes are big as dinner plates. Steven's heart quickens.

She thinks she did something wrong.

She thinks she touched him somewhere wrong.

(She... she touched their gem.)

Within seconds, Steven is by her side again, wrapping his arms around her. "Connie, no, no, no—you haven't—you didn't do anything wrong."

"B-But you—"

(She touched their gem.)

"I—I don't... actually know what that was."

"... Are you sure it wasn't me?"

(Why did they have such a strong reaction to that?)

"Yes... I promise—I... I had this really sudden... flash of... a memory, from—from White's Room."

Chapter Text

Steven still hasn't told anyone about his fuschia-reflection.

Neither are entirely sure how the Gems would react to him existing, but... there's going to be a lot of yelling, and a lot of questions, that much is clear. There's going to be questions that Steven isn't ready to answer.

(Questions that Maggie isn't sure even he can answer.)

Not even Connie knows he exists. It's nearly impossible to hide anything from Connie, these days, so it's something of a miracle that she still doesn't know.

(How has she not figured it out? She always figures things out.)

When the two of them talked yesterday, Steven didn't tell her about Magenta. He only told her about the memory of White's room. About how touching their gem, even just ghosting across the surface, triggered the memory. She was... surprisingly understanding. Not upset with herself, like she had originally been.

(She had been there, after all. She was the only witness, aside from White.)

... And himself.

But... through the whole conversation, Steven danced around the topic of his Gem-half. He was brief when mentioning Maggie from two-years-ago, but never said his new name.

(Something ugly and wrong won't stop prodding at him. Some bitter longing to be found out.)

Connine mentions PTSD.

Steven shrugs.

Talk about him! Tell her about him!

She never asks about his Gem-half.

When she finally had to leave, something persists in eating away at Maggie's core. Something that makes his intangible guts twist and writhe—something that makes him want to materialize into the room, as she walked away.

(Of course, that would be impulsive. Reckless. He can't afford to be either of those things.)

He'll have to reveal himself to Steven's allies soon, but... 

(He's not ready. Too many questions, too little answers.)

Besides... if she never asks about him, Steven's not lying.


Right?




 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Right?





(Right.)

Chapter Text

Steven's memories are always playing, but Maggie usually keeps them in the very back of his consciousness. Some of them manage to... sneak past his efforts, though. He can't stop bringing them to the surface.

Spinel and Steven's first encounter. That day on the beach, so many years ago, when they first encountered Jasper. The countless fights against corrupted gems. White Diamond. Just the mere idea of her makes Magenta sethe and tremble, all at once. He wants to stay as far away as possible from her, but at same time, he wants to deck her in her giant, pristine face.

(These conflicting urges are troublesome. Pick one or the other, and settle on it, already.)

These memories plague Steven while the boy is asleep, and the particularly horrible ones jolt him awake—pulse spiked and limbs shaking. He doesn't say anything to the gems, or to Connie, but they can all see the darkening lines under his eyes.

And yet, they don't bring it up. Pearl asks if the Diamonds are pushing him too much, and Steven just smiles and shakes his head.

(He's not lying.)

One night, Steven doesn't bother to change into his sleep-wear. He just sits on his bed, lights turned off. The boy grips at his shirt, where their gem is, and lets out a heavy sigh. His voice is barely a hoarse whisper. "... We need to tell someone."

Magenta materializes in front of him, sitting paralel on the foot on the mattress. Steven is correct, as much as Maggie doesn't want to admit it. He should be able to keep to himself, afterall. He's their gem, and he shouldn't...

(Should he even be aware that he... exists?)

Something intangible grips at his chest, and Maggie tenses.

Steven's expression narrows with concern. "I know this is eating at both of us."

Maggie gives a long sigh before he nods. "... And I think I know who to talk to."

 

X

 

Little Homeworld has grown into such a bustling settlement, thanks to the uncorrupted Gems. So many others have come to live and work here, and even a few humans have moved in. It's still the dead of night, somewhere between nine and ten PM, but there's still activity in the square. The Howlite he and Connie rescued is out with her squad, the bunch of them roughhousing near the fountain. They sound like a pack of dogs, laughing and chatting with each other.

Steven can't help but smile, giving them a wave as he passes by. He would stop and chat, if this were any other night. They wave back, but don't make any clear effort to beckon him over.

He sets his sights on a nearby building, its lights still on—even at this hour. The sound of clanging metal drifts into the streets, emanating from the aforementioned building. The boy steels his nerves, drawing in a breath.

(It's now or never.)

Passing through the open threshold reveals a room of considerable size—forged creations of all shapes hanging on the walls, like swords, hammers, and decorative cuts of metal. There's even some metal furniture, all with meticulous detail. And in the center of the room, standing over her anvil and hammering away at a chunk of hot metal, stands a periwinkle gem, with a head full of rainbow dreadlocks, and a set of maroon overalls.

Steven clears his throat, before calling out. "H-Hey, Bismuth?"

The hammering stops, and the gem straightens before looking over her shoulder. Her brows quirk up in surprise, and she grins. "Well, evenin' Steven! What brings you out here at this time a'night?"

He tries to keep a smile on his face, but it must look terribly forced, because Bismuth's grin flaters. Steven glances away, guilt bubbling up as he grips at his shirt. "Can... can we talk in—in private? It's uh, about..." he grimaces. "Gem stuff, I guess?"

Bismuth nods, sticking her current project aside and motioning for him to follow. The two trudge deeper into the forge, passing through a brief hallway, and into another room. It's sparse, but there's a bed and a chair. Bismuth sits herself down on the side of the bed, patting the spot next to her.

She waits for him to sit down, before speaking. "What's on your mind, kid?"

(An insurmountable number of questions, and anxieties that make Steven's hands shake, for starters.)

Steven resists the urge to fidget. "... Do you remember the day we all went to Homeworld, to... to change the Diamonds' minds?"

Bismuth's eyes grow stern. "Lapis, Peridot and I only arrived for the afterparty, but, yeah—I do."

(That's precisely why they're here.)

He runs a hand along his arm, worrying his jacket sleeve. "I'm... not really sure how else to say this without some explaining, so... before you guys got there, White... took over everyone but me and Connie."

The scene is still vivid in his mind's eye. The gems' color drained, leaving monochromatic puppets for White to manipulate and speak through. The thought worsens the writhing, sickening ache in his gut. He doesn't look at Bismuth, but she's no doubt startled.

His voice wavers, if only by a bit. "White... White grabbed me, and..." he huffs out a sharp sigh, trying to keep his voice steady. "... She pulled out my gem."

Steven dares a glance at Bismuth, and he flinches at her calm, yet horrified stare. The large gem lifts a hand onto his shoulder, Steven leaning into her touch with some hesitance.

"... Does... does anyone else know about this?" she asks.

He shakes his head. "The gems don't seem to remember anything that happened w-while they were..." possessed.

Bismuth rubs a thumb across his shoulder, frowning in sympathy. "So just Connie knows?"

(Here goes nothing.)

Steven bites his lip, avoiding her gaze. "... Not... entirely. When, uh... when White..." his throat is tight, so he takes another breath. "... My gem reformed. T-The shape wasn't Pink Diamond, o-or Rose, though. It was me."

The blacksmith stares and blinks at him, eyes widening in surprise. "... Your gem... reformed?"

He nods, a smile spreading across his face. "Yeah, it... he was me, a-and—Connie helped us re-fuse! She handed me, uh, well, she handed my body to him, and—and he held me—uh, my body—?" unable to resist, Steven slips off the bed and onto his feet, twirling as he speaks. "—but, then we laughed and spun around, a-and then I was whole again! Uh... that's... that's the thing I actually came to tell you about..."

She's still reeling from all this, but Bismuth steels herself for his next revelation. "Lay it on me, kid."

Steven idly fixes his shirt. "When Connie and I went to find the corrupted Howlite, we... kind of got into some trouble. She attacked us, but... if it weren't for him, we..." he glances down toward his gem. "... It'll just be easier to show you."

(... Is he even ready for this?)

Bismuth's expression is utterly perplexed, and a tad worried.

(What if he does something wrong?)

Steven lifts his shirt a bit, and taps the pink gem. "... Maggie, you uh... gonna come out now?"

(She's going to scream, or attack him, or worse.)

"Steven, are you—are you feeling alright?"

(... She thinks something is wrong with Steven's state of mind.)

"What—? O-Of course, why wouldn't I—?"

(He has to set this straight. Now.)

In a glow and a flash of sparkles, Magenta forms in front of Steven. His other half sneers at Bismuth, who jolts back with wide eyes.

"Steven is perfectly healthy, both in body and mind," Magenta hisses. "I exist."

The gem is clearly shaken by Maggie's sudden reveal, cramming herself up against the headboard of her bed and visibly trying to keep her hand from forming into a hammer. "You certainly do..."

"Maggie!" stars, he probably sounds like Pearl, with the level of scolding in his tone. "Come on, be nice..." Steven casts a look toward Bismuth, as he pushes Magenta back a couple steps. "So uh, this is... my other half—in, uh, hologram form. Bismuth... meet Magenta."

She doesn't move from her spot on the bed, but her shoulders relax. "... Pleasure."

Magenta forces his expression to calm, untensing his posture and dropping his glare. "To answer a possible question, my actual form is Steven's gem-half. The... other half of Steven is our is physical body."

Bismuth doesn't seem any less freaked out, but she nods. "Alright... kinda—kinda like two components of a fusion?"

Steven blinks, eyes brightening as he smiles. "Yeah, that's... yeah, pretty much exactly like fusion! I'm... I'm like a fusion that was never separate!"

Until that day, of course.

The thought makes his smile crack, but only for a moment. Maggie side eyes him, as if he felt it too, before returning his attention to Bismuth.

"So, uh—" Bismuth brings herself back to the edge of her bed, boots hitting the floor. "—When did you... become self aware, Magenta?"

Maggie doesn't even blink. "The day Steven was separated. Before that, we had always been one entity. We still are, but..."

The gem nods, putting her hands in her lap. "It's a 'Once the damage's been done,' kinda thing, huh?" she looks to Steven, releasing a sigh. "... Does anyone else know about him?"

Oh boy. "Uh... just you 'n me. We... we're both kinda scared of what everyone's reactions might be. When I got bit on that mission to bring back Howlite, Pearl... stayed in my room, for a few nights. She hasn't done that in years, so..."

Bismuth nods again, expression growing strained. "You can only imagine how they'll be, once y'tell 'em," she laughs gently, for a moment. "Why... why come t' me though? I wasn't even there."

"That's exactly why we chose to tell you," Magenta says. "You are a third party, so to speak. Because of Garnet, Amethyst, Greg, Connie, and Pearl's relationship with Steven, they would thus become emotionally distraught if told about the events of..." he glances off. "... My... awakening, so to speak."

The gem offers the two a smile, a knowing shine in her eyes. "Well, 'm still glad ya told someone."

(So are they.)

Chapter Text

Steven listens to music quite often.

It's nothing strange. He plays, he sings, he enjoys being musical. His song choices are kind of all over the place sometimes, but Maggie has never really paid too much attention to them, until he couldn't help but pay attention.

(Becoming self aware will do that to a person, he supposes.)

Steven likes upbeat songs. Steven likes slow songs. Steven likes heartfelt songs, and he likes silly songs. Steven likes songs he can dance to, and Steven likes songs he can sing along with.

But sometimes, he just listens. But not in the causal sense, where he's just letting music play. Maggie can't help but realize something is different about the music he listens to, because Steven's entire body language changes when he listens to music. He gets quiet and goes still, and sometimes tries very hard not to cry.

If those songs are causing him distress, he shouldn't listen to them—let alone listen to them.

(Why does Steven do that to himself?)

It's around midnight, when the coast is clear for Maggie to materialize into Steven's bedroom. The familiar scene is quiet as ever, Steven sleeping soundly, and Pearl nowhere in sight. The teen's phone lies charging on the nightstand, and Steven's earbuds are still plugged in. There's an urge to tsk like Pearl, but he ignores it, as he picks up the device.

(Steven would fret and scold himself for not being able to hear his alarm. Maggie wants to avoid that, so he'll have to remember to unplug the earbuds once he's finished with his objective.)

Spoofy is usually Steven's go-to for music, so once Maggie unlocks the phone, he taps the little green circle without hesitation. He grabs at the cords to the earbuds, and nestles the tiny speakers into his ears, before returning his attention to the dim screen.

A bunch of recommended titles are listed, but the word diamonds catches his eye. 'Marina and the diamonds,' to be more specific. Steven hasn't listened to anything by this artist yet, but it's listened under the "Similar to what you like" category.

He stares for a long moment, before shrugging. Might as well give it a try.

He taps the album's icon, and hits shuffle. A heavier pop beat thrums into his ears, and he jolts a little. Maggie settles down as the singer begins the first verse, the lyrics tumbling along.

 

Don't do love, don't do friends
I'm only after success
Don't need a relationship
I'll never soften my grip

Don't want cash, don't want card
Want it fast, want it hard
Don't need money, don't need fame
I just want to make a change

 

Magenta blinks sharply, the last line causing something in the back of his mind to click. He glances away, trying to analyze what his consciousness is even doing, as the song continues.

 

I know exactly what I want and who I wanna to be
I know exactly why I walk and talk like a machine
I'm now becoming my own self-fulfilled prophecy
Oh, oh no, oh no, oh no, oh!

 

Maggie isn't sure how to deal with this thing that's looming in his consciousness. His shoulders fidget without his true consent.

 

One track mind, one track heart
If I fail, I'll fall apart
Maybe it is all a test
'Cause I feel like I'm the worst, so I always act like I'm the best

If you are not very careful
Your possessions will possess you
TV taught me how to feel
Now real life has no appeal
It has no appeal, it has no appeal
It has no appeal, it has no appeal
It has no appeal!

 

The chorus starts again, and Maggie's chest is tight when it really doesn't have to be. Why do these words make him want to curl up somewhere, and just... lie there, for a while? Why does he want to keep listening? Part of him wants to just set Steven's phone on the dresser and retreat back into their gem, but he just scrolls down and hits the repeat icon.

 

I know exactly what I want and who I wanna to be
I know exactly why I walk and talk like a machine
I'm now becoming my own self-fulfilled prophecy
Oh, oh no, oh no, oh no, oh!

I'm gonna live, I'm gonna fly
I'm gonna fail, I'm gonna die
I'm gonna live, I'm gonna fly
I'm gonna fail, gonna da-da-da-da-die!

Chapter Text

Steven had insisted that he would be the one to round up the remaining corrupted gems—and he's sticking to that promise.

He's more than willing to talk them down, befriending the wayward gems with gentle words and tender actions. Just a week ago, he managed to soothe a rampaging Serandite, when none of the Crystal Gems could even get close to her. She was healed within a matter of hours, after he led her back to the fountain.

(Steven didn't need Magenta's help that day. That fact shouldn't make Maggie's intangible chest ache.)

Slowly but surely, the gems that are still unaccounted for are coming out of Earth's woodwork. It's certainly helpful to have a comprehensive list of missing-persons, thanks to the Diamonds' logs. Makes figuring out who is who, a lot quicker.

But... they aren't the only gems that are still hurting.

A lot of the shard-fusions have been underground for so long, they were mostly forgotten. Sightings started coming in a month ago, at first one or two in the wilderness. Now, the creatures are showing up near towns and cities. One tried to attack someone in Empire City, just this morning.

So that's why he, Connie, and Amethyst, are heading out there.

(Maggie should be relieved that Amethyst is accompanying the teens. She's another ally that can watch Steven and Connie's backs. Another weapon to help subdue a foe. Another pair of eyes.)

 

Another pair of eyes they're not ready to face.

 

Usually, the three of them would be having a lighthearted conversation, Amethyst would maybe tease the two for being overly affectionate, and the radio would be on. Instead, Connie is scrolling through information on a datapad, Amethyst is staring out the window, and the radio is silent.

Steven's eyes are on the road, as they near the outskirts of the sprawling city, his grip on the steering wheel rigid. They've only visited Empire City once, a few years back. The memory of Pearl and his dad finally reconciling is a fond one, but the forced-fusions remain a looming priority in his mind.

Connie looks up, the buildings towering high above as they drive further into the city. "The report says the attack happened a few blocks down, in a parking garage."

Amethyst grimaces. "Well that location doesn't just scream 'creepy.'"

Both teens nod, and a shiver races up Steven's spine.

They drive on in silence, Amethyst fidgeting with her seatbelt. The building they stop in front of is just a run of the mill office-type. There's a man in a suit and a few uniformed officers standing in front of the entrance to the underground garage. One quick introduction later, an officer is leading them down into the dark. He shows them where the attack happened, and that the building itself has been locked down. There's only one entrance and exit in this garage, and the mutated-gem-monster had fled deeper down.

So deeper, yet deeper, the three of them go.

The area is almost cave-like, aside from being well lit. The deeper they travel, the fewer cars they find scattered throughout the asphalt and cement cavern. Connie and Amethyst remain on high alert, and Steven keeps his shield at the ready.

Everything is quiet. Far too quiet for the city, even if they're a whole several stories underground. 

Amethyst glances toward a parked car, whip in hand, as she trails behind the teens. "Hey, uh... Ste-man?"

Steven doesn't take his eyes off the surrounding area. "... Yeah, Amethyst...?"

"Didn't you say these Cluster-fu—uhfusions only attacked other gems, 'cus they're trying to like... make 'emselves whole again, or whatever?"

(In so many words, yes.)

"Yeah, I... I think so."

Movement near the next-floor entrance catches the boy's eye, as Amethyst speaks again. "Then, like, why'd it attack a human?"

A screech emanating from the shadows makes the group tighten their formation. A figure rushes out of the dark, mangled shapes and muted colors confirming it to be a cluster-gem. Steven braces himself when the amalgamation rushes them, its speed catching him off guard as it closes the distance within seconds.

Amethyst tumbles out from behind the shield, whip lashing out at the fusion and driving it back a few steps. The fusion screeches again, limbs clattering against Steven's defense, as it attempts to batter away the shield. Connie bolts out from behind him, swinging her blade at the cluster-gem. It barrels forward, nearly knocking Steven over as it tries to rush the girl, but she's already bounding away.

(Why isn't it going for Amethyst...?)

Why is it going for Connie?

 

Something's not right.

 

Connie prepares to rush the cluster-gem again, sword at the ready, but Steven holds out a hand.

"Wait!" he can't tear his eyes from the fusion, as it paws the ground and screams. "Guys, come back—I-I wanna test something."

The purple gem and warrioress skitter back to their previous positions, just before Steven shoves the fusion back with his shield. He raises a bubble around them, making sure it's fairly sizeable, while the fusion is still dazed.

"Amethyst—" Steven nods toward her. "—Stand to my left, and make sure there's some decent distance between us. Connie, stand to my right—same thing as Ame."

His companions glance between one another with confused looks, but Amethyst shrugs, before they both nod. The two take a handful of side steps to their directed positions, the fusion recovering and shaking itself. It charges forward, slamming into the bubble and scrambling to the right. It screeches as it claws against the pink surface, and Steven's heart sinks.

(It is going after Connie.)

The human takes a step back, worry written clear on her face. "Steven, why... w-why is it so aggressive toward... me?"

Steven keeps his voice steady, despite his pounding heart. "I-I don't know," he gives a sharp inhale. "We still need to poof-n-bubble this one, though."

Connie glances at him. "Stevonnie might be able to take it down easier."

He opens his mouth to agree, but his pulse spikes. Stevonnie knows everything he knows. Stevonnie would know about Maggie. He'd much rather properly introduce his gem-half to Connie under... better circumstances.

Steven blinks, his throat tight. "M-More targets make for better distraction."

Amethyst nods, coiling her whip. "Hell yeah dude. You and Connie keep it busy—I can poof 'em, if Con doesn't get a shot."

The fusion keeps pounding on the bubble, shrieking as it tries to break through. Everything is a blur, as Steven pops the bubble, the force pushing the cluster-gem back. The teen keeps close to Connie, as Amethyst circles around to the fusion's rear. (Either it doesn't notice it's being flanked, or it simply doesn't care.) The amalgamation charges the humans again, but a whip lashes around one of it's limbs.

Connie is there in front of it, just as it crashes to the asphalt. Her sword sinks into its form, and it dissipates with a loud poof.

The silence that follows makes Steven's skin itch.

Amethyst bubbles the gem, as Connie turns to him. He can't read her expression—she appears relieved, if a bit shaken, but there's something in her eyes. Worry? Doubt? I she concerned about the gem's aggression, or about him dodging fusing? Both?

A new, gravely voice jerks their attention toward the dark. "Well, that didn't take long!"

Someone tall, burly, and deep green, steps out of the entrance that leads deeper into the garage. She's got short, spiky hair, and a black, denim vest. She's smiling. "You're smarter than you look, Diamond."

His blood goes cold, and Connie is front of him, sword at the ready. Amethyst has her whip prepped, as well.

The new gem chuckles, deep and wicked. "Aw, that's cute. Your escorts are certainly protective, aren't they?"

Amethyst growls, hackles rising. "And you like to talk, don't you?"

Steven brings up his shield, eyes darting to study the new gem further. He can't see her gem anywhere, so it must be on her back somewhere, or hidden under her organic vest. "Easy, Ame..." he swallows a lump in his throat. "Who are you? W-What do you want?"

(Trouble, by the looks of her.)

Gaze darkening, the gem lowers her chin, and drops her smile. "General Diopside. Ex-General, thanks to you. That could clue you in to what I want."

General Diopside... upper-crust gem, no doubt from Yellow's military forces. He's never seen any Diopsides, so they must be pretty uncommon. Steven takes a breath, keeping his gaze on her. "I-I... I don't understand."

Diopside laughs, bitter and hollow. "Guess you're not that bright after all."

Both Connie and Amethyst bristle at the comment, which makes her grin.

(Ex-General. She was ousted. Why?)

She looks to Connie, eyeing the pink blade in her hands. "Tell me! How sharp is that sword, little one?"

Connie's glare never wavers, and her tone is icelike. "Razor-edged enough to cut through your form in one swing."

The gem grins, a sickening, fiendish expression. "I'd expect nothin' less from a Bismuth-forged weapon..." she chuckles. "I guess that answers my next question, then."

From out of the shadows, roughly ten or more humans stalk into view, all brandishing various cobbled-together-weapons—some have bats, others have chains, knives, boards of wood. They're all dressed in street clothes, and sport grins, smirks, glares, or snarls. Steven's breath hitches, and Connie's eyes go wide.

(She's become a general of a different army.)

Steven can already taste the bile rising in his throat, because they've never had to deal with humans in combat. A pitiful whimper strangles out, and he takes a step back.

He can't do this.

He can certainly restrain himself in combat, but he's only used to gem levels of needed-restraint. Gems can be wailed on for a while, without any wear or tear. Connie's sword and Amethyst's whip is sharp. He's the only one with a blunt, defensive weapon. Sure, these guys look tough as nails, but even really-tough-probably-mean-thug-humans bleed.

Gems don't bleed.

His voice is barely a whisper. "Guys... we need to retreat."

Neither Connie or Amethyst protest, stepping back with him. Diopside is smiling again. She whistles, the noise echoing with a harsh ring, and the crowd charges. Steven's legs are frozen for a split second, before Connie grabs his arm and drags him toward the exit. He falls into a sprint alongside her, Amethyst keeping up the rear.

They have six floors to run through, till they get to the surface.

Here's hoping Diopside's thugs tire out before they do.

Chapter Text

Third story of the parking garage, and they can still hear a smattering of footfalls behind them.

Connie's heart feels like it's going to thrum right out of her chest. Her grip on Steven's hand is ironlike, because he can withstand her human-level strength. He's gentle, but it's clear he doesn't want to let go either, his fingers firmly laced with hers.

'How much longer do we have to run? How many more floors are left?'

Amethyst whines, keeping pace with the staggering teens. "Steb, Con—y'all mind if I swear?!"

Steven shakes his head, and Connie chuckles. "This is a very appropriate time to do so! I promise not to tell Pearl." 

"Thanks."

Silence lapses between the three for a long while, and just when Connie thinks the gem is going to remain quiet—

"Stars damnit!!"

Both teens jump, a little grin jolting onto Steven's face as he gasps out a laugh. Amethyst spouts off an entire string of unmentionables after her initial outburst, huffing and shouting the colorful phrases for an entire floor.

Connie can't hear their persurers anymore, but the thugs are probably still chasing them. The officers up top will no doubt be able to take care of things, so everything will turn out okay. She, Steven, and Amethyst can all climb into the Dondai, Steven can hit the gas, and they can all go home. She can curl up with him on the couch, and they can just relax for a while.

It's not even noon, and she's ready to put today behind her.

Daylight streams ahead, and they made it, they've reached the final floor. Despite her aching legs, Connie speeds up, Steven gladly allowing her to tug him along. Amethyst seems just as relieved, if her hollering and exuberant cursing has anything to say.

But her smile falters, as they near the sidewalk. There were... five police officers standing around the entrance to the garage, when they'd first arrived. She can't see if they're still there, but her friends don't appear to notice. Steven pulls ahead, but never lets go of her hand, while Amethyst charges forward.

They step into the daylight, and her heart drops like a rock. The officers are gone. In their stead, are another group of thugs—all armed to the teeth, just like their friends back in the gradage. A chill shoots up her spine, as fight or flight kicks in.

Can't go forward, can't go back.

They're surrounded.

A green-teal Pearl with shoulder-length hair is seated on top of the Dondai's hood, lazily kicking her legs and gazing over her shoulder at them. She grins, and sickening familiarity slams into Connie.

The new pearl jerks the hems of her organic jacket, pulling the fabric taught. "You lot actually made it! And to think I doubted the boss, even for a second..."

Steven looks ready to topple over, be it from horror or breathlessness.

Amethyst takes a deep inhale. "... FUCK, split up!!"

All coherent thought smashes out the preverbal window as Connie rockets up the sidewalk, Steven stumbling behind her. The only thought swirling in her mind is protect him, and that's exactly what she's going to do. Steven manages to get close to her, practically embracing her as he raises his shield to bulldoze through the thugs' formation.

Two men are knocked to the side, and the open street is clear of enemies—and allies. The street is deserted. A whistle cracks through the air, and Connie pushes herself to run faster.

'I have to protect him, no matter what.'

 

X

 

 

I HAVE TO PROTECT THEM.

I NEED TO PROTECT THEM.

 

BUT I CAN'T

 

 

PROTECT THEM

 

 

LIKE

 

 

 

T H I S

 

 

 

Magenta grips at his intangible hair, a growling scream just on the cusp of tearing right out of his throat. He can't do anything while inside their gem. He can only provide Steven's body with abilities, he can't control them outside his hardlight-holo-form.

He should be out there.

But he can't be reckless.

He can't afford to. Not here in the city, not back home, not on the beach, not anywhere, because—

... Because—

He pauses.

Why can't he be reckless? What's stopping him? It's not like he's going to hurt Connie or Steven.

(His entire purpose is to protect them, after all.)

He can be reckless, if it means he can protect them.

Willing himself to materialize adjacent from Steven causes a weight to lift from his shoulders—but seeing Connie out the corner of his eye makes him pause. She's going to ask Steven a lot of questions, which he should be present for.

Steven and Connie stop, seconds after his hardlight form appears, and they just stare at him for a long, grueling moment. Connie's eyes are giant, and her jaw is hanging open. Steven looks ready to fall over—again.

Maggie doesn't have time for them to gawk. "Run!!"

Both teens flinch, and a nasty something curls around Magenta's chest. He grimaces, but Steven is already pulling Connie away before Maggie can even think to apologize.

He turns to the oncoming thugs, who are skidding to a halt. The pearl from before has an elegant, two-handed axe, as she stands at the forefront of the men.

The pearl twitches, eyes glued to Magenta. "Oh stars, there's two of them, now?" a sneering little grin spreads across her face. "Let's see if this one's just as much of a coward."

Maggie's posture goes rigid, and his brows knit together.

(Coward?)

His arm begins to tremble, as a churning inferno boils in his core.

(He is no coward.)

A geometric shield manifests on Magenta's shaking arm with a spark, and a snarl etches onto his lips. The pearl motions to her men, but Maggie rockets forward before they can even move. The pearl's ax-blade meets his shield with a sharp CLANG, her eyes blown wide. The humans don't react at first, all of them sharing the exact same shell shocked expression.

With a swing, the pearl sends him skidding back. She shouts something to her men, but Magenta is on her again, arcing his shield and aiming to slice into her form. Her ax's pole catches the edge instead, the two vying for leverage as the thugs close in.

A hand snags his jacket, and Maggie's vision flashes red.

His fist lashes out, colliding into his attacker's face with a crack. Now one of the humans is screaming, and there's something sticky on his knuckles. 

Someone snarls that "The little shit broke Anthony's nose!" as Maggie summons a jagged bubble around himself and the pearl.

She grunts, trying to gain some advantage as she shifts her stance, but they're locked in. "You look like him, but you're quite different from the Diamond... what's your deal?"

Weapons and fists pound on the bubble.

Maggie's eyes narrow. "I am the diamond."

 

X

 

How many blocks have they run? It has to be a dozen, by now. His lungs and legs burn with ache, but Connie plows ahead. It's a marvel that he hasn't passed out, yet. Steven keeps his hand interlocked with hers, as they slip around another corner and into an alleyway.

Steven wheezes, his chest heaving. "C-Connie, I-I can't—"

She finally stops, whirling around with concern, and oh boy there go his legs. Steven stumbles a couple steps forward, and the ground is a lot closer all of a sudden, but Connie wraps her arms around him before he can kiss the dirt.

Their hands remain intertwined.

His free hand loops around Connie's shoulders, and he just leans into her. She's breathing just as hard, and her arms are shaking something dreadful. Steven breathes out a raspy chuckle, and squeezes her gently.

"Hey, I'm okay..."

Her voice is barely a whisper. "... Are you sure?"

The teen nuzzles into her shoulder. "Promise."

Connie breathes out a tired, yet relieved sigh. She just holds him, resting her cheek on the top of his head, and stroking her thumb across the back of his hand. At some point they lower to the ground, sitting on the concrete and existing together. They're almost Stevonnie, but the glow subsides on Connie's side.

"So, uh... is... he? Is he the reason you... didn't want to fuse, back there?" she asks.

Steven tenses, but doesn't try to pull away from her. He musters a weary nod. "Y-Yeah..."

She continues stroking her thumb on the back of his hand. "Has he... been around since...?"

Steven nods again. "... He... figured out how to project himself into a hologram," a chuckle slips out, despite himself. "I... heh, I didn't even know I could make holograms."

Tears prick at the corners of his gaze, but Steven can't will himself to dry his eyes. Connie rubs his back when his grip tightens, and he buries his face in her shoulder. She starts whispering little comforts, "It's okay, I've got you, I love you," and the tears just keep streaming down his face.

He winces, a tiny sob racking through his chest. "I-I'm sorry... I should've—I should've told you so much s-sooner... we should've told you!"

Connie's hand doesn't stop rubbing his back.

"We were... we were scared you'd freak out—we—" a particularly ugly tremor makes him gasp. "—We told Bismuth first, b-because she doesn't live with us! I-I... I'm sorry—I-I'm so sorry, I just—we didn't want you to worry, a-and he's scared—we're scared—of what the gem's reactions could be, b-because then we'll have to tell Pearl and Dad that she's gone—really, really gone, a-and there's nothing that can bring her back—"

"Steven..."

"—I'm me, b-but he's also him, and w-we're—we make Steven Universe, a-as in my body, a-and my gem, they—they make me—"

"Steven."

"—I should've trusted you, I-I'm sorry—"

(Magenta wills himself to return to their gem, but...)

Connie jolts him out of their embrace, jerking a startled gasp from him. "Steven! No more apologizing. We're okay."

He strangles down another sob, staring back at her. His face and her shirt's shoulder are both damp with tears. His knight produces a tissue from her pocket, smiling at him.

(He can't.)

Steven smiles back, gladly taking the offering. "... We're okay."

A pink glow bathes the alley, and Stevonnie blows their runny nose. A quiet laugh slips out, and they close their eyes.

They sit for a while, absorbing the memories Steven shares. He and his reflection's first conversation in Rose's room lands on their finger in the form of a thought-butterfly, followed by Steven and his bubblegum-mirror playing video games, then the two's reveal to Bismuth...

A burst of pink butterflies appears around their head, Stevonnie jerking back at the sight of them. They flit and dart with frantic haste, but remain tightly clustered. Stevonnie squints, able to just barely hear an upbeat, techno-pop melody from within the swarm.

(He doesn't know where their gemstone is.)

But the butterflies dissipate as quickly as they came. Almost as if they'd seen Stevonnie watching them, and got scared.

Stevonnie sighs gently, letting their own butterflies go.

They look down toward the gem in their stomach, smiling down at the stone. "So your name's Magenta, huh...? I like it. Can't wait to meet you in person, Maggie—" their smile falters. "—And I have no idea if you can even hear me."

Stevonnie shakes their head, before they get to their feet and store the tissue in their jacket pocket. First order of business should probably be to regroup with Amethyst, while avoiding those thugs—or find the nearest police station, and get help from there.

A chill runs up their spine. Things are... a little too quiet, all of a sudden.

They draw Connie's sword and summon Steven's shield, slipping into a defensive stance. They hold their position, and their breath, as they listen. Faint, but heavy footsteps emimate from somewhere behind them, deeper in the alley.

Stevonnie turns, only to seize up and raise their shield when a smattering of limbs barrels toward them. Muted fingers and hands scramble and bash at the shield, and one wide eye stares back at them.

Another cluster-gem.

Diopside's gravelly voice calls out from further in the alley. "So, the Diamond can fuse! You like my attack dog, Mongrel?"

The word makes Stevonnie's gut twist and their mind fill with all kinds of violent ideas. They shove the cluster-gem away with a snarl, blade slicing into it's form. The gem poofs a moment later, the fused shards landing in Stevonnie's waiting hand, where it's quickly bubbled away.

Stevonnie resumes their defensive stance. "My name is Stevonnie."

The gem laughs, arms crossed as she leans against the corner of a wall. "Oh, that's precious that you think I care, Mongrel."

Steven's shield dissipates with a sparkle, and the fusion rushes forward. Diopside doesn't move, even when Stevonnie raises Connie's sword to attack.

A sharp prod, followed by explosive pain in their side, tells them why the gem is so calm.

Electric energy rocks through their entire body, freezing them in place with the blade mere inches from Diopside's face. Through a static haze, Stevonnie looks down to see a hefty little gem-destabilizer. They try to lower the sword right into her stupid face, but Diopside grins, and the pain increases.

Their limbs refuse to work, everything seizing up from the destabilizing current. 'Please... keep it together Stevonnie...'

Diopside presses the destabilizer further into their side, Steven's gem flaring and glowing in protest as Stevonnie tries to fight the current. Tears begin to form, and a whimper escapes their throat. "... I'm sorry."

The yellowish-green circuitry lines overtake the rest of their body, and Stevonnie is gone.

Steven and Connie tumble to the ground, Steven clutching at his gem as aftershocks of pain jolt through him. He's crying again, memories of Garnet being poofed flooding his mind.

The green gem looms over him, as he tries to get to his feet. She twirls the destabilizer, grinning. "There you are, Diamond."

He steals a glance toward Connie, as she tries to pick herself up, before looking Diopside in the eye. "What do you want from me? Please, just—just tell me!"

Much to his surprise, she drops her grin into a neutral expression, and pockets her destabilizer. "It's honestly pretty simple. I want to bring back Era Two."

Gears turn in his mind, and horrid mental images of old Homeworld blossom forth. A warmongering Yellow Diamond presents itself, and then it clicks. "... You lost your army, when I brought peace to the gempire."

"Now you're catchin' on, Diamond."

Connie's sword isn't close enough. Neither of them can make a safe grab for it.

Diopside continues. "It'd be stupid to kill you—" she smiles as Steven flinches. "—Since I'd have all of Earth and Homeworld on my ass. So, I'm gonna make a compromise. You did something to the Diamonds, to make them different. You changed their minds. So I'm going to change yours."

Without warning, the gem charges forward, Steven unable to summon his shield in time. Her fist meets his chest, and he's seeing stars as he hits the ground.

He doesn't have time to be winded, because Connie is already scrambling to retrieve her sword, but Diopside is still too close to it. He gets back on his feet just in time to see Connie leap away from Diopside. The girl glances toward him, visibly shaken.

Steven's heart quickens as Diopside picks up Connie's sword, but she's got it by the blade and not the hilt. The gem examines the sword for a moment, before looking toward Connie.

"Come on, little one..." she holds the sword up. "Retrieve your weapon."

A reckless shine blazes to life in the girl's eyes, and Steven's heart stops for a second. He shouts her name, but she charges toward Diopside anyway. His feet remain rooted, panic shorting out any sort of anything, and coherent thought only comes back when Diopside pistol whips Connie with the hilt of her own sword.

His legs move on their own accord, but he has no strategy. Diopside could easily just slice into him, but Connie is lying on the ground and there's blood on the side of her head. His shield sparkles onto his arm, but it's to little, to late, as Diopside's fist buries itself into his chest again.

Steven skids back and slams into the wall with a sharp WHAM! He manages to brace himself, but his breath is short and he's already lightheaded. The teen registers something coming at him, and manages to slip out of the way before Diopside's punch collides with the indent he'd made.

A free hand grabs at his jacket, but he's just a second to slow to dodge.

His world is a blur as he's pulled forward, Diopside ramming him face-first into another wall. Steven groans, attempting to push off, but he's pinned by the neck.

(YOU.)

Steven opens his eyes, and he manages a hopeful smile at the familiar sight of his cotton-candy-twin standing at the opening of the alley, just on the edge of the sidewalk.

The teen's smile fades as Maggie's furious expression registers.

There's blood on his reflection's knuckles, and some speckles of red dusting his face. Disappointment and understanding flood his heart, as Steven makes another effort to escape the gem's grasp.

Maggie's shield snaps into existence, and he bolts forward. Diopside's free hand reaches into her vest, just as he leaps to attack, and she jerks out a dagger when he descends on her. Magenta's eyes go wide with realiation, and Steven's heart sinks.

(... Aw fu—)

The green blade sinks into Magenta's hardlight chest, and his form dissipates with a violent POOF.

Steven can't take his eyes from the spot, even as Diopside lowers her dagger. A sob bubbles up, and he tries to swallow a wad of bile that comes with it, but he can't stop his body from trembling.

Diopside drags him away from the wall, and lets him fall to the ground. He tries to scramble away, but her knee lands squarely on his chest, and she's much to close to for comfort.

His eyes widen as her fist reels back, and she grins. "Today just ain't your day, kid."

Steven swears he sees half a glimpse of an orange crash helmet headed right for his face, just before his vision snaps into darkness.

Chapter Text

When Steven wakes, his mind is hazy. The world will probably spin if he opens his eyes, so he keeps them crushed shut. His limbs are heavy, his mouth feels like it's full of cotton, and oh stars his head is pounding.

He tries to lift a hand to rub his forehead, but the teen can only shift his shoulders, and tug his arms. One arm feels pinned under his side, and now there's noticeable pins and needles running up his bicep.

There's a cold, biting pressure around his wrists.

(Oh dear.)

Panic sets in as his heart begins to pound, and he tries to struggle, but ah there goes his head again and oh gosh, he's probably going to be sick. Steven attempts to even out his breathing, as he cracks open one eye.

He's met with a messy and dirty room, like someone upturned a garbage can into their living room. He's alone, laying on an old, squeaky mattress. There's what he thinks is a window near the door, but it's boarded up so heavily that not even a sliver of light can get through.

A very simple question creeps into his mind like a jolt of electricity.

'Where's Connie?'

The thought makes him wince, and he instantly wants to sit up and start looking for her, but no, no, she wouldn't be in the same room as him. Diopside saw what they can do, and Stevonnie was clearly a pretty big threat to her—hence the destabilizer. There's no way she'd keep Connie anywhere near him.

Oh, that just makes everything worse.

Panic renewed, Steven's breathing goes back to it's erratic, labored pace, as he glances around the room. He kicks his legs in an attempt to sit up, thankful that not all movement has been taken from him.

(Time to do a bit of damage control.)

Pink sparkles catch his attention, and his mirror-image forces him back down onto his side.

Some relief washes over him, and Steven manages a smile. "Maggie, thank the stars... are you okay?"

His fuschia reflection nods. "I'm fine, Steven. My form was simply disrupted, like any other gems' when they poof."

Steven allows himself to relax a little. "That's good... you just needed some time to reform."

Maggie's brows scrunch down in dissatisfaction, and he balls his hands into fists. "I was reckless, Steven. I shouldn't have poofed in the first place. I'm suppose to protect you, and I—"

"You didn't fail, Mags," Steven quickly interjects. "I've been impulsive lots of times. Everything worked out in the—"

His reflection glances over his shoulder, before promptly putting a finger to Steven's lips. Steven draws back, raising a brow. He perks at the sound of approaching footsteps, just as Maggie looks back at him.

Maggie keeps his voice hushed. "If they ask about me, play dumb. It can give us an advantage."

With that curt statement, Maggie is gone in another flash of sparkles, and Steven is alone again.

Of course, that doesn't last.

The door opens, and in steps his captor. Steven can't help but shrink down at the sight of the burly green gem, but he does his best to keep a neutral expression. Diopside just smirks down at him, stopping a few feet away.

Her smile is as wicked as ever. "Morining, Diamond. Hope the restraints aren't too comfortable."

The phrase makes him pause, and he runs through it a couple times in his head. "... Wait, don't you mean, erm, 'uncomfortable—?'"

(She probably doesn't.)

"I know what I said."

Steven flinches at her steely tone, but stops himself from shivering. "... Where's Connie?"

Diopside tilts her head, still smiling. "I take it that's your little human friend's name... she's fine, last I saw."

Well, that's good, at least. His heart won't stop thudding, and he knows that Diopside can hear the incessant thumpthumpthumpthump in his chest. She's reveling in what little shred of fear he's showing, and that just makes his hackles rise even further.

The gem leans down, closer and closer and much too close to his face. "Of course, she might not stay that way for long. That all depends on you, though."

He swears his thudding heart stops for a split second. "... Me?"

She nods. "Depends on how long it takes for you to crack."

(Very literal sirens go off within Magenta's consciousness.)

An unsuppressable shudder races through him, and every instinct is screaming for him to summon a shield or a bubble or something, but the clinking chains around his wrists and Diopside's threat is more than enough to throw him off balance.

The gem leans back and laughs, lightly hugging her sides. "I don't mean like that, Diamond! I doubt anything but another Diamond could actually put a chip in your gem."

(The sirens just get louder.)

Her words hold an odd glimmer of comfort, but his stomach twists into knots anyway. A question slips out before he even realizes what he's truly saying. "Why are you doing this?"

Diopside blinks down at the teen, her smile fading into a more solemn expression. She stares at him, and Steven fights the urge to fidget under her gaze. "... Guess I'm just nostalgic," she stands up, towering above him. "Gems that were made specifically for fighting, have no purpose in this era."

A terrible, ugly mental image of Jasper conjures up in his mind. The perfect quartz, created for war, now practically stranded on a peaceful planet... she and Diopside are in similar boats. The idea makes him grimace, because Diopside is no doubt twice as stubborn.

Steven steels his voice, and meets her gaze. "That's not true."

Her eyes narrow. "Isn't it? How many quartz have you had to scold due to them roughhousing too much?"

(Too many.)

Steven glances away.

"How many Rubies have you had to calm down?"

(Just a few, but on too many occasions.)

He really has to fight to keep his arms from fidgeting. "They're just—it's only been a few years, they're still getting to used to Earth—"

Whatever else he was going to say dies in his throat, as Diopside laughs. She leers down at him, that wretched smile back on her face. "It's gonna take a lot longer than that, Diamond..."

Maybe so, but... he's willing to put in the effort.

The gem half-turns away, still eying him. "Trust me. Gems never change. War-mongering Diamonds included."

(Something within Maggie's core... doesn't feel right, all of a sudden.)

Something in Steven's chest tightens, as Diopside steps away.

The door slams and locks behind her, and Steven feels worse than before. He's not power hungry, he isn't.

He's not like the Diamonds at all.

White is still painfully narcissistic and in her own head, but she's trying. Blue is still unwittingly manipulative, but she's also trying. Yellow still has a horrible temper, but she's trying, too.

He's not... he's not a brat. He doesn't use people like she did. He helps people.

He tries to help people.

Steven roughly shakes his head, huffing out a breath. "She's just trying to get in your head, Steven," he mutters. "Just... keep it together."

He breathes in, deep and calming, as he closes his eyes and rolls over. The teen grimaces at the chilling restrains digging into his back, so he struggles and sits up.

He's done nothing but good for the gempire. Right? He's brought galaxy-wide peace! Gems can be whoever they want, no if's, and's, or but's, about it. But... there are a lot of gems on Homeworld that talk about Era Two, quite often. 'Era Two was going so well,' and all that jazz. A lot of the uppercrusts won't shut up about how they miss 'the old days.'

Focus, Universe.

Perhaps Maggie could help. Talking to him in person might be a little too risky, if his earlier warning was any indicator, so... meditation might let them talk in private. Face to face, but not really.

Another deep breath, another steady exhale.

When Steven opens his eyes, he doesn't see the dirty room. Instead, his world is an endless pastel-pink beach, with soft blue oceans, and peachy skies. Maggie is a little ways down the shore, staring off into the expanse of sea.

His reflection's eye shifts toward him, and Maggie tenses for a second.

A swarm of pink butterflies batters around Magenta's head, frantic and chaotic.

Steven blinks, glancing between them and Maggie. The swarm darts behind his bubblegum-mirror, who looks back toward the ocean.

Steven dares a few steps closer. "Maggie... is everything okay?"

Magenta's tone is worryingly hesitant. "... Yes."

The teen frowns and crosses his arms. "Seems like we're both really awful liars."

"Everything is fine, Steven."

The butterflies don't seem to agree, as a few zip and dive at Maggie.

Steven watches them for a time, the thought-butterflies clustering haphazardly around his other half. One in particular flitters toward him, but it seems... wary. Like it wants to be noticed, but not entirely. Steven steps forward, reaching out toward the lone butterfly—

A bright pink hand clamps down on his wrist, and Maggie's diamond eyes bore into him.

It takes everything to not flinch back, but Steven can't stop his eyes from widening. Magenta frowns at him, lessening his glare once he notices how startled Steven is, but he doesn't let go.

Magenta's tone is firm, but his voice is nervously quiet. "Don't touch that one."

Steven blinks back at him. "... Why not?"

Maggie's glare doesn't waver, but his voice certainly does. "Sometimes you are much better off staying ignorant."

The butterfly darts toward Steven again, more urgent than before, but Maggie lashes out with a free hand to swat it away.

Steven grabs at Maggie's wrist, struggling to free himself. "Maggie, what aren't you telling me?"

Magenta wrestles him back, pushing the teen through the pink sand with some effort. "It's for your own good—"

For his own good.

snarl rips out of his throat, and Steven shoves his reflection, sending him stumbling into the water. "That's bullshit, and you know it!"

He flinches, hands snapping up to cover his mouth. Oh stars, he just swore. Not exactly for real, but... does it still count if it's in his own head? Good grief, he probably shouldn't feel self conscious about swearing to himself, but here he is.

And now that little butterfly is right in front of him, hardly a breath away. Maggie is still lying in the water, looking pretty shell shocked at Steven's outburst. The teen reaches out a tentative hand, a finger brushing against the butterfly.

He's not on the beach anymore.

Pink, towering buildings surround him—no, wait, those are people. Diopside's thugs, plus that Pearl. He's bubbled himself. Steven looks down, and something very akin to fire explodes within his chest, and his vision goes red.

Anger blossoms and wraps around him like thorny vines, choking and tearing, and his fist reels back. He punches and punches, making heavy impacts on something. Drumming fists pound at the outside of his bubble, and he keeps wailing on whatever is below him, that blinding rage overtaking all sense of anything.

The red mostly subsides, but it also doesn't, and there's something sticky on his knuckles. It coats a face that lies under him.

He's back on the beach for a split second, Magenta's panicked expression the last thing he sees before his eyes open.

A strained sob racks his chest, and Steven tries his best to stay upright. His vision blurs as he gives up and falls to his side, the mattress protesting loudly.

The dirty room seems darker than before.

Chapter Text

Splitting up was the best and only option they had, given the circumstances.

Amethyst would've been useless to them, if she'd run deeper into the city. There's no way to contact the other gems, other than Steven or Connie's phones—and ah shit, she's pretty sure they left them both in the Dondai. There wouldn't be any cell service underground, and they hadn't been expecting... any of what happened, so, it's nobody's fault.

The gem grimaces as she stumbles through a rough patch of bushes, sliding into a ditch.

Those thugs had collapsed somewhere a few miles back, but she can't afford to slow down.

Keep running.

Shifting into a bird works for a while, and she covers some distance, but Beach City is still a long way off. She's never doing something like this again. Running up through that parking garage was enough for one day.

They need you.

Amethyst groans at the thought, already feeling ragged and drained. She pushes on, and when did the sun start to set? Oh geez, Ocean Town is still ten miles away... maybe Sadie is home, or Sadie's mom! Amethyst could use her phone to call Pearl, if she could remember Pearl's number, damnit.

The gem races through the sleepy neighborhood as a cheetah, barreling down the road and kicking up dust.

It's well past night o'clock when she finally reaches Greg's car wash, so she just has a little further to go. Pearl is probably going out of her mind with worry. She doesn't even want to think about how many times Connie's parents have called her and Steven's phones.

Almost there.

She's just coherent enough to tumble through the screen door of the beach house and utter a hoarse "Kids are in trouble," before collapsing somewhere by the stairs. Garnet definitely heard her, because the fusion's star-visor is pretty close to Amethyst's face, now. Pearl balks from somewhere in the kitchen, as Amethyst's words slur.

"Big gem attacked... kids ran... dunno where... stars, I gotta... sleep..."

Pearl and Garnet know the details of her, Steven, and Connie's mission from this morning. They know where to start looking. The last thing Amethyst sees, before exhaustion sinks it's teeth into her brain, is Pearl summoning her spear and dragging Garnet toward the warp pad.

The kids will be okay...

Everything has to turn out okay.

Chapter Text

Her sword is just across the hall, hanging in plain sight.

And yet, chainlink and heavy locks stand in Connie's way. She keeps herself pressed against the gate to her cage, staring at the pink blade. Diopside must've specifically put it there to taunt her.

The girl grimaces. Why had she taken the bait, back in the alley? It was so obvious that she'd get clocked over the head, or even cut into, and yet, here she is. Stuck, weaponless, and she has no idea where Steven could even be.

Stupid, stupid, stupid.

She really wants to scream.

She wants slam herself against the chainlink and rattle the gate, raise some sand and get someone's attention. But what good would that do? It would just expel needed energy, and she'd tire herself out. Diopside probably wants her to kick up a fuss, because tired people are easier to control. So, Connie remains firmly leaned against the barrier, eyes half-lidded as she studies her surroundings.

A long, concrete hallway stretches out on either side of her. More chainlink-cages span to her left and right, lined up against the wall like kennels. The two and three beside her are empty, but there are figures occupying the cells much further down.

Was her placement international? Diopside might have wanted to isolate her for a myriad of reasons...

Prisoners always confided in each other during escape arcs—like when Lisa was trapped in the Lonely Tunnels of Mount. Gloom, and she had to rely on the shady dryad woman in the cell next to hers. They became allies after they escaped, if she remembers correctly.

There are no windows, at least none that Connie can see. The overhead lights are dingy, and some of them flicker erratically.

At least Steven isn't truly alone... he has Magenta, for when she can't be there for him.

Connie withholds a slight grimace. Yeah, her first true encounter with Magenta wasn't ideal—that aggressive snarl and his order to run is still fresh in her mind—but... the memories Steven shared paint a very different picture. He wants the best for Steven. Magenta wants to protect him, just like she does.

Light footfalls catch her attention, and Connie swivels to look over her shoulder. She blinks sharply, the approaching figure striking an uncanny familiarity in her.

Is that Lapis?

Wait, wait, it's a lapis, not Lapis-Lapis. The deep blue gem looks almost identical in build and height, is barefoot, and has a vaguely similar hairstyle and tanktop, but Connie takes note of the countless gold flecks and lines littering her forearms, stomach, and face. She's also wearing some organic clothing—an elbow length jacket, similar to Diopside's, and a pair of dark jeans.

The new gem stops in front of Connie's cell, expression utterly apathetic. She speaks with Lapis' voice, but she somehow sounds twice as tired. "... You're 'Connie,' right?"

Connie withholds a sneer, and just stares her down. "Who's asking?"

The lapis' frown deepens, and she gives an exaggerated sigh. "Come on, don't be difficult with the messenger... 'm just here to relay a word from the boss."

Connie scoffs. "What, she can't talk to me herself?"

"Yeah, pretty much," the lapis nods. "She's in the ring right now, so, she's a lil' busy."

The ring...?  Diopside is into boxing? Maybe wrestling?

The lapis crosses her arms. "She just wants you know that your Diamond is fine. He'll stay that way, if you cooperate 'n stuff."

Her nonchalant tone gives Connie light goosebumps. "... Cooperate with what, exactly?"

The gem leans on the gate to the adjacent cage. "She didn't really give me any details—but, honestly? Dop'll probably throw ya in the ring, call ya an underdog, and order ya t' fight some opponents. People'll bet on ya, and she'll make some money."

Oh.

Oh.

Diopside runs a fighting ring. Great, now Connie's pretty much a side-character from Arena Society.

Maybe. She's never actually seen the movie. She might be the main character, for all she knows.

The lapis shifts and adjusts her stance, leaning more heavily on the chainlink. "I doubt she's gonna pit ya against anyone who'll try t' kill ya, though. Hell, she might even rig the fights, if ya turn out to be a fan-favorite."

A spark of anger flares up, and Connie bristles. She doesn't need anyone to rig a fight for her, let alone have Diopside tip the scales in her favor! Oddly enough, the lapis openly smirks, which gives Connie pause.

The deep blue gem chuckles. "Yeah, I know that look. Had the same reaction when she offered to rig some a' my fights."

So the messenger is possibly a demoted fighter... Connie tucks that bit of information away, and returns to her leveled glare. "So, what, you're just her go-for, now?"

Now, she was expecting to get a rise out of the gem—maybe a sneer or a growling comment—but the lapis just breathes out a tired laugh. "I wish I was nothin' but a go-f'er. Make my life a helluva lot easier."

Connie's skin prickles. She might not be staring at a low-level underling, like she'd originally suspected. "What... is it that you do, anyway... if I may be so bold?"

The lapis' gives a hum, her smirk growing. "Cute. I fight, 'n I, uh... do stuff for Dop."

That's... vague, and somewhat concerning. "What... kind of stuff?"

The gem's smile turns into a humorous grimace. "Stuff that's... a lil' too graphic t' really talk about."

That's twice as concerning. "N-Noted. So, uh... what's a Lapis—"

That grimace deepens, and the lapis flinches as if she'd been struck. She sucks in a breath, steadying herself. "Max. Everybody calls me Max."

A sour feeling settles in Connie's gut, as a single question spills from her lips. "... Why?"

The lapis gives her a very serious look. "Because if they don't, I beat their face in."

Connie recoils, hackles rising sharply, but her shoulders relax as Max flashes her a lazy grin. The gem chuckles, leaning her head against the chainlink. "No worries. 'M only half joking."

Well, that gives her no comfort whatsoever. "Good to know, I... guess... why are you even with Diopside?"

That question must be a heavily loaded one, because Max stiffens. Her eyes hold some painful glint that Connie can just barely read, like she's asked herself the same thing, time and time again.

"... It's complicated," Max replies.

Connie's eyes narrow at her lame excuse. "I've got time, Max."

The gem scrunches her shoulders and glances away with gritted teeth. "Lemme rephrase, then. Why do you care?"

Because Steven has influenced her sense of empathy, and Max's smile doesn't reach her eyes. "Because I want to know why you don't like being called Lapis."

Max cringes something fierce, and grips her jacket sleeve with a tightness that would surely leave marks. Her jaw is set, as she glares at the girl. "I just—I just don't."

Connie rolls her eyes, crossing her arms. "That's obvious, not an answer. And you dodged my first question."

"Dop, just..." Max fidgets. "She got me out of a tight spot, eons ago. I owe her. That's why I'm with her. Happy?"

Not in the least bit. If Max really didn't want to tell her anything, the gem would've walked away by now. Connie presses further. "Do you even like fighting? Let alone fighting for her?"

That gets a rise out of the gem. Max utters a sharp exhale and sneers at the girl. "No, I—!" a spark of fear washes over her, and she freezes. "... I just—I owe her."

Connie gives her a deadpan look. "You already said that—" wait, she said eons ago. Connie blinks, quirking a brow. "—And if you've been with her for eons, then... shouldn't your debt be paid off, by now?"

Max bristles, grip tightening even further. "It would be, if it was somethin' minor."

"Then what is it, Max?"

An unsettlingly unreadable expression snaps across the gem's face. She stares Connie down, but the girl remains steady despite her quickening heart. Max breathes out a tense sigh, before speaking. "... Fine. You wanna be so damn nosy, then fine."

The gem sheds her jacket in a rough flurry, tossing it to the ground with a growl. Connie's eyes trace over her arms, covered in gold lines and freckles, before her gaze settles on a dark blue shape on her upper arm. That doesn't look anything like the teardrop-cut-gem between Lapis' shoulders. It's more like an oblong chunk, with heavy veins of gold running through it.

Max's voice drips with disappointment and venom. "I and several others were meant t' be the ultimate terraformers. Better than the avrage lazuli. A royal lazuli. We would've been able t' strip a planet in a fraction of the usual time."

Maybe Connie bit off more than she could chew. "... I'm sensing a but."

The gem utters a breathy, hollow laugh. "Yeah. We all came out wrong, in some way," she frowns, fist tightening. "... I got the worst of it, 'cus I'm off-cut."

Connie's chest tightens a little. "Is that... like being off-color?"

"Worse. I don't have any terraforming abilities. At all."

Her eyes widen as things start to click into place. A lapis that can't move water is... basically not a lapis lazuli, to put it bluntly. A gem that can't fulfill their pre-designed purpose would be useless in the previous eras. "... Diopside saved you from being terminated, didn't she?"

Leaning down and snatching up her jacket, Max gives an affirmative grunt. The gem slips back into the garment, sneering at Connie all the while. "Now you've got answers to both your questions."

That may be, but her reason for staying has expired. Connie grips the chainlink, as she speaks. "You don't have to stay with her, though. This is Era Three, you—you can reinvent yourself! The diamonds aren't going to shatter or imprison you for just... existing, anymore."

Max winces. "You don't know that. The royal project was a stain on one of the best kindergarten's records, why would they just—"

She's just making excuses now, and Connie's frankly done. "Because Steven wouldn't let them."

Her words seem to hit home for the gem, because Max's posture loosens somewhat. Connie's heart soars, but the feeling doesn't last long at all. The laips shakes her head and turns away with a weak grimace. "... Thanks for trying, kid—but, 'm a lost cause. Trust me. I wouldn't be able t' find a purpose outside these walls."

This must be how Steven has felt so many times, when gems refused his help in the past. An ugly and gnarled pit settles in her stomach, and Connie's heart drops into it like a rock. Diopside gave this gem a twisted sense of purpose, and now she feels like she owes her an eternal debt. The girl watches as Max trudges away, a sense of helplessness bubbling up from that pit.

Finally giving into that urge to vent off some frustration, Connie bangs her fist against the chainlink gate, rattling it and the chains keeping it in place. But it budges a lot more than expected, and the lock clatters to the ground.

Connie just stares at the fallen lock, as the gate lazily swings open. There's no way that just happened. She's seeing things—she has to be. The girl bends down, brushing her fingers against the lock. Sure enough, it's real. Her gaze snaps upward, and she tenses.

Max is still walking away, as if she hasn't heard a thing.

Seems like Connie made more progress than she thought. Sure, it didn't work out quite like she imagined—Lisa's dryad ally was a lot more forward about wanting to help—but she's not going to complain. An open door is an open door.

She checks the other end of the hall, just to be sure, before slipping out of her cell. Connie strides up to her sword, leaping to snatch it off the rack, before she books it up the hall.

Every fiber of her being is telling her to find Diopside and tear her asunder, now that she's free.

'Be smart, Connie. Find Steven first.'

Chapter Text

(Why did he let Steven see that memory?)

Even though it's probably just been a matter of hours, Steven has lost all sense of time. His only light source is a half-working ceiling fan with one bulb, and it keeps turning off and on at weird intervals.

Getting a first-person view of Maggie's memory hasn't helped with... anything.

(He should have kept it hidden better. Should've bubbled it—forced it down and threw it into the ocean.)

Stars there was so much blood... Magenta had been so angry.

Steven didn't even get to ask if that person was okay. Does Maggie even know if they're okay? Part of him doesn't want to find out, and something tells him he might never know.

(Maybe he should've buried it in the sand. Steven would never have found it, then.)

Diopside's parting words keep resurfacing, and they just make him want to cry, again and again.

Warmongering Diamond.

(There's this festering, churning, sense of something rotten in Magenta's core, that refuses to go away.)

Something forcefully prods his leg, and Steven flinches.

Oh... right.

(It keeps telling him to check on Steven's body, but he doesn't want to listen.)

How long has Diopside been standing over him, now...? He tries to squirm away, but she snatches him up by the collar. She holds him at her eye-level, and growls. "Come on, Diamond. Where is your twin?"

(He's better off just staying on the beach...)

He whimpers, legs kicking in a weak attempt to fight back. "I told you, I... I don't have—"

(... Even if thousands of butterflies insist on pestering him.)

The destabilizer jabs into his side again, it's electric current ripping a hoarse cry from his throat. He's been playing dumb for the past... hour? Two hours? It's only gotten him in more trouble, and stars, he just wants to go home. He just wants to curl up in bed with his family and with Connie and CatSteven and Lion, and sleep for a solid week.

His gem flares and glows in protest, even long after Diopside puts the destabilizer down. Where did she even get it in the first place...? He'd personally made sure all the controlling, destructive equipment used in Era Two was gotten rid of. She must have smuggled it away, somehow...

Diopside shoves him against a wall, her mocking tone so full of self satisfaction. "What did I say about lying, Diamond?"

What did she say about lying...? Not to? That she would hurt him, if he did?

"Everytime you lie, you prove to me that diamonds. Can't. Change."

Ah. Yes. That.

Lovely.

Steven groans, barely able to find his voice. "That's... that's not true..."

"My pearl said that a 'pink copy of the Diamond' attacked her and my men," she leans in, much to close to his face. "I'm much more inclined to believe her, and the poor bastard with a broken face, over you."

He can't stop from tearing up for what feels like the hundredth time today. That memory is still etched in his mind's eye—punching and wailing, blind rage flaring and seething—and it feels so awful, because he just sees red every time he closes his eyes.

Maggie probably didn't mean to go that far. Steven hopes he didn't mean to, he hopes with every last shred of his being that his gem half just got caught up in the fight, and went over the edge by mistake.

He needs to stay quiet, but... Diopside might try to force Mags out.

She might...

No.

No, he doesn't want to even think about the possibility of someone else trying to remove his gem.

But the thought floats into Steven's mind, anyway. The mental image of Diopside, prying and pulling at the edges of his gem with sadistic glee, and that state of being separated taking over him and no, no, please no, he can't do this again—

For a second, it feels like he's back in White Diamond's head, struggling to breathe.

Steven chokes out a sob, and his struggles renew. "He just... he went to far...!"

A sickening grin begins to spread across Diopside's face, and she's absolutely feeding off the panicked defeat in his eyes. "See? That wasn't so difficult—"

The door flings open with a slam, and a shrill, Pearl-sounding voice frantically proclaims,"She's escaped!"

Steven's vision blurs and he closes his eyes. Diopside roughly lets him slide to the floor, as she releases him. Everything aches, some places feel numb, and those chains haven't gotten any warmer or more comfortable.

"She'll be looking for her Diamond," is the last thing he can make out, before the door shuts, and he's alone once again.

Well... alone with himself.

He manages an empty laugh, leaning back against the wall. Ah yes, alone with his gem. Alone with Magenta, who beat a human being probably within an inch of their life. Such a wonderful being to get stuck with!

Steven's vision is skewed and unfocused. "... Why were you so angry...?"

He's met with silence.

It's unnerving.

Steven keeps talking. "... I mean... I kind of... get it. That was... technically your first... first fight with humans..." are his words slurring? He can't really tell. "But, I mean... Mags, why... why did... why did you...?"

Why did he almost kill someone?

 

X

 

From what Connie could gather, the facility that Diopside runs had to be some kind of defunct subway station, before she—or maybe someone before her—had turned it into an underground hideout. She'd managed to scour quite a bit of the place, before someone raised the alarm. So far, she hasn't seen any trace of Steven.

She skirts around a corner, distant footfalls echoing behind her.

She could very well just... turn around and fight her pursuers. Connie has the power to cut them all down. The sword in her hands can slice through pure stone with no trouble. It poofs gems' forms with ease, so humans would be no different. It'd be so easy to bulldoze through them, and get to Steven.

But, the cold calculation of that thought makes her shudder.

Knights have a code. They have honor. She has honor, and she'll be damned if she's not going to save her Diamond with little-to-no bloodshed. Even in the thick of danger, Steven would want to make peace with his worst enemies. He did make peace with his worst enemies.

So Connie keeps going, breathing level and feet pounding against the concrete.

Where would they be keeping him? Where would they hide him?

A set of upward-traveling stairs catch her eye, and the teen veers toward them. Diopside probably thinks of herself as high and mighty. If she's in charge, she'll keep her personal space somewhere high. She'd keep Steven close to said space.

Up and up and up, and onto a subway platform. Connie pauses, taking in her surroundings, and it is far too quiet for her liking. She creeps further onto the platform, glancing back and forth. The ticket office across the way is empty, but a door inside it makes her perk. There's a window that's been heavily boarded from the inside, the planks of wood fixed so tightly ontop of eachother.

A shuffling step from somewhere to her right makes her heart rate spike. Connie whirls, brandishing her blade and cutting into a gem's form. The pearl she'd seen on the street looks shocked, as her giant axe falls in two, just before her body dissipates. The smooth gem clatters to the ground, and the broken weapon disappears with a puff.

If Era Two Homeworld taught her anything, wherever a pearl is, their master usually isn't too far away.

But no matter where she looks, Diopside is nowhere to be seen. Connie's eyes drift to the ticket office, and a lump forms in her throat. Diopside could be waiting for her, in there. Steven could be in there.

There's nothing she can really do with the pearl, so Connie leaves her gem on the platform. The door to the office is but a temporary obstacle, even if it's locked—because what is a door to a Bismuth-forged sword?

The door falls apart into four, neatly cut pieces, and Connie barges her way into the room with her blade at the ready. She cringes at the state of the place, unable to look away from the trainwreck of a mess, until her eyes land on a baby-pink jacket.

Thankfully, that baby-pink jacket isn't alone.

To say Steven looks worse for wear is sugar coating it, and every thought unrelated to him flies out of her brain. Connie is at his side within a second, feverishly setting her blade aside and checking him over.

The boy stirs, trying to force his eyes open in a panic. He whimpers and struggles, and her heart breaks.

Connie holds him by the shoulders, gaze darting across the bruising along his collar. "Steven—Steven, it's okay! I'm here, it's okay."

He keeps struggling, one eye half-open. He croaks out something that sounds a lot like "trap," and Connie's blood ices over. A staticy sensation closes in on her back, and a jolt of what feels like mock electricity shoots down her spine. She screams, but it's more out of surprise.

Now, Connie's a better liar than Steven, but that's not saying much.

She manages to strangle her surprise into decently faked painful-noises, but it quickly devolves into laughter. The tingly sensation that's shooting down to her fingertips is meant for gems. Not fleshy organics.

Connie keeps laughing, as she picks up her sword. "That tickles."

Spinning around and cutting into the destabalizer with a grin, Connie's blade meets a green dagger as she stares Diopside down. The gem must've been hiding somewhere outside, or within a blindspot in the office. No matter, though. She's here now, and the gem looks mortified.

Connie's grin widens. "I thought you would've figured out gem-tech doesn't really work on humans, since you've been with 'em for a while."

Diopside blushes, but she doesn't try to push back, or make a snide comment. Her dagger isn't strong enough to hold off Connie's sword, and the teen can easily see it. The green blade is already cracking down the middle.

The gem stumbles back, and Connie follows.

Connie keeps her stance defensive, and her blade poised. "Did you really think it'd be that easy to keep a Diamond's knight locked up?"

Diopside stays silent, eyes glued to the girl in front of her.

"I'm his lionheart. Nothing can keep us apart for long—especially when he's in da—"

Steven whimpers again, and something heavy slams into the back of Connie's head. She's on the ground before she even realizes that she was falling, and her ears are ringing. Her vision blackens around the edges, and everything feels... far away.

She sort of hears Diopside speaking, but it's muffled by the high pitched whine rattling around in her skull. A pair of dark blue, bare feet step in to her line of sight, and Connie's heart sinks as her vision swims into darkness.

Chapter Text

Lion is very good at knowing when things are not right.

(That's mostly because he's already very good at knowing when things are right.)

When the Wild One stumbles into the den, causing the Strong One and the Graceful One to panic, he knows something is not right.

Lion has not seen his Boy all day.

(This is something that is not right.)

Lion has not seen his Sword Girl all day, either.

(This is also something that is not right.)

His first instinct is to look for them, which is a sentiment that the Graceful One and Strong One seem to share, as they climb onto his back. They both will him to travel to the city, picturing his Boy's Rumbling Beast. He roars a portal into existence, and jumps through.

The sky is still dark, but this place is bright. People are walking around, many different Rumbling Beasts are coming and going, and there's so much noise. But he remains steady, even when lots of people gasp and skitter away from him.

The Graceful One scritches behind his ear, catching his attention. "Lion, find Steven..."

(This is a game he has practiced many times in the past, so he's gotten very good at it.)

He pads over to his Boy's Rumbling Beast, and sniffs at it. The Strong One opens the Rumbling Beast, so he can sniff around the inside. Lion bumbles halfway into the Rumbling beast, tasting the air and drinking in the scents.

His Boy was definitely here. His Sword Girl was, too.

Lion pauses, backing away from the Rumbling Beast as someone new—a person, dressed in blue—speaks.

"M-Ma'am, is uh—is this your vehicle?"

The person-in-blue keeps glancing down at him, like a scared rabbit.

The Graceful One looks back at the Strong One, before she waves a hand. "Call me when you find something. I'll take care of this," she says, turning to the person-dressed-in-blue. "It's—It's my son's. Steven Universe. He and his girlfriend came here this morning, to help with—"

The Strong One hops back onto Lion's back, and scritches behind his ear. "Lion, find Steven."

(Time to get back to the game that doesn't feel like a game anymore.)

Lion turns toward the yawning mouth of a great cave, ears perked. He tastes the air, but there are so many different smells mingling together. He flicks his tail, sorting through them all, before his nose is on the pavement. His eyes go wide, as he catches onto his Boy's scent.

He sets off at once, bolting past the person-in-blue and the Graceful One. He runs past more people-in-blue, who are gathered around a section of road. He wants to check it out, but the Strong One urges him forward. So, he presses on, until he comes to a spot between two buildings, where he can smell the Together Person.

Lion pauses between the buildings, taking in their scent. It's brief, but it's there. The Together Person was here for a moment, so his Boy and Sword Girl were here too.

Find Steven.

Lion snorts, picking up his Boy and Sword Girl's trail again.

Deeper and deeper into the city he runs, around bends and corners and straightaway roads, past people huddled under shelters. The trail keeps getting stronger with each step, but not by much. His Boy and Sword Girl must have been through here many, many hours ago.

(Why would they go so far into the city? They like greener places, with trees and animals and berries. They wouldn't want to stay here, for long.)

But at last, the trail leads somewhere promising. The trail goes under a see-through-fence with shiny rope on it, and behind that see-through-fence, is a structure that leads down into the earth. Lion chuffs, pawing at the fence and making the shiny rope jinggle. The Strong One reaches past him, grasping the shiny rope and tearing it away.

Lion bounds into the area, but his hackles rise. His instinct says to be alert, because caves are usually occupied. A whole pride could be holed up down there, or a great monster.

His Boy and Sword Girl are good at dealing with monsters, but... they've yet to deal with a whole pride.

"Pearl. I think we found something."

 

X

 

She had been so close to getting them out of this mess...

Connie groans as someone shakes her awake, and she swats their hand away. She half-opens her eyes, and yeah, she probably—definitely—has a concussion of some degree. She remembers finding Steven, dehydrated and beat, before... Diopside. Yes, Diopside had jumped her, but the destabilizer did nothing to her. Connie had broken it, and then she... what had she done? Connie had Dop pinned, and was getting ready to poof her.

A very familiar, tired voice speaks up, from over Connie's shoulder. "Sorry about, uh... hittin' you, earlier. I... think I might've overdone it, a bit."

Connie's eyes snap open, and she goes rigid with fury.

Max.

That's right. Max had been the one to sneak up behind Connie, and take her out of commission.

The girl snarls and turns over, glare dripping with anger and frustration. "You think?"

Flinching back, the deep-blue and gold gem draws her knees up to her chest. Connie takes a second to glare at her surroundings, taking in the fact that they're in a small, boxed-in room with barred gates on either end. Iron bars separate the room down the middle, and Max should be thanking every one of her lucky stars that Connie isn't on her side of the fence.

Connie struggles to her feet, but regret bubbles up in the back of her throat. She swallows down the bile, and returns to bearing down at the gem. "You socked me in the back of the head!"

Max must still have a bit of cheek left in her, because she steals a glance up at Connie. "... With a bat. I hit ya with a bat, not m' fist."

Oh, yes, because that just makes everything so much better. Connie throws her hands up, seething out a tense exhale. "Great! So you could've cracked my skull open! That's just great!"

The gem looks like a kicked puppy, and it's just making Connie's blood boil hotter. "I tried t' be, uh, gentler than... than usual."

There are voices outside, muffled and excited. A gathering crowd.

Now she really wants to scream, but Connie settles for balling her fists and stomping over to the other side of the small room. She fumes for half a second, before whirling around again. "So what's going to happen now?"

Max fidgets and won't meet her gaze. "... Y'er gonna fight one of Dop's monsters, and your Diamond is gonna watch—along with whoever's bettin'."

Connie grinds her teeth. "And what if I refuse to fight?"

Thrumming music kicks in over a set of speakers, somewhere outside, and Max looks up at her with strained desperation. "... Then she's either gonna hurt your Diamond worse than he already is, or she'll kill you."

Dying was always on the table, back in the day. She could be crushed by a monster, or eaten, or clawed apart, and she would have died protecting her Universe. Connie would have been fine with that, because she would have done her part.

All that anger withers away at the thought of Steven getting hurt, because of her. If she doesn't please a mass of ruffians with some flashy fighting, any injures Steven suffers from here on out will be her fault.

The thought makes her tremble a little.

Max stands up, and Connie's gaze drifts until she spies an entire array of crude weapons hanging on the adjacent wall. Max scans the weaponry, before she plucks a fairly large knife from the bunch. She looks over her shoulder at Connie, before walking over to the bars between them.

The gem holds the knife's handle toward her, through the gaps. "You're good with a sword, so, I figured..."

Connie takes it with a small nod, and tests the grip. It's sort of military or hunter-esk in make. Probably a hunting knife, worn down after years of use in non-hunting-activities. She watches as Max strides over to the gate, and slides it half-way open.

Connie steps out, and Max shuts the gate behind her with a clang.

The arena is a giant, ramshackle cage, in some kind of pit. Almost reminds her of a amphitheater. Connie squints as spotlights burst to life, drowning the dirt and concrete area in harsh light. There's a really big gate on the other side of the arena. Big enough for a two-gem fusion to crawl through, by the looks of it. Her skin prickles, as something stirs in the shadows, and the gate rises.

She steals a glance toward the crowd, but all she can make out are rough looking figures, and a few gems scattered throughout the masses.

From out of the darkness, a beastily form emerges. Gray-blue in hue with six legs, it has an almost reptilian, stone-golem appearance. She spots a square-cut gemstone off center on it's neck, before she looks up to meet its' void-glowing eyes.

The corrupted gem howls, stomping its' front legs and shaking the earth. Connie's legs wobble, but she keeps her balance.

She's doing this for Steven.

The teen readies her knife, slipping into a familiar defensive stance. Weilding a knife shouldn't be too different from a sword. She just doesn't have as much reach. She keeps her gaze pinned on the corrupted gem, and the crowd whoops and hollers. The gem storms forward, and Connie braces herself.

A jagged maw reaches out to bite her, but she's already ducking under the gem's body and slicing at its' underside. The knife hardly leaves a dent, and the gem is already whirling on her. Rounded limbs stamp much too close to her, and Connie bolts out from under it, just as its' jaws snap at her.

She's doing this for Steven.

Feint, dodge, slice, leap. She narrowly misses being bitten again, and smacks the top of the gem's nose with her blade. It just screeches at her and shakes its' head, before trying to crush her.

The crowd goes into a frenzy, when she somehow manages to scramble on top of the gem's back. Connie can only hold on, as her opponent thunders around the arena, trying to shake her off.

She ends up in the dirt, knife landing just within reach—until a tail whips around and smacks her weapon away. The gem roars, half-encircling her and boring down at her with feral ferocity.

She's going to die for Steven, isn't she? This certainly isn't in the way she imagined, if so.

Connie's hands ball into fists, and she snarls at the gem. It howls at her, threatening to lunge, but she stands up and bellows back. The gem balks, unsure how to respond at first.

She's not going to die for Steven like this. She's going to go down, kicking and screaming, and Diopside will have to live with the fact that she couldn't be broken.

But she hears her name being called, from where she'd entered the arena. Connie dares to turn around, just in time to see a very pink sword cut through the gate to the little room she was in.

Her eyes widen. Max has her sword.

The gate clatters to the earth, and the crowd goes silent. The lapis steps out, sword in one hand and a shiny baseball bat in the other, with the corrupted gem's focus now on her. Max sneers up at the beast, and sets her bat on her shoulder. She plants Connie's sword in the dirt, before starting to circle the edges of the arena.

Diopside calls out, from somewhere above the crowd. "Max, what are you—?!"

An enraged howl from the corrupted gem cuts her off, and it charges toward Max. Connie rolls out the way before she can be trampled, eyes on her sword. With the gem's attention elsewhere, she can escape, and save Steven.

Max seems to already realize this, as she leads the beast toward the opposite end of the arena. Connie keeps her distance, and scrambles when she spots her opening. Her hand closes around the hilt of her blade, and everything finally feels like it'll be alright.

She's not dying, today.

Connie rips her weapon from the ground, and she feels very knightly for half a second, before she turns back toward the screeching gem. She freezes, when she sees the corrupted gem, struggling to break free of Max's headlock grip, its' gemstone aglow. Max's gem is illuminated as well, shining from under her jacket.

Two Gems', well, gems only glow like that when—

Her heart drops for the second time today, when she realizes that Max is grinning. The gem's gaze is narrowed in on a spot above the crowd. A bluish-white glow begins to envelop the two, and no matter how hard Connie wants to rush over and try to break them apart, her legs are locked.

The shape that forms from the two's fusion is a frightful, naga-esk being with veins of dull gold scattered across its' form, and way too many legs. The fusion screeches, rearing its' head back and necks aren't supposed to do that. It scrambles forward on its' arms and too-many-legs, beelining for that unseen spot that Diopside is no doubt fleeing from.

The crowd screams, and the music crescendos.

Connie turns to the fusion, and readies her sword. As much as she'd love to watch Diopside get mauled, she can't let Max—or this other gem—hurt anyone. Sure, maybe some of these humans deserved to be rattled around and scared out of their wits, but a corrupted gem is nothing but fear and instinct. With Max added to the mix... this fusion is nothing but unbridled rage.

Steven could get caught in the crossfire.

She surges forward, sliding in front of the fusion and leveling her sword. The beast halts, legs crashing into themselves, and Max's eyes snap down to her.

The fusion speaks with two voices. One is clearly Max's, while the other is some kind of guttural, primal growl. "Get ouT of The WAy."

Connie's eyes narrow. "No."

Ragged jaws part and snarl at her, and the girl remains rooted. A hand lashes out toward her, and Connie swipes at it, nicking the side of the palm and leaving a gaping slice. The fusion hisses, and shrinks back. It tries to slink around her, but Connie follows its' every move. She lunges, jabbing and driving the fusion back a few paces.

Its' fists bash against the ground, and the fusion roars. "MOvE! We nEEd tO—"

Connie surges forward again. "I can't let you stay like this, Max! You both want to be rid of Diopside, I get it, but I can't risk you hurting someone innocent!"

That seems to make something click, because the fusion hesitates. Max's half understands, her eyes glued to Connie and mouth agape, but the other gem is still glancing around. Limbs are still shuffling, and Max is losing her grip.

It slips, just as a very familiar roar echoes from outside the arena.

Lion.

The Gems found them!

Hope rising in her chest, Connie rushes forward, bolting and dodging out from under the giant hands that attempt to swat her away. With a cry, she swings and cuts into the fusion, slicing away a limb, and then buries her sword into its' side. The giant beast topples and poofs, the cloud of dust obscuring her vision for a good few seconds.

When things settle, Connie kneels down and scoops up the fallen gemstones. She cradles Max's misshapen gem in her hands, taking a second to look at the chunk of blue and gold.

"... It's gonna be okay."

 

X

 

When Diopside had dragged them deeper into this place, Steven had been sure they were never getting out of here.

Seeing another gem fuse with a corrupted one, just made everything worse, because he thought for sure that he was over Malachite, and the very temporary Quartz fusion that Jasper had created. One fusion born of malice, and the other born of the need to lock someone away for the safety of others.

The parallel goes clear over his head, in the moment.

Diopside is gone, by the time he looks around. The whole area below him is in chaos. People are scrambling to run, and now there's cops running around, and he's just stuck here in this makeshift booth. A familiar roar makes him perk, and a pink blur crashes into the fleeing Diopside.

Pearl and Garnet cross into his vision, and he's already crying because thank the stars they found them at last. He watches as the fusion in the arena poofs, and Connie gathers up its' components, before Pearl rips into the arena.

Steven stumbles to his feet, still feeling light headed and oh gosh the room is kind of spinning and his stomach is empty. He hasn't ever gone this long without eating, ho boy.

Gentle hands settle on his shoulders, and those awful chains are suddenly gone. Garnet scoops him up, and he leans into her without question. She descends to the floor, and Pearl is sobbing and in absolute hysterics as she embraces him and Garnet.

Lion snarls in the background, and Steven cracks open an eye. The big pink cat has Diopside pinned, and is biting into her arm as she tries to push him off. The sight is kind of comical, in a weird way, so Steven chuckles. So much for the high and mighty Diamond-swayer.

The teen leans onto Garnet's shoulder, but Connie comes into his peripheral vision, and he just wants to hold her, and be held by her, and kiss her forehead because there's already a scar there. Garnet helps him down, and he crumbles into the girl's waiting arms.

He tries to kiss her forehead, but Connie clings to him so tightly that he can hardly move. That's okay, though. He can heal her when they're home.

Garnet picks them both up with ease, and Pearl keeps a hand on his shoulder.

Steven isn't... entirely sure who says "Let's go home," but he nods in agreement. He passes in and out of consciousness, both on the way to the Dondai, and when they're on the road. Nobody disturbs him, though. Each time he wakes up, Connie is right there next to him, her hand entwined with his.

When he finally does fall asleep, he's leaning on Connie's shoulder, and she's humming something soft and upbeat along with the radio.

Chapter Text

Steven doesn't fully wake up for a long while.

He's in and out, and sometimes Pearl is there, tending to his injuries, while sometimes CatSteven is curled up in the crook of his arm, and other times Dad is nearby and just watching over him. But Connie is always there, holding his hand. He doesn't... really remember when exactly they all got home, but... it's good to finally be in his own bed.

Coherence is a gift and a curse, because the first thought that comes to mind is about Magenta.

Ah, yes. Good ol' Maggie.

That memory is still lodged in his skull, and it won't come loose. His gem-half hasn't said a word since their confrontation, and Steven is decidedly very not okay with this. He gives a weak groan, eyes half-lidded as he stares up the ceiling. Is Maggie still on his—their?—beach? Has he even been paying any attention to what's going on? Does he even know they're home?

His Dad's quiet voice brings him out of his thoughts. "Hey, Stu-ball. Ya sleep okay?"

Stars, it's been way too long since he heard that nickname. Steven breaks into a smile, and reaches out to hug the old man, but he stops when his back and shoulders protest with aches and pains. Greg leans over and wraps an arm around the boy, planting a kiss on the top of his head, before he gently ruffles his hair.

Steven breathes out a tired laugh. "I guess. Don't remember too much, honestly—"

A sleepy mumble from the other side of his bed alerts him to the fact that someone is still holding his hand. Steven looks over to find Connie laying next to him, eyes bleary and just beginning to open. One of her arms lays draped across his midsection, above his gem.

His heart melts into a puddle of mush, right there. The boy reaches over to touch her face, when his eyes flick toward the nasty scarring on Connie's forehead. She sits up a little, and smiles at him, before looking up toward his dad.

She's so cute when she's just woken up, but that scar is still quite troubling. "Hey, Mister Universe... when'd you get here...?"

Greg chuckles and grins, reaching over and ruffling Connie's hair as well. There's a worried, very Dad tone to his voice. "Yesterday night. You kids really went through it, from what I heard."

Some horrible little part of him wants to laugh, so Steven just gives his dad a strained smile. Connie nods, much more solemn, before she helps him fully sit up. The three just sit in mildly comfortable silence for a bit—at least until Lion pokes his head through the door, and clambers into bed with them. If death by concerned, fluffy lion is how Steven goes, so be it.

Garnet removes the big baby at some point, and Steven is able to wolf down some eggs and toast at two o'clock in the afternoon. Pearl keeps his bedside stocked with fresh water bottles for the rest of the day, and Connie never leaves his side. Even well in the late hours of the evening, long after he's kissed away all her bruises and scars, she's still right there. Amethyst puts on a movie for them, something to have as background noise, before peacing out.

Finally, around half-past midnight, Steven and Connie are alone.

They've been alone for a half hour by now, but it's just now dawned on him. The house is quiet, and they're tangled together in his bed. He's got his face buried in the crook of her neck, and Connie is wide awake. She's slowly rubbing her thumb across the back of his hand, and it kind of hurts to realize that he hasn't been this relaxed in... a long time.

Connie must feel him tense up, because she kisses his head with such a gentleness. "... Do you... wanna talk about it?"

Stars, no. But also yes.

This whole incident was more than awful, and even though Diopside turned out to be a coward, her attempts to cement a mentality that no one can change, has left a bitter taste in his mouth.

On top of that, Connie has no idea that Maggie... did what he did. She's just been introduced to him, and she's going to want to ask so many questions about his gem-half. She's going to want to meet his gem-half, and Steven isn't sure that's even possible, now.

Maggie is probably scared to death of hurting him, again.

Steven buries his face a little deeper into her shoulder. "... Kinda. Not... not right now, though. I-In a bit. I just..."

She hooks a leg around one of his, without warning, and pulls him even closer. He's left breathless for a second, and maybe a little bit flustered because whoa, they're really, really close, but... it's nice. They probably would've been Stevonnie by now, if this were normal circumstances, and Steven's brain wasn't buzzing like a hornet's nest.

The girl kisses his hair again, and leaves her face in his curls. "That's okay. I promise."

Steven's grip on Connie's sleeve tightens a little, and he clings to her with a ferver. It still kind of feels like she could be ripped away from him, at any given second. That some gem is going to storm in, and separate them again.

So they lie there, and Steven feels her breathe. Connie is here, with him, in this moment, and she'll still be here for the next moments onward. She'll be here for as long as he needs to her be. She'll be here for as long as he wants her to be.

That thought is groundingly terrifying.

Then again... she has that power, too. He'd hold her for eternity, if she wanted him to.

There's a balance. They're okay.

"... Do you wanna talk about it?" Steven finally asks.

And Connie completely deflates, sighing raggedly as she nods. "Yeah. A lot of stuff happened, that I... kinda need to... verbally process."

They don't need to pull away from each other in order to talk, so he keeps holding her. Steven manages a smile, and nuzzles into her neck. "I'm here."

"... I nearly got us killed, because I was so reckless."

Steven flinches, and his grip on her shirt tightens further. The worry is thick in his voice. "Connie, that's not tr—"

A hand presses his face even closer to her to neck, gently smothering any other interruptions. "I got reckless when Diopside taunted me, and I let my guard down when I went to rescue you..." Connie's voice wobbles, and she's dangerously close to tearing up—he can hear it. "... Max—Max said that D-Diopside was going to hurt you, i-if... if I didn't..."

The first shudder that shakes her entire chest makes the teen curl around him, and Steven wriggles his head out from her under her, so he can embrace his girlfriend that much closer. He puts a hand to the back of her head, and softly kisses her temple. Seeing her like this breaks his heart, but he's here, and he'll always be here whenever she needs to have this kind of moment.

Connie doesn't say anything for a handful of seconds, too choked up. She takes a minute to compose herself, before continuing. "... If not for Max, I... I might still be stuck," she sighs, long and calming. "... Max is a gem, that Dop... rescued, for lack of a better term. She's a lapis—kind of. A different kind of lapis, that... didn't really emerge right."

Steven blinks, and they've pulled apart just enough to look each other in the eye. "Didn't emerge right?"

Connie nods. "She said she was off-cut. Not off-color—" her eyes jump with some kind of realization. "—And oh my gosh. She—I think she corrupted herself. She fused with a corrupted gem, in the arena, so they could attack Diopside. Garnet bubbled them, for the time being, and I... I completely forgot about them!"

He chuckles, pushing a strand of hair from her face. How she always manages to bounce back so quickly will always be lost on him. "Then we should get 'em, and heal 'em. I'm feeling a little restless, anyway, so... why wait?"

Being in bed for nearly two whole days isn't his usual style, and his legs do kind of itch with the urge to get up and properly stretch. It's not because he doesn't want to talk about Magenta, he just... needs a bit more time, to analyze things.

Yeah. Just a bit more time.

Slipping out of bed is easy in theory, but Steven has to spend a few minutes kissing away his aches and pains, before they can actually get moving. Connie leads him down into the dark living room, where CatSteven is loafing on the coffee table. The small calico opens her eye and meows at them, but doesn't leave her spot. Steven gives her a few brief pets, before they pass by.

The gems Connie had recused sit on the kitchen counter, inside two maroon-pink bubbles. Steven blinks at the one's rather odd shape, but doesn't comment on it. Connie gathers them up in her arms, cradling the bubbles with the utmost care, and they make their way into the bathroom.

Steven flicks on the light, and has to squint as his eyes adjust. They seem a little harsher than usual. "We should probably heal the corrupted gem, first."

Connie nods, and sets one bubble in the sink. "I think this is that missing apatite, now that I've gotten a better look at her gem. I didn't read up on her very much—all I really know is she was in Blue's court, before she defected."

A Crystal Gem! It's been a while since he'd uncorrupted one, so hopefully there won't be any... sharp or smashy weapons being pointed at his face, this time around. The Howlite hadn't exactly been the most friendly, when she was uncorrupted—well, at least until she started bawling her eyes out, because she was sorry about hurting him.

He steps up to the sink, opening the cabinet as Connie turns on the bath. He glances down at the bubbled gem in the sink—presumably this "Max" character that Connie mentioned earlier—before gathering up the Diamond essences.

It's not long before the tub is filled, and he's pouring droplets from the bottles. The water colors and shimmers with each addition, and the final touch of healing-spit makes it sparkle into a marble of yellows, blues, whites, and pinks. Connie hands him the bubble, which he sets into the water and pops, causing the apatite to bloop into the tub.

The gem glistens and glows, and the waters swirl around it, before a humanoid shape takes form. A grayish-blue, off-gold splotched figure is left in the tub, blinking owlishly behind long hair. There's a bold star-emblem on the her midsection, and she's about as tall as Peridot was with her old limb enhancers.

Steven offers a smile, as the gem looks up at him. "Hey there—everything's okay. You're safe."

The gem twitches, but relaxes a bit. "... Where... where am I, e-exactly?"

His smile blooms into a full blown grin. Time to go through the song and dance introduction to Era Three! Honestly, he should probably start making pamphlets for this. "Well, you're in my bathtub, for starters—but, that's because I healed you!"

He extends a hand, which the gem takes with a hint of caution. Her eyes trail toward the bright star on his shirt, and her entire posture changes. "Oh! OH, you're—! You're a Crystal Gem! Oh, thank the stars, I was worried for a second that I'd been captured by some strange organics—"

Steven keeps up his cheery grin, but he's already starting to feel a weight on his shoulders. He still has to heal Connie's new friend, so he'll probably have to hand this gem off to Bismuth, once they got to Little Homeworld. Shouldn't take too long.

He makes sure to leave a note for the Gems, just in case.

 

X

 

It takes almost two hours to peel Apatite off Steven.

She has so many questions, and she's loud. But it's good to see she's so outwardly joyival, despite what she went through. Of course, once they give Bismuth the hint that they really want to head back to the beach house, the blacksmith is all to eager to help, as she sweeps Apatite away on a personal tour of Little Homeworld.

Walking back is a nice, normal thing. The night is pleasant, not too cold or humid, and the ocean-air is welcomingly familiar. If Connie has to go back to the city within the next decade, it might be too soon.

They reach the beach house without mishap, but they take a little longer than usual. Max has all the time in the world in that bubble, and Connie wants to hold her boyfriend's hand in private for just a bit longer.

She kisses him on the front porch, before they head inside.

Once in the bathroom, Steven repeats the process of filling the tub and dropping a little Diamond essence into it. The water sparkles with those four colors, just like before.

Connie holds Max's bubble in her arms, and glances at Steven. "She might be pretty freaked out when she reforms, so... we should probably stand back."

He nods, giving Connie a warm smile as he steps aside for her to do the honors.

The teen steps up the tub, and sets the bubble into the water. It floats there for a second, before popping on it's own. Max's gem plunks into the water with a sploosh, and the room goes silent.

Seconds tick by, and Connie fidgets.

The sigh of relief that escapes her lungs is a heavy one, when the tub glows, and a humanoid shape forms. It cycles through a very basic dress silhouette, then into something similar to Max's tanktop-and-jeans combo that Connie had seen when they first met. The gem's deep-blue and gold-veined form flashes into existence, and falls backwards into the now empty tub.

Max's pants are a deep, dark navy-blue—close to black as she could get, it would seem—while her tanktop is a soft, pale gold. Her hair is still that short, messy cut, like she just combed her fingers through it and called it a day. The gem looks dazed for a few second, before her eyes—her gold eyes—focus on the figure before her.

Instantly, the gem tenses and scrambles back, eyes blown as wide as dinner plates. Connie winces as apologies start to spill from Max's lips, and the gem's hands are trembling.

Max keeps herself firmly tucked into the corner of the tub, despite her shaking limbs. "I-I just—I just wanted t'—to get back at her, for—for all the fucked up stuff she did—t' all of us."

The girl steals a glance at Steven, who is in the process of sitting down on the floor. He criss crosses his legs, and gets comfortable as Max continues to stammer out apologies and swears. Her boy is calm, and his expression is ever gentle.

Max curls in on herself, fetal positioning as her voice drops to an angry mutter. Connie takes a step closer, but pauses. "... Max."

The lapis freezes.

Connie swallows thickly, before speaking again. "... Can I... come any closer?"

Max eventually nods, but doesn't uncurl.

So, Connie sits herself next to the bathtub, leaning on the porcelain. "... You're okay. What you did... really scared me, but—it's okay, now. You don't have to worry about her, anymore. She can't hurt you, or anyone else, now."

Her words seem to have some effect on the lapis, as Max carefully peaks out from under an arm. Her voice is so quiet. "... Are you sure?"

Connie smiles and nods. "I promise," she looks toward Steven for a moment. "Can he come closer?"

Max lowers her arms, and sizes up the boy nearby. He offers a smile and a ginger wave, and the gem scoffs out a breathless laugh. "... Yeah, I... don't see why not."

Steven scoots over, and settles in front of Connie, his warm smile never wavering. There's not a hint of malice in his voice—if anything, he sounds pretty cheeky. "So... you're this 'Max,' person that Connie mentioned."

The lapis gives a hollow grin, leaning back against the wall. "She mentioned you a few times too, Diamond," her grin falls, and she avoids his gaze for a second. "Sorry about uh... hittin' her over the head... with m' bat."

Connie casts a worried glance at him, as Steven winces lightly. His smile doesn't falter, though.

"If it makes you feel any better, most of my now-closest-friends tried to kill me, before we became actual friends," he says.

That gets a snorting laugh out of Max, and Connie feels like she can finally breathe again. Things are gonna work out, after all.

The three spend a long time in the bathroom, just talking and helping Max unwind. Things get a little tense when Max realizes she doesn't have her jacket, and that her gem is exposed, but Steven has a fix for that. He disappears for a minute, and returns with his spare, baby pink varsity jacket. Connie's heart warms as he tells the lapis that she can borrow it until they can get a replacement, and Max seems utterly touched. If Connie didn't know any better, she kind of looked ready to cry from overwhelming gratitude.

It's sometime around seven in the morning, when they finally exit the bathroom. The place is still empty, and Connie is kind of thankful for that.

Max takes one look at the beach house's interior, and gives a quiet whistle. "Damn... pretty snazzy place you got here, Diamond."

Steven chuckles as she sets herself down on the couch. "Just Steven is fine, Max. No need to be so formal."

The gem is about to say something else, when CatSteven jumps up next to her, seemingly from out of nowhere. Max stops dead, eyes flicking to the cat. CatSteven crawls onto her lap without a word, and settles into place atop the frozen lapis.

Of course, Steven is absolutely beaming at the little calico, but Connie can't really blame him. He giggles, whisper-shouting excitedly. "OoooH, CatSteven likes you already!"

Connie sits herself down across from Max, smiling. The gem chuckles, wary as she sets her hands down at her sides. "I... I haven't been this close to a critter in... geez, ever. Most of 'em just hissed or growled at me, if I got too close."

Connie reaches over and strokes the calico's back. "Probably because they were feral strays. Most animals in the wild, or in the city, don't trust humans—or gems, for that matter."

CatSteven starts to purr, as Max smirks. The gem tentatively reaches up to pet the feline in a similar fashion, which earns her some even louder purring.

"So, Max, I uh..." Steven clears his throat, as he sits down next to Connie. "I understand if it's a little early to mention, uh—Diopside—"

Max shakes her head, tone—worryingly—dismissive. "Nah, s'cool."

Steven blinks, and Connie's skin itches a bit. He glances at her, before continuing. "Oh, well, uh—in that case. She... as awful as she was, she... kinda gave me an idea. See—lots of gems still aren't sure how to navigate Earth, and human culture. Most—no, wait, all of the healed gems are in Little Homeworld, and they haven't really been able to get out."

Connie raises a brow, and watches as he stands up.

"That's kinda why you get gems like Diopside," Steven puts his hands on his hips. "Gems need a purpose. She wasn't wrong about that. Humans get jobs all the time, but they need to learn how to do those jobs."

Max has this incredulous expression plastered on her face, but she looks interested. "Alright, so—where ya goin' with this, Di—Steven?"

Her boy grins, and he's all sunshine again for the first time in what feels like ages. "I'm gonna set up a school for gems who wanna learn more about humans, and who wanna reinvent themselves! Gems who wanna reinvent their purpose."

Steven's eyes are sparkling.

Connie hasn't seen them sparkle in a very, very long time.

It's such a wonderful sight.

Chapter Text

He's been on the beach for a long time, now.

It's probably only been...

(How long has he been here?)

Who is he kidding? It's either been a few hours, or a few days. He can't actually tell how much time has passed. That would require looking out, and Magenta isn't exactly ready to do that.

A pesky butterfly nudges the back of his head.

The sky never changes, on Steven's beach. It's always this peachy, sunset gold. Steven doesn't like change. Maybe that's why this beach has stayed the same, for as long as he can remember? Magenta stares at the lapping waves, the cool-blue ocean making the salmon sand turn a shade of lavender where it kisses the shore.

He took his jacket off, at some point. He can't really recall when, exactly.

The butterfly keeps nudging the back of his head, rustling his curly hair.

Magenta continues to ignore it, just like he ignores the thousand others, beating against the outside of the giant bubble he'd created. He managed to keep out all but one of the little thoughts, and that one won't leave him alone.

It keeps prodding and flitting and its' soft wing beats are too much, he can't take it anymore—

Maggie whirls, snatching the void-white butterfly from the air. He keeps it cupped in his hands, a sneer on his lips. A small part of him wants to try and crush it. The sensible part tells him to just bubble it. Another part says to see what it wants.

(He isn't sure who to listen to.)

Magenta just sits there, hands caging the thought. He doesn't move for a long while, the thousands of butterflies still swarming against his bubble. He opens his hands, only a bit, and lets the thought come to him.

 

Connie, sword at the ready, as she fends off Diopside. The girl speaks, something about being a Diamond's knight.

A dark blue lapis is suddenly behind the teen, a shiny bat in hand. Diopside smirks, and the crack of metal against skull is deafening.

 

They're still in danger. Connie and Steven are still in danger, and he's just been sulking on this beach, the entire time. He doesn't bother checking how recent the memory is. It could be from moments ago, to hours, but it won't matter if Connie is—

Maggie's hardlight form materializes into a dark room with a burst of sparkles, his geometric shield hovering above his arm. He glances around, frantic as he searches for Diopside, this new lapis, or Connie—where is Connie?

But then he sees Steven's television and game system, and then his closet. He looks over to the sliding glass doors, staring at a blackened sky. Stars lay amidst gray clouds, and the sound of gentle rain finally registers.

He's at the beach house.

(Steven is at the beach house, more importantly.)

Magenta's posture goes slack, and his shield dissipates with a soft glimmer. Steven is safe, at the very least. He turns toward the bed, seeing the teen nestled under the covers and fast asleep. Another figure catches his eye, and Magenta stares back at a very awake, sitting up in bed, Connie Maheswaran.

If he had physical organs, Magenta's heart probably would have just stopped.

Every one of his base instincts is telling him to run, hide, disappear, and one foot slides back in a vain attempt to flee. But this is Connie, not an enemy. Why does he want to run from her? She is Steven's emotional support, she wouldn't wish him harm.

He still wants to flee, but... not necessarily from Connie. His gaze settles on Steven's body, and that festering, churning, sense of something rotten resurfaces with a vengeance.

(Does she know what he did?)

The girl's jaw hangs wide open, but her expression isn't fearful. It's more of surprise, if anything else. Maggie puts a finger to his lips, before she can say anything, and Connie snaps her mouth close.

They should... probably talk somewhere else. Somewhere private. The dome might suffice, but... the idea of being so close to an unlocked warp pad makes him want to fidget. The bathroom is probably a much safer option.

He waves for her to come closer, as he half-turns toward the door. Connie glances down at Steven, before she gets up, carefully sliding out from under the covers. The boy doesn't even stir.

(He must be utterly exhausted.)

Magenta opens the door with a careful hand, and lets Connie head out first. He keeps an eye on Steven's sleeping form, while she checks down stairs. After a few moments, Connie gives him a thumbs up at the bottom of the stairs. Maggie slips through the door, and quietly shuts it behind him.

Connie watches as he descends the stairs, brushing past her and belining for the bathroom. She follows, and Maggie still can't find his voice, even after they've entered the small room and closed the door.

She studies him with curiosity, as she leans against the sink. Magenta forces his shoulders to remain relaxed, because he knows there isn't a thousand eyes on him.

The girl offers him a smile. "It's nice to finally meet you, Magenta—" she shifts her weight. "—Or, um, do you prefer 'Maggie?'"

There's nothing stuck in his throat, but it certainly feels like there is. "... Either name is acceptable. Steven typically refers to me as the latter, since it... is easier."

Connie simply nods. Her posture is non-threatening on purpose, but she also just looks tired. "I am glad he finally told me about you, and shared some of the experiences you guys had."

(She knows, she has to know, Connie always knows. She's an expert at figuring things out, so she has to know about what he did.)

He fidgets, but only once. "What memories did he share with you?"

She blinks, surprise washing over her expression. "You... don't know which ones he shared?"

Maggie glances away, before shaking his head. "When I manifest myself as a hologram, I do not share Steven's physical senses. I am essentially a separate entity, like this."

Connie gives no indication of being suspicious, and instead hums thoughtfully. "Makes sense. You can access his memories when you're not projecting yourself, right?"

She'll know if he's lying, she always knows when Steven is lying. "Correct. Though, I have been—" just don't lie. "—Distracted, up until now. My form has never been disrupted before. Processing the experience took... longer than expected."

She looks at him with nothing but gentle understanding, and part of him just wants to scream. "I get that. You're—technically speaking—still a totally new being. Lots of stuff might take awhile to process."

"What memories did he share with you?"

The girl smiles a little wider, and she doesn't know, she doesn't know— "He showed me a memory of being in Rose's room, when you got your new name, for starters. He also showed me a couple memories of you two playing video games, and when you guys told Bismuth. He shared them with Stevonnie, too. I, uh, assume you know who they are?"

 

SHE

 

DOESN'T

 

KNOW

 

Magenta's posture and expression remains stoney as ever. "Yes. They are a fusion comprised of you and Steven."

Connie tilts her head, a slight frown crossing her lips. "He was... honestly kind of terrified to tell me about you. He was scared I'd worry about him," she huffs out a loose chuckle. "More so than I already do. It's... a little weird, though."

His shoulders tense. "... What is?"

She looks away, contemplating for a second. "He... Steven hasn't actually said anything else about you, ever since we got back. I mean, it's kind of understandable—we've mostly just been sleeping and recovering for the past couple days, and we spent all day with a rescued gem, today, showing her around Little Homeworld."

Steven... hasn't talked about him? At all? He brought up Magenta once, and then... hasn't mentioned him since they were captured?

(Why does that information make his chest ache?)

It takes a great deal of effort to keep his expression blank. It takes so much more effort than it should. "He's simply tried. It makes sense, after all you've both been through. You should get some more rest, too."

And Connie just smiles at him, looking relieved. But there's something in her eyes... this glint of something isn't right, and she must be onto him. A yawn overtakes her, before he can attempt to analyze her expression, and she gives a tired hum.

"It was nice to officially meet you, Magenta," she says, full of sincerity as she pushes off the counter. "Maybe I'll see you in the morning?"

He blinks. "Perhaps."

She leaves the bathroom with a nod, and he is alone.

Magenta continues to hold his blank expression, and his neutral posture. Closing his eyes, he wills himself back into their gem. It works, since he knows where Steven is this time, and he finds himself back on the beach.

Thousands of wing beats flood his ears, and he ignores them.

His composure breaks like a wave, and he falls to his knees. Magenta screams into the ocean, the water splashing against his legs. Something new burns at the corners of his eyes and blurs his vision, and a pink burst erupts from within his core.

Steven has every right to ignore him, after what he did.

(After what he almost did.)

Steven Universe is a boy who has always tried to make peace with every soul he meets, and his gem-half nearly beat a human being to death because that human was the first thing he grabbed when he flew into a senseless—

Rage.

A senseless rage.

Maggie's chest heaves and stutters.

Anger is not an emotion that Steven is familiar with. Anger is not in Steven's nature. It is Pink Diamond's nature.

Another pink burst of energy pulses from him, kicking up sand and leaving a crater. He curls in on himself, hands reaching up and grasping at his hair. "NO!! I'm NOT HER, anymore!"

He is not Pink, he is not Pink, he is not Pink—

Chapter Text

Steven's dreams are full of beaches and butterflies, so many butterflies, and those have to be hibiscus petals. There's thousands of them—hibiscus or butterflies?—and they all swarm about him, as if being blown around by hurricane winds. Petals and wings, wings and petals, a flurry of sparkles, and then something heavy slams into his chest and he's knocked over—

His breath hitches, just as he opens his eyes. It takes him a little longer than normal to come out of the haze of realizing a dream is over, and Steven frowns. Was that... one of his mom's memories? No, that... that doesn't make much sense.

She was never associated with butterflies.

He grips the covers and sinks under them a little more. Maybe it was just a one-off dream. People have weird dreams all the time, it's not uncommon. He's allowed to have weird, non-gem related dreams.

But something tells him it wasn't about the Pink Diamond.

Steven shivers, taking note of the coldness at his back. He rolls over and confirms that Connie got up a while ago. He blinks at his clock, and the pink numbers flash 7:30 am. Part of him just wants to close his eyes again and sleep for another hour, but...

He gets dressed, and trudges down stairs. Steven perks at the smell of eggsand spies the not-so-little-Maheswaran at the stove, with Pearl next to her. The gem laughs at something Connie says, a hand going up to her face, and Steven's heart warms.

Pearl brightens further as she sees him on the landing. "Oh, good morning, Steven! Connie was just telling me about the gems you two introduced to Little Homeworld, yesterday."

Ah yes, Max and the rebel-Apatite. He's definitely not going to forget the latter, any time soon. "She tell you about how Bismuth had to pry Apatite off my arm?"

Pearl grins and chuckles loosely. "She always was pretty clingy."

"You met her?" Connie asks, looking up from her task.

"Mhm. But only briefly," Pearl replies. "She was an undercover scholar for a while, before she was found out. I didn't know her very personally, but she was pretty fierce on the battlefield. Built up a hefty reputation before the corruption."

(He dares to look over his shoulder, to check out what's going on outside.)

Steven listens and smiles, but something itches in the back of his mind. He ignores it, as Pearl and Connie continue to talk, and he slips onto one of the bar stools. He perks when Max is brought up. Connie speaks about how the gem seemed tense, but she settled in once they found her a nice apartment in Little Homeworld. He blinks, a question coming forth. "... What happened to Diopside?"

Pearl doesn't hide her sneer, at the mention of the burly green gem. "The human authorities took her. She broke more human than gem laws, within the sixteen years of being in charge of a gang, so, she's in a human prison."

Connie nods. "Makes sense I guess—what with the kidnapping and child endangerment charges," she leans over and turns off the stove, before plating the meal. "I'm just glad Max won't have to deal with her, anymore."

(Maggie's eyes narrow. Max... why does that make his core boil and churn with aggression?)

To her credit, Pearl does try and soften the sneer on her lips, but it doesn't work very well. Steven resists the urge to fidget in his seat. Max must be a pretty sour subject as well, on account of what she did. Sure, she turned out okay in the end—like a lot of gems they know—but... she'd went after Connie. It's been a while since any coherent gem attacked her, so... he can't really blame Pearl for being protective.

(Ah. That's why.)

 

The afternoon drawls by within seconds.

He visits Little Homeworld to announce his plan for "Little Homeschool," which is met with uproarious applause from everyone. He spends all day with Bismuth, traversing the areas they'll use for the school. His guardians enlist themselves as teachers before he can even ask them, which makes him feel all kinds of warm and fuzzy.

They start construction a day later, and Steven oversees it all.

(Magenta watches in silence, keeping to himself.)

Connie finds him around sunset, on the beach house porch, after all the hullabaloo has died down. He's nearly asleep on his feet, as she wraps her arms around his shoulders. He hums as she puts her head on top of his his, her cheek resting in his curls.

Her voice is soft, quiet. "You guys must be pretty tired, after today."

Steven blinks at the odd statement. He opens his mouth to question it, but the words die in his throat. He withholds flinching, and musters up a weak smile. "Uh, yeah..."

They stare at the fading sun for a while, the ocean many hues of gold, purple, and deep maroon. Connie's breath is warm in his hair, and her embrace is tender. If he could, he'd definitely just doze off right here.

"Are you gonna tell the gems about him?" she asks.

(No.)

His posture tenses, and static panic fizzes through his brain. Connie shifts and lifts her head, and he's absolutely busted. "Um—yeah, e-eventually. He's just... shy? We're still—"

She plants a kiss atop his head, and he melts a little. "Steven, it's okay... you guys are okay."

(No they aren't.)

She moves to stand next to him, an arm still draped over his shoulders. "I talked with him a couple nights ago, and he seemed—"

Anything else she says falls on deaf ears, as Steven's mind shuts down for a few seconds.

Magenta can project himself when Steven is asleep? Magenta... talked with Connie, when he was asleep? He tries to keep his breathing even, as she smiles at him. He smiles back, head spinning. Connie chuckles and says something about him being exhausted. He just nods, and before he knows it, he's alone in his room.

It's nearly ten at night.

He tries to sit down and meditate, but his mind won't be still. How many times has Maggie projected himself when Steven wasn't awake? When did he start doing that? Why did he start doing that?! He grips his hair, breath hitching.

Steven crushes his eyes shut, and feels a soft breeze a few moments later.

Thousands of wing beats fill his ears.

He opens his eyes, and a cloud of pink butterflies swarm around one spot on the shoreline. Steven trudges closer, and shoos a few away, only to reveal a hot pink bubble under the layer of thoughts. He brushes a few more away, and peers inside.

Maggie sits in the center of the bubble, legs crossed and his hands in his lap. His diamond eyes remain half-lidded, as he stares at the sand. He's not wearing his jacket. Does he even know that Steven is here...?

Steven opens his eyes to his bedroom, and curls in on himself a little.

He could hear a pin drop.

When did he start crying?

(When did he stop?)

 

Steven's alarm goes off at six. He gets dressed, heads downstairs, and drives to Little Homeworld. He oversees construction, brainstorms class ideas with Pearl, and socializes with the gems who seem interested in attending future classes. Max remains absent from most of these circles, but he sees her on her balcony at one point. He heads home a little before sunset.

Rinse and repeat for two weeks.

Connie announces that she's going to start early prep for applying to college. She doesn't specify which one she wants to attend, or what subject she'll be majoring, but she's excited nevertheless.

He doesn't see her very often, after that.

Months go by, and the school takes proper form. Classes begin, and gems attend.

In his off-time, he hunts down any currptions that slipped through the cracks.

Chapter Text

Magenta stays on the beach, in his bubble.

The pink butterflies won't leave him alone, thoughts and memories on display in thousands of little windows. He never sees any blue ones. His butterflies keep Steven's at bay.

But... one current thought slips through.

He stares and watches it.

 

Jasper looms over Steven. The teen shrinks back, as she sneers.

"You might have Pink Diamond's gem, but you're not my Diamond!" Jasper snarls, pressing a finger to Steven's forehead. "And I'm not going to take orders from some weak, sappy, useless piece of dirt!"

 

Something crackles and festers in his core, and a pink pulse ripples from him. She has no right to talk to him like that. He and Steven are a diamond, and she's a soldier! She should be grateful she's uncorrupted, and that Steven even came out there to talk to her in the first place!

 

"If you think you're hard enough to tell me what to do, then fight me and prove it," she growls, whirling around and stalking away.

Steven's breath comes out in a tense seeth. "... Fine!"

 

Maggie blinks, as he continues to watch. Jasper taunts Steven, beckoning him to throw the first punch. The spar unfolds quickly, Jasper gaining the upper hand in under a minute.

 

Jasper's boot slams into Steven's chest, knocking the breath from his lungs. "You're the one that needs help. You think you've beaten me, but you've never beaten me on your own. You've always been a fusion!"

 

Magenta's brain comes to a halt. Any worry about being found out, remains absent. Instead, a churning, molten sense of fury bubbles up. The hypocrite views fusions as weak. She sees Steven as nothing but a weakling.

(So by extension... she views her own diamond as weak.)

His hands ball into fists, and the bubble starts to wane.

 

"No one is as pitiful as you!"

 

That something snaps with an almighty crack.

 

"I'm not pitiful!!"

 

Pink pulses surge from him, and the bubble shatters. The butterflies disperse in a flurry, and his gem burns bright. That single blue butterfly remains front and center, as if held there by some unseen force. Maggie watches Steven throw a punch—an actual punch—right into Jasper's chest. She flies back, before charging at him in a spindash, which the teen catches with ease.

Pulses roll from him in waves, as Maggie continues to watch the fight. He mimics Steven's movements—or does he lead them?—until he's staring at a Jasper-shaped crater in the ground.

Awareness slaps him square in the face. The pulses stop.

Steven's butterfly returns to its normal, blue hue.

(When did it change?)

Maggie's eyes go wide. That was... that was him seeping through. He made Steven turn pink.

He stands on the beach, staring at the butterfly, as Steven apologizes for his outburst. Maggie's chest stutters, and he drops to his knees.

This can't be happening. Steven can't be aggressive. Steven isn't aggressive! He only fought Jasper so that she would listen, because that's the only form of communication that she understands! Maggie grips his hair, trying to keep another pulse from spiking. Steven isn't violent. He wasn't enjoying the fight, so that's a small blessing.

(Why does it feel like he can't breathe?)

Steven now has access to his mother's horrible, destructive

No.

No, Steven now has access to Magenta's horrible, destructive abilities.

A cry rips from his throat, and a pink wave pulses from him. They don't stop, even as he wills them to.

Chapter Text

The clock flashes 2:45 AM, as Steven sits in his bed.

He's going to be drowsy and grumpy tomorrow, even if he were to fall asleep within the next few seconds. But his mind won't stop racing. What even happened during his spar with Jasper?

The very simple answer stares him in the face, and he refuses to look it in the eye.

He went pink, yes, but what does that mean? In the past, he would've chalked it up to being an avatar of his mother. Others might speculate that it was indeed her, trying to get through.

That isn't true though, and he knows it.

Part of him kind of wishes everything could be confusing again—that things could be a mystery, and he could just use his abilities with little care about how they actually worked. People would ask, and he'd simply shrug. 'They just work!' little Steven would reply, before he'd go about his day with a content smile.

But, things aren't a mystery anymore. He knows where his abilities stem from. He knows who the source is.

He closes his eyes with a sigh, and tries meditating.

Once again, he opens his eyes to a beach full of pink butterflies, a mass of them swirling around a hot pink bubble. He watches and catches half-glimpses of his reflection, who remains unmoving, through gaps in the swarm. Steven frowns.

Maggie's still not wearing the jacket...

 

X

 

How many days has it been, since he bled through? Has it been weeks? Time refuses to click and turn correctly on the beach, the sky remaining stagnant and vibrant. Maggie stays in his bubble and ignores the butterflies, the thoughts that pound against his defenses.

"Diamond," some whisper. "Powerful Diamond. Destructive Diamond."

"Pitiful Diamond," echoes from somewhere in the back of the swarm.

His fists tighten and he grinds his teeth. A nearby butterfly reflects Steven and Jasper's spar. Magenta keeps his eyes on the sand. He just has to ignore them, and they'll eventually go away, or at least quiet down.

A blue butterfly tries to get in, but Maggie shrinks his bubble so it remains but a hair away from actually touching him. He dismisses the sudden and quickening palpitations in his hardlight chest, and the vaguely dizzy sensation that creeps up his spine. His muscles tense, but he forces out a sigh. The swarm flounders around the now-empty space above, frantic wing beats bombarding Maggie's ears. He keeps his legs criss-cross and his eyes downcast, shaking hands in his lap.

(Wait, shaking?)

Magenta's expression pinches. His throat closes up as he tries to keep his arms rigid and still, but his hands just tremble even worse. He grabs at a wrist and forces one arm to brace against the sand, but the shakes travel up into his forearms, and then his shoulders. His vision swims, so he closes his eyes. That dizzy sensation swirls in his head, the butterflies get louder, and his attempts to breathe accelerate.

The beach shifts and the wingbeats stop on a dime.

Maggie's eyes snap open.

His bubble keeps everything tinted in a stark pink, but the sand outside appears darker. A different shade of color entirely. He blinks, body still trembling but not as violently. Magenta looks up and flinches, the butterflies gone and the scenery unfamiliar.

The beach still remains a beach, sort of, but veins of streams flow and create little sandbars. Palm trees litter the shore, and crystals jut out from the sand. Stacks of clutter and junk lie in piles all around him, mostly resting on these little sandbar islands. Upon closer inspection, this "junk" is actually a lot of objects that Steven cherishes. TVs, the stray arcade machine, lots of musical instruments—but oddball things lie among these favorites as well; a giant pile of coins, a mini-fridge, and an entire telephone pole.

He gazes toward the sky. It's... lavender-ish.

A voice jolts his attention toward the end of the shore. "Dude, I didn't know you had a whole ass beach in here!"

Steven's voice makes Maggie tense further. "No time to admire the scenery!"

Magenta dares a glance to the side. Amethyst and Steven stand at the farthest end of the shore, on a sandbar that juts out into the ocean. They huddle around a large, colorful arcade cabinet, manning a set of controls. The side is adorned with the image of a widely built figure with short, puffy hair, who's striking a pose with their three arms and crystalline yo-yos.

Smoky Quartz.

Maggie glances off, and a dull ache settles in his core.

"Hey, guys! You cool?" Amethyst snickers at her own joke, despite her nervous tone. "Get it? Because of the ice?"

Steven utters a strained, panic-laced chuckle. "No, but seriously, we're so sorry. Are you guys okay?"

He should just leave them alone. He draws his knees up to his chest and wraps his arms around his legs. Smoky didn't need him back in the ruins of the beta kindergarten, so they don't need him now...

(Curiosity gnaws at him, nevertheless.)

Amethyst mashes a button and groans. "Geez, seriously?!"

"We're not gonna make it—"

"Then we have to go faster!"

Magenta grits his teeth as a blue butterfly flits into his line of sight.

Steven's eyes dart around the face of the cabinet. "I don't think we can."

"Urgh, come on!" the gem whips her head toward Steven, desperation clear. "If you can save the universe, then we can save a roller coaster!"

His bubble disappears, and Maggie stands up. He makes his way over to them, careful to keep his steps light. The arcade's screen displays a pixelated landscape of Funland, and a little pixel-Smoky. An out-of-control rollercoaster races along its track at the other end of the screen, with red exclamation points flashing above it and smoke billowing from the track. Smoky's avatar is barely halfway across the boardwalk.

Steven pales. "But saving the universe took time! We don't have any time!"

"Then what d' we do?!"

"I-I don't know! I don't know!!"

Maggie grabs Amethyst and Steven by the shoulders, a wave of pink aura washing over them and the cabinet. He slams his eyes shut, just as Amethyst and Steven look toward one another.

 

Please work, please work, please work, please

 

He doesn't see Steven slam down a new, pink button. He doesn't watch as Smoky's pixel turns pink, but he certainly hears the awe in Amethyst and Steven's voices as they marvel at something on-screen. Maggie dares to crack open one eye, just in time to see Smoky's avatar pull the last remaining person off the rollercoaster. The gem leaps across to a safe area, and deposits the group on the boardwalk.

"There we go," Amethyst grins and looks toward Steven. "Alright, now time to stop that—"

Her eyes flick to Magenta, as if pulled by some magnetized force, and she tenses.

Maggie jerks back, the pink aura dissipating from them and the arcade with a poof. He scrambles, mind racing and staticing as he makes a mad dash for the nearest pile of anything to hide behind.

Steven's tone remains casual as ever. "Well... sometimes you save all the people, but the roller coaster still crashes into the ocean."

Magenta doesn't know when exactly Steven and Amethyst unfuse, but the beach returns to its usual appearance after a while. A few of the sandbars, palm trees, and some of the junk remain, though.

The butterflies will be back soon.

He settles down on one of the new sandbars, before he reinstates his large bubble. Maggie looks down at his hands. He helped some people... he helped save some people.

(Maybe he can keep an eye on the outside world, after all.)

Chapter Text

Maggie allows himself a few glimpses outside, at random times.

Sometimes he catches snippets of Steven's morning routine. Other times he listens in on classes at Little Homeschool. Rarely, he peeks out just after Steven falls asleep.

Today, Steven's routine seems... different. The butterfly in Mag's hands displays a group of quartz gems, all gathered within the beach house's living room. Each display signs of having cracked gems, their physical forms wonky and deformed.

 

Steven exhales, already sounding a little overwhelmed. "Volleyball must have gotten really wild, huh?"

 

The teen fixes each and every one of them with a healing kiss or applied-healing-spit, Maggie watching with rapt interest. When did Steven start healing gems from home? Magenta frowns as Steven waves to the leaving quartz, before he lets the butterfly go. There's yet another something Maggie missed. But it's better for him to stay here, in his bubble. Going back to simply providing Steven with power is a safer method.

(A more controlled method.)

He flinches, recalling the look on Amethyst's face when she saw him. Shock. Fear. It was written all over her expression. As far as he's aware, she still hasn't said anything to Steven, and Steven hasn't said anything either.

(That shouldn't bother him. That really shouldn't bother him.)

Movement catches right out of the corner of his eye, and Magenta absently looks up toward a new butterfly in his peripheral. 

Something within him snaps like a vice around his neck, and Maggie chokes up.

A giant blue butterfly reflects Steven's current surroundings, just within the kitchen. On one of the bar stools, sits a white and pink figure with side-buns and delicate, silky clothing. One pale-pink eye stares at him Steven, while spiderweb cracks crawl where the other eye should be.

 

She tilts her head in confusion, before a perverabal light bulb goes off behind her eye. "What? Oh, stars! What a misunderstanding—this is all Pink Diamond."

Steven winces in disbelief. "My Mom?"

 

Everything grinds to a halt as the butterfly takes on a pink aura. Magenta's hands tremble and the butterflies above hammer on the outside of his bubble. He looks away and grasps at his shirt, trying to steady his breathing.

 

"It's just that it reminds me so much of Pink," the damaged pearl's voice echoes across the beach. "She used to give silly little names to everything."

 

The butterfly doesn't move, but he keeps his eyes on the sand. Maybe if he keeps ignoring it, the stupid thing will leave.

 

Pink Pearl's tone drips with delight as she giggles. "Volleyball? That's so funny—you're just like her!"

 

Maggie's breath hitches and stutters.

 

"It's such a shame what White did to her," Pearl whispers to Steven.

 

A hibiscus floats by, right across Magenta's line of sight, and lands just inches from the edge of his bubble.

 

X

 

The Reef seems harmless enough. A "luxury refurbishment and repair boutique" sounds like fun, honestly.

The reflective, ocean-blue interior of the Reef glistens as Steven and the two pearls make their way through the first hall. Holograms of different outfits sit on display, untouched, just like the accessories lain about the boutique.

Shell's very pearl-like voice chimes in, somewhere above. "Please feel free to take your time looking through the latest offerings in accessories and appearance modifiers as we make our way to the Care Center."

Steven smiles as Volleyball bounces from one display to the next, wide-eyed and captivated by each and every one. He looks over to Pearl, but has to restrain a grimace at her less-than-cheerful expression. "What about you, Pearl? Any rush of nostalgia?"

Regret bubbles up as she scoffs with clear disdain. "Please... nothing like looking at glitzy tchotchkes to get you nostalgic for a simpler time..." she palms toward a nearby display with such venom in her tone. "I mean, really, who even needs junk like this? Right, Volleyball?"

Volleyball gasps and prances up to that exact display. "Oh, what a sweet ribbon wand! It's just like mine."

The scorned betrayal that washes over Pearl's face nearly makes him flinch and chuckle all at once. In a flourish, the pink pearl reaches into her gemstone and pulls forth a glittering pink-and-gold ribbon wand. She twirls it with elegance, showing off and ignoring Pearl's spiteful stare.

"It was a gift from Pink," Volleyball explains with one last ribbon twirl. She looks at Pearl with a smile. "Isn't it exquisite? What did Pink get you?"

It takes all his willpower not to say "A lot of emotional baggage."

Pearl utters a hollow laugh. "It's sweet that you have these keepsakes, but, well, no need to be overly... attached."

The gem makes a grab for the wand, trying to yank it from Volleyball's hand, but the other pearl's grip and happy expression remain unmoved. Pearl opens her mouth, but Steven gives a hasty cough.

"Guys, can we keep moving?" he asks, side eying the closed door at the very end of the hallway.

With a sneer, Pearl finally relents and releases Volleyball's wand. "Yes, let's," she growls and turns away in a huff. "I've certainly had about enough of this circus of objectification."

And Volleyball just follows behind her with that unwavering smile. Steven allows himself a small sigh, before he trails after the two.

(Magenta dares a glance over his shoulder. Maybe the whole ordeal is over now?)

They reach the looming doors at the end of the wall, which open smoothly. Inside, lies a barren room with intricate stained glass-esk walls, and more reflective glassy flooring. In the center, lies a pale blue, oval-shaped pad.

"Welcome to the Care Center. We have everything here to update or repair any pearl."

(Not by a longshot, it would seem.)

Volleyball saunters onto the pad without hesitation, a smile still on her face. A small holographic ring rises from the pad, scanning her from toe to head. She grins and looks up toward the ceiling, voice full of cheerful anticipation. "So, how do I look?"

Silence seizes the room for far too many seconds, and Steven's skin prickles.

"I am sorry," Shell says. "There is nothing I can do."

(Of course there isn't.)

His heart quickens as Volleyball's posture tenses. "B-But you just told us you could repair any pearl!"

"Her physical form shows damage, but her pearl is perfectly fine," Shell explains, oh so matter of factly. "This injury must have been so impactful that it continues to manifest despite the fact that her pearl has been repaired."

"So, it's like... psychological?" Steven asks.

Volleyball turns to them with a smile, but it definitely doesn't meet her eye. "That's absurd! I am fine."

More cracks manifest on her eye, but her smile doesn't even twitch. Steven utters a concerned whimper, but his attention snaps to Pearl as she snarls.

His guardian balls her fists as her tone gains an unmistakable edge. "How could White be so careless?"

(White is never careless.)

Steven winces. He opens his mouth to correct her, to explain what Volleyball had said to him at the start of all this, but the pink pearl beats him to it. 

"Oh, no, Pearl!" Volleyball interjects with a filpiant handwave. "You've got it all wrong. Pink did this."

He can't look at Pearl's face, but the chilled horror in her voice tells him all he needs to know. "What did you say?" 

She steps forward and into his line of sight, a storm brewing over her as she heads toward the pad. Steven reaches out to stop her, but she's already out of reach.

"It's a funny story, really," Volleyball says with a breathless chuckle. "Once, Pink got tired of asking Yellow and Blue for her own colony, so she went straight to White. Of course, White told her she wasn't fit to run one, and, well, that set her off."

(That's putting it mildly.)

Pearl stares at her, agape with disbelief. "Set her off? What are you talking about?!"

If Steven didn't know any better, he might say Volleyball's tone is that of fondness. "You remember how she was with her destructive powers, throwing tantrums left and right. She had a scream that could crack the walls. She didn't mean to hurt me..." she chuckles again, just as dismissive as before. "I just happened to be standing too close to her that time and—"

Anything else she says goes ignored, as Steven covers his ears. "Doesn't matter, I'm gonna fix it."

Pearl cuts her off. "Destructive powers? Pink didn't have destructive powers; she was a healer! She didn't throw tantrums—she kept her feelings secret!"

(Powerful Diamond.)

Volleyball almost sounds proud. "The Pink I knew couldn't keep a secret to save her gem."

Pearl balks, arms shaking with mounting vexation. "Are you kidding?! If anything, she was too good at keeping secrets, even from me!"

(Destructive, horrible Diamond.)

Something within Steven's core shifts. He groans, and a voice—a sound—that is his but not his own tumbles from his mouth. "S̷̢̪̭̲̦̻̟̊͌T̴͈̉͝O̵͕̞̗̞̻͓̓̾̉̅̚P̸̛̱̻̈́ ̸̧͇̓̔͊̇͒͠ͅḬ̴̠̟͕̈T̷̛͎̹͈̼̘̳͊̎̈̾!̶̧̧̰̣̪̗̦̕!̸̛͎̘̳̼͋̐̃̕!̵̭̻͗͑̚͝͠"

 

T̷̯h̵̲̔ē̶̪i̵̯̕r̵̢̐ world goes pink.

 

"I can't deal with one more h̴̠̰̜̬͋͜͜o̸̯̣̝͐́̂̈́̈͂͘͜ͅr̷̼͍̤̫̊r̶̲̾̑̀̈́̎͘í̶̡̙͉͇̤̟̚ͅb̸̨̻̠̝̙̯̖̆ļ̶̢̱͛e̵̡̬͓̋̑̋͘̕ thing ş̴̨͍̠̰͉̤͆̑ḥ̷̓̓̾̅̇͘̕̕ë̵̟́̃͂̓͠ did, okay?!" 

Pearl shirks back, eyes wide as she moves to stand in front of Volleyball. "Steven—"

"I don't want to h̴̟̓e̴̻̮̔̚ä̷̬̼̉r̸̤͇͐ about it!! I don't even want to thi̷̧̾n̸̬̐k̵̻͌ ̵̔͜ą̴͝b̵̤͠o̶̅͜u̶̦t̷̠̋ ̸͕̆i̵̛̫ţ̷̊!̴̹͐!̸̨̈"

 

 

"Į̸̛̳͒͑̈̅̚͝͠'̴̨̡̧̨̢̛͖̞̫̦̣͍̥̰̻̘̖͚̪̹̹̺͇̖͈͙͒̐͑͋̍̎̓̿̈̊̐̈́̚͘͜͝͝M̸̨̧͖̟̩̰̩͙̼͉̣̪͖̬̟͕̫͇͈̬͚̼̽̌̂̆̈́͆͜ ̴̡̣̩̝̣̼͇͎͎̪̗͍̫̜͕̥̋̉̈́̄͑̓͜͝Ṉ̵̛̗̄̑͗̾̉̋̄̽̌͗̌̇́̏̀̒͆̉̒͠Ǫ̸̢̢̪͚̠̜̺̪͔̰̥̪̩͔͚̗̲̦̠́̅͆̈́̿̈͂̃̈́̈̈͂̏̓͑̈͒̑̍̎̌̒͆͗͜͝͝͝T̴̖͋̀̌͂̈́͝͝ ̴̧̨̲̩̟͍̩͉̘̣͇͓̠̳̩̻̲͙̫̖̩̳͖̼̘̹̿̐̊͆͒̀̃̓̈́̀̿̓̀̈̎̏̀̋͌́̈́͠͠ͅͅḨ̶̡̨̩͉̺͓̼̬͉̥̣̳̼̮̯͇͇͖̟̭̮̠̜͋̾̿̆ͅE̴̡̛͉͓̮͎̱͎͔̫͈̘̳̗̙̻͖̭̯̰̘͕͕̎̄̆̿̆͗́̑̂̉͆̂͘̚͜͝͝͝ͅŘ̴̨͇̪̯̪̜̣̆̎̍̊́̓̆̽͆̓͆͗̋̑̅̊̓̎̂͝͝ ̶̘̲̝̝͖̱̣̑̇̂͐̓̌̋̈́͆̉̋͌̈́̏̏͊̆̿̊̋͘͘Ą̴̯̤̳̫̱͚̙̖̣͈̻̺̈́͋͛̈́̐͂̅̂̒͗̈́͂̋̍̂̈́̌̓̕͠͠͠N̵̙͐͂̄͗̃͋̋̆͑̾͑̔̀̓̀͂͠͝͝Ÿ̷̮͎̫͍̲̗̖̄̓͋͆͗̈́̊͐͆̎́̾͠͝͠M̸̺͈̪͐̑͐̑͛̏̆Ơ̴̬͇̤̤͈̺͙̳̬̪̯̗̬̹͍͖̤͉̲̻̫͙͎̼̍̿͂̋̿͂̾͂̍̎̈̓̿̒̈́͛̔͑͒̅̅̇͆͜͜͜͝R̷̢̧̙̳͕̲̹̜̮̪̤̯̰͔̻͔͚͇̬̲̖̆́̈͗̌̕͝͝ͅE̸̡̢̠̲̗̣̺͚͍̜̮̻̠̪̼̪̓̐͆͗͒̀͛̄̈́̂̈́̏͌̂̓͗̈́͂̊̏̕͝ͅ ̶̨̧̨̼̻͕̣͎͇̩̩̍̊̂͑̒̊̂̈̅͝ ̷̨̧̛̛̬̹͎̹̪̞͚̆̓̽̂̍̅̓̌̅͌͌͐̉́̌̑͒̽̚͘̕͝I̶̢̮̭̰̪̠̼̙͇̙̟͍̫͙͖̖͚̅͒̈́̐̓͒͊̽̈́̆̃̅̓̈́͊͊̍́̊͊̚̕͜͠͠ ̴̧͎̩̜̬̟̮͔̯̙͍̘̥͍̪̍͆́ͅJ̵̳̝̥̱̯͎̽̽̃̓̓͛̿̓͑̓̂͌̿͑̇̏̈́̈́̚͠͝͝͝U̶̧̧̧̡̨̻̫̜̲̬̲̹̮͒̒̎̉̊͂̽̋̐͗͜ͅͅͅS̴̨̨̗̗͓̖͉̰̼̤̦̞͚͉̜̰̤̊͋̔͊̚ͅͅͅŢ̸͈͍̻͎̦̹̥̮̙̭͚͆̌͂̇͊͐͝ ̷̢͉̝͕̯̝̝̪̻͇̬̾͂̈́̆̀̿̐̑̾͌̅̈́̋̌W̶̱̻͕͇͊̾͋̂̓͘A̵̳̳̞͛̏̂͒̄̾̍̔́̎͂̽̅̆͑̉̏̄̊͑͛̽̔̕Ň̵̡̧̤̗̲̀̋̎̽̂̀́̎͗͑͝Ţ̵̤̣͓̱̫͔̻̗̭͚̊̎ͅ ̵̢̛̛̣͙̩͎͈̜̼͈͐̑̈́̒͊̈́͊̈́̈́̇̓͛̓̎͑̃̃̿̅͝ͅT̸̛̺̬̺̩͚̤̬̹̠͔͌̊̇̄͗̇̇̔̄̀͂̽͑̓̾̔͂̋̃̓͊̕͠Ö̴̡̢̦̼̖̩̙̥̦͙̪̭̤͎͈͇̹̳̠́ ̷̡͙̪̤͚͈͖̳͙̞̻̞̙̲̱̒́͊͊̚F̷̧̨̲̲̙̫̻̝̰̈́͗̄̈́̅͂̑̎̚͜İ̵͖̻͖̋̒̑͛̒̏̒̄̊͆̅̐͘X̷̡̧̝͙͉̜̭̮̮̯͖̞̬̯͕͚͔̩̟̭̰̗̯͈̃̋͆̅̿̇̅͛̊́͝ͅ ̶̪̣̦̤̳̹͓͖̙̟̰̙̥͐̂̆̿̇̕͜͜ͅͅI̸̛̛̛̭͔̣͖̳̮̦̰̖̲̠̩̺̒̆̌͂͒̽̉̐̓̏̿̾̽̑͐̋͛̋̀̎̊̂̚̚͜͜ͅT̴̨̡̥͎̭̫̹͖̳̼̜̜͉̹̿̆͌̏́"

 

 

The pink shockwave that pulses from ţ̶͎̠͛̿͛̍̔h̴̝͒̐̈́͒̅e̴̛͖̜̠̟̿̆͘͝m̵̗̿ rocks the entire room. The ancient, glossy floor cracks and indents beneath ẗ̶̡̺͈̞̼́h̸̨̫̦͔̀̎͠e̷̮͌̃̉͜i̶̢̒̔r̴͎͎͌̾̓̉̋ feet, but t̸̮̐̈́ḥ̷͙̥͕͘e̸͍̱̝̿̓̐y̴̠̫͔͕̤̅̎̔̍ remain floating just above the crater. More and more bits of old architecture split from the force of the impact, the damage racing outward and up the walls. T̷̙͎̆ḧ̷̹̲̖e̵̖͙̺̍̊ȳ̵̗̭ seethe and gulp in labored breaths, before ẗ̶̡̺͈̞̼́h̸̨̫̦͔̀̎͠e̷̮͌̃̉͜i̶̢̒̔r̴͎͎͌̾̓̉̋ eyes catch sight of ẗ̶̡̺͈̞̼́h̸̨̫̦͔̀̎͠e̷̮͌̃̉͜i̶̢̒̔r̴͎͎͌̾̓̉̋ reflection in the shattered floor.

Steven blinks at the image of his gritted teeth, pink aura, and diamond eyes. An inaudible shudder jolts through him as he covers his mouth with his hands. He looks back up toward Pearl and Volleyball, and the aura dissipates within an instant. His guardian bares such a haunted expression, as she blocks Volleyball's cowering, trembling form.

(Magenta falls to his knees.)

Alarms suddenly blare to life, and the room bleeds with harsh, scarlet light.

Shell's cold voice chimes over the speakers. "I am terribly sorry for the troubles these defective Pearls have brought you. For Pearls exhibiting problems this severe, rejuvenation is required."

Steven's heart skips a beat. "W-What?!"

A pair of oyster shells emerge from the floor, so quick and ruthless that neither of the pearls or Steven have any chance to react. They clamp above the two gems, entrapping them on the pad.

"When the process is complete, they will obey you without fail."

Steven takes off at a sprint toward the oyster. "NO! No, no, no! Shell—Shell, stop!"

(What has he done...?)

He pounds on the oyster prison, but nothing budges. He barely even leaves any hint of a scrape.

Shell's voice somehow sounds even colder, now. "Do not worry, Steven Universe. Your Pearls are about to be better than new. Feel free to watch their progress on the view screen."

He doesn't want to watch, why would he want to watch?! Panic rising in his chest, Steven grabs at the seam of the two shells and tries to find purchase. His fingertips snag at the thin seam, but slip when he attempts to pull the shells apart. A loud hum sparks to life, and both pearls yelp in agony. He doesn't dare look at the screen above. Tears build in the corners of his eyes as he tries to pry the shells open. The pearls cry out again. His breath hiccups on the third failed attempt to free them.

He slams a fist into one of the shells, voice cracking as he screams for his guardian. "Pearl! PEARL!! There—there has to be something I–I can...!"

(He may as well have shattered them both with his own hands.)

A ragged sob slips out as Steven's legs wobble and buckle underneath him. He slides to the floor, unable to contain his tears. His chest feels so tight. He can barely breathe. "Maggie, help me—"

(This is his fault.)

The hum of the rejuvenation process fills the room as Shell broadcasts the oyster's interior. Volleyball's voice just barely manages to reach his ears. "I was badly hurt... how did you stop hurting?"

There's a pause, before Pearl answers. "I didn't."

A glimmering sound snaps Steven to his senses. He looks up at the viewscreen, just before it glitches away, catching sight of the familiar light of fusion. His eyes widen and he scrambles to his feet, backing away as the oyster glows and begins to crack. It shatters with an almighty burst, and a glowing figure stands to her full height.

The glow subsides as the fusion stabilizes, revealing a giant pearl with a proud and confident stance, and royal, princely attire—complete with a flowing cape, a sash, and a shiny tiara. Cracks still lie where her other eye should be.

(Isolating himself on the beach isn't enough.)

Steven exhales with shaky relief, a smile on his face. "You fused!"

Alarms blare overhead, and Shell's core brightens. "Warning: Unauthorized entity found within the facility. Defense protocol activated."

Diamond-shaped bits that seemed like simple decoration launch from the walls, showing their true nature as tendrils with wicked claws as they strike out toward the new fusion. In a flash, the lines slice apart, Steven unable to follow the fusion's split-second movement. Her ribbon wand swirls as the exit doors close. She leaps forward and gently picks up Steven, before she cuts through the obstacle.

Sharp lasers fill the boutique hallway as she emerges from the Care Center, but the pearl-fusion dodges away from them with ease. She maneuvers around each beam with careful grace, somersaulting and leaping as need be, but ever watchful of Steven's position in her hand. She lands on the other side, eye on the prize at the other end of the hall.

Almost there.

As a last ditch effort, a series of oyster shells slam out from different sections of the wall, forming layer after layer of defense to block their path. The fusion surges forward, but jerks to a stop when a group of tendril-claws snare around her legs and waist.

She looks down at the wide-eyed teen, ever calm. "It's up to you now, Steven."

With her free hand, the fusion rears back her wand, the ribbon twisting to form a drill-like cone, before she hurls it at the shells. It pierces through the shell-defense, creating a decently Steven-sized hole.

Wait, Steven-sized—?

His blood ices over as she lifts him over her head. The fusion chucks him forward, sending him careening through the new openings. Thinking fast, he summons his shield just before the ribbon-drill breaks through the last shell, and tucks his shield under his feet. He lands with a thud, but angles and slides across the pristine floor, making a wide beeline for the hand pedestal in the center of the room.

One swipe across the magical console, and the Reef shuts down.

Steven collapses by the pedestal, trembling and adrenaline still pumping. He looks up as the shells retract from the hallway. The pearl fusion lies at the threshold, a tired smile on her face as she meets his gaze.

 

X

 

Maggie ignores the cloud of memories as they dog his heels and dive at his head. He storms past the mailbox, past the temple, and past the Big Donut. He stops at the corner, shoulders shaking. With hesitant steps, he walks up the road, and toward the hill overlooking the temple.

Instead of the lighthouse, a light pink spire sits at the top. Rose vines clutch the structure, ensnaring it in a thorny tangle.

His stomach turns at the sight, but he trudges up the hill. His shadow of butterflies falter, many of them stopping dead at the start of the hill. A few stragglers flit and follow, but not for long. Magenta finds himself alone, by the time he reaches the tower's base.

The climb hurts. The thorns prick and jab into his hardlight skin—they snare at his clothes and threaten to rip them apart. But Magenta keeps climbing. He scales the tower up to the small window, and falls through it. He doesn't bother to look around at the empty, sparkling pink room.

He slides up to the nearest wall, and props himself against it.

(This is better. This is safer for everyone.)

Chapter Text

Pearl quickly realizes that there is no easy way to bring up the topic of what happened at the Reef.

She heard Steven's old ukulele and his new acoustic guitar, when he... turned pink. But they were screeching and painful chords, full of anguish and discord. She also heard the pulse of something... larger. Crashing waves, thousands of pounding wingbeats, and something like a low, drawn out synthesizer note. Just thinking about the former sound makes her breathless and shaky and unsure of why it sounded familiar-but-not.

Pearl paces and contemplates how—if—she'll bring it up, all day.

(Should she ask him about this new ability, or about how he's been?)

Throughout her classes, she remains focused on teaching the healed-gems about human things, but her mind keeps straying. When Little Homeschool closes for the day, she falls into rearranging her sword collection in reverse alphabetical order and right around again. She cleans the entire beach house—interior and exterior—before she finally settles on just ripping off the proverbial bandaid.

She had to actually do that once or twice, when Steven was very little. She can easily recall Three-Year-Old-Steven with a now healed scrape on his knee and tears in his eyes, as he refuses to pull off the cookie-cat-patterned bandage because of how the adhesive painfully tugs at his skin.

 

"I'll just leave it. It-It'll make me look cool!"

"Steven, your injury has healed. While you could therotheticly wait for the adhesive to expire and for the bandage to simply fall off on its own, there's really no need to prolong the matter. Trying to slowly peel it off will hurt for longer, but If you tear it off very quickly, it won't hurt as much."

"A-As much?!"

"Oh dear."

 

She has more experience, now. But convincing little Steven to let her take off a real bandaid sounds so much easier than... this.

So the gem breathes in, and enters the beach house. Steven lounges on the couch, alone, staring at his phone. He glances up at the creak of the screen door, and he gives her a weak smile. Pearl smiles back and approaches, her nerves skyrocketing. "Mind if I sit?" she asks.

He responds by straightening up, before patting the space next to him. Her smile grows warmer as she sets herself down, and he goes back to his phone's screen. Pearl just sits next him, eyes on the coffee table while her mind races.

What if he just wants to forget about it, and put it behind him? Is he unaware of what happened? Her lips purse into a thin line. She hasn't even thought about what she'll say. Will he simply deflect, or be curious? Should she ask if he remembers his outburst at all? Should she ask if he even knows about—?

(Breathe, Pearl.)

The gem takes in a steadying breath. "You spoke in gemsong, yesterday."

Steven blinks, looking up from his phone. "I-I—what? Gemsong? What's that?"

"It's sort of a lost language," Pearl admits with a hand-gesture. "It's a gem's rawest form of communication—how we spoke before we learned to speak."

That's a little abstract, but it's all she's got. Human offspring's babbling comes to mind for a decent comparison, but that's not quite right. Babies go through a process of learning how to speak, they don't just know. She digs and searches for other metaphors or similes, but nothing clicks.

Steven sets his phone aside, his attention now solely on her. "Can you still speak it?"

She glances off, eyes back on the coffee table. "Technically, yes—but I'm very rusty. It fell out of circulation sometime during Era-Two, so I've not had any reason to use it. Nobody has, really."

"How come...?"

Pearl's upper lip twitches, and her expression hardens. "There aren't any records of why, but... I think it might have something to do with the fact that singing, and anything song-related, became considered..." her hands tighten into fists. "Strictly for pearls."

Steven puts a hand on her arm, ever concerned. Pearl glances over at him and forces a light smile as she puts her hand overtop his. He doesn't buy it for a second, and wraps his arms around her in a fierce—but always gentle—embrace. She holds back a laugh. How does he always manage to turn things around and make it all about anyone else but himself?

Steven's voice is so quiet. "Did you... understand what I said?"

(Every word. Every single word.)

"Afraid not. Like I said, it's been eons since I heard gemsong. I'm very rusty."

 

X

 

Maggie's half-lidded gaze snaps upward. Blue Diamond stands before him, tall and disappointed.

(Maybe if he ignores the image, it'll go away.)

She frowns at him, like she always does. "You made Yellow very angry..." the distress in her voice makes his hackles rise. "Please tell me you'll apologize to her soon...?"

Magenta just sneers at her, upper lip twitching as he pulls his legs in closer to his chest. He's not apologizing to some figment of Pink's left-over memories.

Blue's eyes harden. "So you're just going to sit here and sulk?"

Maggie hunkers further in on himself, still glaring up at the Diamond with daggerous intent. Why won't she just leave him alone?

The diamond gives a harsh scoff. "Why do you always have to be like this? Is it really so difficult to just apologize to her, Pink?"

That word makes him flinch as if struck, and Maggie's rage reaches an early boiling point. He puffs out a tense hiss, fingers gripping his arms and digging into his hardlight flesh. He mumbles that he's not Pink, just as tears stream down Blue's face.

"You know how much I hate to see you fight with her!" Blue's aura streams off her in waves, and Maggie's eyes water. "You know how it makes me feel!"

"No I don't," Maggie says with a growl. "I'm not her."

(But he's so very much like her.)

"You're always so inconsiderate, Pink!"

"I'm not Pink!"

A shockwave pulses from him, cracking the floor and the walls.

 

X

 

Pearl glances up from her notepad, very suddenly and very acutely aware of just how quiet the beach house is.

(It was never this quiet a few years ago.)

Amethyst sits on the seats by the windows, and fidgets as she sips a can of strawberry soda. Pearl perks up instantly. Amethyst never sips her drinks, unless something is wrong or she's deep in thought.

"Everything alright?" Pearl asks, still sorting through her notes for an upcoming class.

Amethyst doesn't answer. She doesn't look up or acknowledge that Pearl is even there. She just stares out the window and beyond the beach, somewhere else entirely. Something must be wrong and she's in deep thought about it.

Pearl tries again, a bit louder. "Amethyst."

The purple gem yelps and jolts, whirling around with her attention now on Pearl. She settles down a second later and frowns. "Sorry, sorry—I'm here."

Yeah, that's not a good sign. "You didn't seem like it," Pearl replies. "Is everything alright?"

Amethyst looks down at her soda and grimaces. "Uh... I dunno. It's not me though, I don't think."

Pearl's expression worries in confusion as she stands up. "Amethyst, you're-you're not making muc—"

"Has Steven been acting, like, weird?"

Pearl blinks. He's been quieter. Jumpier. More apologetic. "In what way?"

Amethyst bites her lip and glances off. "Has he... been the color pink, recently?"

Everything comes to a halt, and Pearl resists the too-strong urge to flinch. His outburst at the reef, that aura he emanated while he spoke gemsong... that wasn't a fluke? Recalling Volleyball's rose-flavored revelation—"She had a scream that could crack the walls."—makes her want to squirm. Amethyst must see it on her face, because she grimaces again.

There's a hint of relief in Amethyst's eyes. "So I'm not going crazy."

"It seems to be some new ability he's unearthed. One of Pink's... old habits," Pearl explains, regretting her choice of words the instant they leave her mouth.

Amethyst gives her a funny look. "The ability to like... scare the crud out'a fusion components with a pink version of herself? She could do that? I saw a pink-colored Steven the last time Smoky was on the scene, but Steb didn't say anything about 'im. I just figured I imagined it."

"Yes, the—" wait, what? Pearl shakes her head and runs through Amethyst's sentence again. "What? No, no—the... you saw a pink copy of Steven, in Smoky's component-space?"

"Didn't know it was called that, but, yeah," Amethyst replies, just before she downs her soda.

(At least one of them is feeling a bit more calm.)

Panic bubbles up Pearl's mind as she flings her arms out. "When we went off-world a few days ago, Steven turned pink—physically! He spoke in gemsong!"

"Whoa, what? I don't talk in song-babble anymore—I haven't for like, ages—so where'd he pick it up?"

"I don't know!"

Amethyst puts a hand to her chin, gaze trailing upward in thought. "He must be like, hella stressed. Little Homeschool might be gettin' to him."

Pearl grits her teeth. Should she really voice her true concerns? "I don't entirely think—"

"YO, we should do somethin' for him! Oh, what if we like, packed a bag for him, and fixed him lunch? We could set up a movie-and-pizza-night, for when we get home from Little H.S."

Pearl hesitates, but nods a moment after. Small things tend to make others feel special, like remembering someone's favorite song or something they enjoy doing. "That... might actually help him feel a bit better. Good idea, Amethyst."

Amethyst grins at her. "I have my moments. We should probably get Garnet in on this."

 

X

 

"You made Yellow very angry..."

Magenta glares upward, still seething with gritted teeth. The walls are whole again. Did the memory... reset?

"Please tell me you'll apologize to her soon...?" Blue asks, pitiful and gloomy.

He growls, low and guttral. "I have nothing to apologize for—I'm not her!"

Blue's eyes harden. "So you're not done with your tantrum?"

Maggie's eyes roll back and he grips at his hair. This is ridiculous—can't he just be isolated in peace?

 

X

 

The whole plan fizzles out like a wet firecracker as Steven heads upstairs and shuts his door.

(They most certainly are not in the "pepperoni timeline," as Garnet had speculated.)

Pearl glances over to the fusion as Amethyst tosses the DVD of Pupcopter over her shoulder. Garnet hands the box of rejected pizza to the smaller gem, who flips open the lid and begins to munch on a slice.

Amethyst flops down on the couch with a dejected grumble. "Well, that was a bust."

The pale gem inhales, a tense sense of failure weighing on her mind. "We could... we could try something else, tomorrow morning. Maybe we could fix him one of his favorite foods! Like his, uh... oh what did he call that cacophony of pan-prepared cakes, whipped cream, strawberries, and popped corn?"

"Together Breakfast," Amethyst says. "And you forgot the maple syrup."

Pearl beams and clasps her hands together. "Yes, that! We'll fix him a Together Breakfast!"

Garnet adjusts her glasses, cool as ever. "I dunno... this isn't the pepperoni timeline. He might not—"

"Garnet, it should be fine," Amethyst says with a hand wave. "There's no meat in a Together Breakfast."

Pearl doesn't say anything, but she does glance up toward Steven's room. Maybe all this is just going to make things worse? Well... the worst he can do is just reject their offerings again, and that won't be so bad. Amethyst can just eat whatever he doesn't want.

She refuses to think about the actual worst thing that could happen.

 

X

 

"You made Yellow very angry... please tell me you'll apologize to her soon...?"

Maggie claws at the floor and grinds his teeth. How many times is this going to happen? Why can't her stupid stray memories just leave him alone?

Blue's eyes harden. "So you're just going to sit here and sulk?"

Oh not this again—

 

X

 

It snows that night.

It snows a lot that night.

Pearl waits by the kitchen counter all night, watching the fine powder come down in buckets. She checks the time every hour, and whips up Steven's sugar-loaded disaster-food just a half hour before his alarm goes off. She sets down the last piece of popped corn before he comes rushing down the stairs.

She looks up as he stumbles toward the cabinet for his protein shake powder. "Steven, look—I fixed one of your Together Breakfasts! I thought you might enjoy a little blast from the past."

He fumbles with the blender lid, hardly giving her a first glance. "Too much sugar for me, but thanks."

Her smile deflates within an instant. The slender gem side eyes the plate of pancakes and strawberries and popped corn, and it takes all her willpower to not slide the whole thing into the garbage right then and there. It was a stupid idea, anyway...

Garnet speaks up just as Steven heads for the front door. "Steven, I wouldn't do that if I were you—"

A great WHUMP makes Pearl jump and turn around in time to see Steven crawl out from under an avalanche of snow in the open doorway. Amethyst snorts and laughs at the sight, but Pearl's gut tightens at the disheveled, exasperated look on the teen's face.

Steven shakes his head and takes a calming breath. "Looks like we have to cancel Little Homeschool for the day..." he fixes his gaze on the pale gem. "Pearl, can you send out a mass text?"

She nods and summons her cellular phone from her gem. "On it."

Amethyst perks up, eyes wide. "Hold up! Are you saying we have the day off?"

Pearl's attention jerks upward and away from her unfinished text, a grin already spreading across her face. Free time... they haven't had that in a while! She could rearrange the kitchen, or read several novels with a day off. Come to think of it, Steven hasn't been reading very much—probably because of Little Homeschool. Oh, what was his favorite books again? Something about homeless young adults. "Oh, oh, Steven! We could re-read the No Home Boys with all this free time!"

"And I'll do all the voices," Garnet chimes in.

"No, no, I—I don't need you to read to me," Steven states with a shake of his head. He trudges over to the couch and pulls his phone from his pocket. "I-if anything, I need to sit down with the calendar. Snow-pocalyse is going to affect the third-quarter schedule."

Third-quarter schedule? Since when did her little Steven worry about schedules? Pearl squints and tilts her head, but she returns to typing out her text to the students.

Amethyst gives a disgruntled huff. "Man, you had a better work-life balance when the Diamonds were trying to destroy the planet."

"That was then. This is now," Steven says.

Pearl really doesn't like the firm, almost authoritative tone in his voice. It's... not like him. Amethyst gripes again, but whatever she says goes over Pearl's head. The pale gem wanders upstairs as she works to finish her text. Some commotion back in the living room makes her pause, but she perks at the sound of a small influx of incoming texts.

She smiles at snippets of remorseful understanding and kinds words, many gem-students agreeing that their teachers deserve a day off. She sends a quick reply to a few, before storing her phone back in her gem. Now to find the snow shovel...

After a brief search in Steven's closet, Pearl gets to work on creating a path up to the temple's hand. They at least need to be able to do laundry, for goodness sake! She makes it to the warp pad after clearing off the hand, and teleports back inside.

(All work and no play isn't what one does on their day off, after all!)

But she's greeted with an odd sight, when she sets back into the beach house. Steven, once calm and concentrated, comes tumbling down the stairs in a flurry. She blinks and raises an eyebrow. "Steven, what are you doing?"

His wide, wild eyes meet hers, and relief radiates from him. "Pearl, thank the stars!"

She can't help but smirk. "Has cabin fever taken hold already?"

Steven groans and bends over, gripping his knees as he catches his breath. "It's Amethyst and Garnet. They're playing Steven Tag to mess with me."

Pearl's eyes alight as memories rush back. "Steven Tag? Oh, wow—that takes me way back..." 

(Back to all those times she never participated, and just watched as Amethyst and Garnet had fun with their little Steven.) 

She brushes off the nostalgia with a hand-wave. "Well, I'm sure they—"

A small, chubby hand smacks the middle of her back. The shock of it makes her jolt, but something almost primal knows what that little hand means. Where disgust and trauma once lay, a new feeling rises. Something playful and cheeky. She keels over, dramatic as she fights the compulsion—oh, the compulsion!

Steven barks out a hearty, smug laugh. "Jokes on you! Pearl doesn't shapeshift!"

Correction: she didn't use to shapeshift.

Today, that changes.

In a bright light, that compulsion and playfulness blossoms into a tangible shape. Young, eager eyed Steven, with his pink star-shirt and love for brand-ice cream. Pearl strikes a pose as the process completes, and gives Steven a tryupaint grin. "The power of Steven Tag compels me!"

Amethyst and Garnet squeal and rush in to embrace her. Pearl laughs as the two hosts her up and cheer. What was once a dreaded and forbidden act, now becomes something of joy. But mischievousness takes hold, and all three zero in on their target.

Steven tenses and prepares to flee.

Antics ensue as they chase him about the house, the teen throwing every trick he knows at them. One thing leads to another, and they're soon outside, chasing him as fusions. Both Opal and Sardonyx experiences that giddy rush of excitement as each holds the form of Young Steven, and even Alexandrite and Sugilite get in on the fun. But everything comes to a head as Steven finally, officially, joins their game.

Things look bleak as Alexandrite tries and fails to catch the wiley teen, even as she races up the lighthouse and unfuses in an attempt to bombard him.

Of course, Sapphire tags him in the end. The teen falls into the snow on the hill with a wump of defeat.

Pearl shifts back to normal as Ruby and Sapphire re-fuse. She walks up to the teen as he lies in the snowbank, Amethyst prancing around him. The pale gem leans over him as he rolls over onto his back. "Have fun?"

Steven looks up at her with a weak smile. There's something in his eyes that she can't quite read. "... Yeah. I actually did."

Chapter Text

Steven doesn't bother to check the time, as it's no doubt some unholy hour of way-too-early in the morning.

The teen grimaces and rolls onto his side. He wraps his arms around himself and draws his legs up to his stomach. He was doing so good with the Rose Quartzes. He made friends with three of them. He found kindred gems. Gems who'd been left behind to carry her image and legacy, when they had no say in it.

He squeezes his eyes shut, trying not to cry.

Lapis had done all the heavy lifting dealing with those rogue lazuli, but he'd kind of helped with that. The whole Bluebird episode was a bit of a mess, but that had gotten sorted out—In a sort of way. Kind of.

But tonight...

He could've just patted SC, Jenny, and Buck on the backs and congratulated them for chasing new careers. He could've given Sadie and Shep a wink and finger guns. He could've said he was glad that Lars found his calling in space.

Instead, he almost got them all—

Steven grips his arm harder and grits his teeth. Stupid, stupid, stupid... he could've done so many things differently tonight, but he just had to be selfish! He made such a fool of himself, today... why does it seem like every time he gets better, things just come crashing back down?

He really needs a constructive hobby. Something he can do on his own time, but not so lax that he'll give it up within a day. Something that can keep him occupied while his friends move on with their lives.

The teen sits bolt upright as an idea slams through his mind. "Plants! Of course!" he laughs a little, delirious as exhaustion drags him back down by the shoulders. "I'll garden... I'll grow plants and flowers..." Steven reaches over for his phone after he sprawls onto his pillow. He pulls up his internet browser and desperately attempts to type in 'How to start an indoor garden,' before he blacks out.

When he awakens, he finds his phone stuck to the side of his face, and 'Hocbh to sttgb anindo or gztrn' in his search history.

 

X

 

Magenta stares down at his new set of clothes. The star-shirt still shines through the odd getup, covering his gem. The frills and puffy shorts and gravity-defying slippers make him want to hurl, but his non-existing guts don't have anything to throw up.

An image of Yellow opens the door and steps in. Maggie sneers up at her, but something makes him curl into himself like a cornered animal. Dread crackles under his skin as the stark golden image fixes him with a steady glare.

(What is it about her that scares him?)

"Your actions made Blue throw another sobbing fit," Yellow says, authoritative and harsh. "You are to stop these childish outbursts at once, Pink."

(No, no... "fear" isn't quite the right word.)

Not again. How much more of this does he have to go through? He doesn't growl, but he keeps his tone edged. "I'm not her."

Yellow's image scowls down at him, stern as always. "I'm not playing your stupid games, Pink. Either get your act together, or stay here without your pearl."

Frustration bubbles up in his core, but that crackling dread overwhelms any anger in his voice. "I'm not her."

The much taller diamond narrows her eyes. Within a blink, the image of Yellow pulls one hand from behind her back, and a bolt of golden lightning arcs down and strikes Magenta. It rocks his entire being, his own image convulsing and trying to remain whole. A pink shockwave pulses from his core and knocks Yellow off balance, but she pushes back.

He isn't sure when the power struggle ends. He isn't even sure who wins.

 

X

 

It takes a day or two, but the conservatory is soon filled will pots and seedlings and sprouts. If Steven's going to do this, he might as well do it the usual way. No magic spit. Just his own hands. He asks Connie for a few books on gardening, which she supplies almost immediately—and he's not sure if he's impressed, or if he's really just that predictable.

Days and weeks go by, and he spends most of his time in the crystal-domed greenhouse. He watches tiny sprouts grow into tall stalks of bushes and blossoms. His garden explodes with life as he keep tending to his perennials and forget-me-nots and singular bluebell.

Steven stares at a potted oleander for a long moment. When did he even get that one? He slides it behind one of the hibiscus bushes with some hesitance. "I think I'll name you Magie. But we'll keep that between us, okay?"

And he keeps naming his flowers. He doesn't totally mean to, at first. It's just something silly. A bluebell becomes Conner, his forget-me-nots are hence forth known as Laura, and his perennials are christened 'Daisy Clover and the Shrub-spects.' Maybe the last one is a little on the nose, though...

The Gems don't seem terribly impressed with his collection, whenever they come to check on him.

"How much magic spit did it take to grow all these plants?" Amethyst asks.

"I grew these the old-fashioned way," he replies.

Garnet says something cryptic about his cactus one morning, completely unprompted, when he doesn't even remember buying a cactus. Yet, low and behold, a pathetic and splotchy little cactus sits on the table in his greenhouse-conservatory. He transfers a cutting of it to a different pot and pricks his finger, but he doesn't think much of it.

 

X

 

"Your actions made Blue throw another sobbing fit," the image of Yellow says. "You are to stop these childish outbursts at once, Pink."

Magenta grips his star-shirt with one hand, grounding himself.

(He's not ready to roll over yet.)

Yellow's eyes narrow with impatience. "Well?"

He turns away, defiant and silent. The room remains quiet. His hardlight skin begins to crawl, but not from the noiseless torture. Yellow's aura crackles and burns nearby, and his own reacts almost without his say.

"Answer me, Pink."

(But he will be soon.)

 

X

 

The next day, the cactus grumbles at Steven when he comes through the door of his greenhouse. He jolts and races over to the much healthier and Steveny looking plant. The little cactus growls happily at him, mumbling and fussing.

"Well hey there, little guy!" Steven grins as he picks up his newest creation. "Aw, you're such a cutie-pie... I think the Gems are really gonna love you."

He makes his way into the beach house, a spring in his step as he holds the cactus aloft. He spies his guardians on the couch, playing cards strewn about the coffee table. Garnet looks up just as he clears his throat.

Steven presents the plant, front and center, as Amethyst and Pearl glance his way. "Look what I made!"

Pearl breaks into a delighted smile at the sight of the very Steveny-looking cactus. "Oh, what a precious little thing!"

"That cactus really bounced back," Garnet says, as if she didn't already know it would.

Amethyst eyes the plant with suspicion. "I thought you weren't using spit on your plants?"

Steven shakes his head. "That's just it, I'm really not! I guess I accidentally got some on this piece of cactus I was trying to plant, though. I found him just now."

Amethyst squints, unconvinced. "Still... t's sus. But I like his lumpy head. Are ya gonna name 'im?"

He ponders for a moment, holding the grumbling cactus a little closer to his protective apron. "Well... I guess I kinda have to."

Amethyst instantly pipes up, a grin on her face. "OH, oh! How about Cactus Steven?"

Steven turns the little cactus so he can get a better look at its face, and sure enough, it bares a striking resemblance. Lumpy head and all. "Cactus Steven, huh? Call me conceited, but, I like it!"

Pearl gives him an amused smirk, but her eyes wander toward the cactus again as it grumbles louder. "Is he alright?"

"Oh, uh—I guess he just needs some sun. I think I could use some, too."

 

Steven keeps his mini-Steb cactus with him throughout the rest of the day, tucked into his apron's pocket. Sometime after three or four o'clock, Steven brings him out onto the beach, and they sit in the sand for a while.

A while turns into hours, and Steven blinks at the colorful sunset on the horizon. He frowns and draws a leg up to his chest.

He doesn't truly mean to say anything out loud. It just happens. "I'm honestly really glad this beach never changes... I'm trying to be cool about all this change, but it—it feels weird," he hugs his leg and rests his cheek against his knee. "Everyone's moving on, a-and I should be too. I gave up running a school but... now I don't know what comes next. Y'know?"

The cactus stays quiet, but his little face scrunches up into a hard to read expression.

And Steven keeps rambling. The words flow, not unlike lyrics when he's in the throws of creativity—when he was in the throws of creativity—and he can't stop them. "It's probably better that I'm not running the school anymore. Like, who am I to decide what's best for all those Gem students? They're way better off learning from Garnet, Amethyst, and Pearl—actual gems. Like, I used to sort of know what I was doing, but now—now I'm just kinda... floating. Stuck in limbo. I don't... really know what to do with myself, now that the galaxy, or even the school, doesn't need my help. The gems are fine running the school on their own, so, they never really needed me in the first place... ugh... why do I feel like I need to be needed?"

There is one person who he could help, but... can he even talk to Maggie, anymore?

Steven takes a deep breath and closes his eyes.

The waves on his beach sound eerily similar to the real thing. He might've been fooled into thinking that he isn't actually meditating, if not for the differing hues of the sand, water, and sky. The teen surveys the empty pink beach. A knot forms in his stomach. Where did all the butterflies go?

Where did Magenta go...?

Something compels him to look toward the hill, but Steven can't drag his gaze toward it. He knows there should be a lighthouse at the top, but there isn't, and he replaced it with something he swore to never look at. A chill races up his spine, and he shudders in the real world.

He opens his eyes again and blinks a few times. Warm blue water and a sunset sky lies before him, real and tangible. Steven looks back over toward the cactus and frowns. "S-Sorry little guy... I didn't mean to dump all this on you. You don't deserve to hear me complaining."

The cactus mumbles at him, so Steven scoops him up and heads back to the greenhouse.

 

X

 

"Your actions made Blue throw another sobbing fit. You are to stop these childish outbursts at once, Pink."

"Stop it. Stop calling me that!"

"I'm not playing your stupid games, Pink."

"I'm not her, I'm not her—stop calling me Pink!"

"Your actions made Blue throw another sobbing fit."

"STOP IT!"

"Your actions made Blue throw another sobbing fit."

"STOP—"

"Your actions—"

"Please, just ś̴͔̣̹̩̿͘͘t̵̩͔͇̓ǫ̶͇͈̠͛p̶̨̨̬̈́͋̀͝—"

"—These childish outbursts—"

"I can̴͉̝̔'̵̟̂t̶̺̟͂̎ ̷̰̃d̷͔̻̾o̷̺̾̈́ ̶͇̾̃ͅt̵̥̕ḩ̶̣͆̉i̸͓̅͊s a̷̢͖̣̽̂͜n̵̡̟̗͖̣̐̓y̵̡̖͇̹̓̉͗͝m̴̟̾͛̋̍o̶̧̫̟̯͑ŗ̶̢̩͉̱̑̈́́̐̕ĕ̸̦̑—"

"—Childish outbursts at once, Pink."

 

"Pink."

 

"PINK."

 

"PINK."

 

"Ȋ̶̦͕̗͎͚́͘'̶̲͚̻̮̜̻̃Ṃ̸̡̙̺͉͐̚͜ ̶̡̭̙̦͕̥͚̻̌̄̋̏N̷̙͓̿O̶̫̙̰̠͛͐̑T̸̖̝̖̼̭̜͑̎̌͜͝ ̶̦̼̫̬̂͊̀̏̈̈̚P̵̢̜̫͌̀͐Ī̶̠̗̤̞̞̦̼̑̑͆́̈͂N̸̛̞̼͍͓̄̔͠K̴̡̯͇̬̪̗̬͉̽͌̓̚ ̴̝͇̤͉͇̖̮̖̇͒̿̆̕D̴̮̖̊̇I̷̡̢̡̦̟̖̠̞͐Á̵̢̯̝̰͒̌̿̾̚M̶͇̓̀̈́̀̎̊̏͒O̴̢͝N̸͎̐͆̀̽̐̆̑D̶̡̗̫͙́̅̓̄̑̂̚!̶̹̃̊͑͘͠!̴̨̢͓̣̳͈́͝"

 

"Either get your act together, or stay here without your pearl!"

 

X

 

Steven awakens earlier than usual, and in a cold sweat. Weird afterimages that he can barely grasp play in his mind. Something about Yellow Diamond... but she looked a lot like a giraffe? He grimaces at the new mental image and throws off his cover.

Once he's dressed, he ascends back into the greenhouse with a forced pep in his step.

"Good morning Jennifer! Good morning, CJ. And a special good morning to—" he stumbles through a giant bush, leafs and petals obscuring his vision for a second. Steven shakes it off and sets down next to the table. He jolts, as the once mini-Steb cactus looks a lot like Actual Steven. Sleep-lines and all. He suppresses a grimace and just chuckles instead. "To you, Cactus Steven... wow, you've really sprouted up overnight!"

The cactus grumbles happily and bounces in place. "Goof mofning to you!"

Steven's eyes grow wide. He stares at the cheerful plant for a long moment, processing. "... Did... did you just speak?"

"Woow, you've weally spwouted up overnight!" the cactus says, grumbly and growly.

This definitely is a step up from the Watermelon-Stevens. Sure, they built a whole village on mask island, but they can't speak english! Or at least parrot it. Steven grins and scoops up the plant. "The gems are gonna love you, little guy."

Down the stairs he goes and into the beach house. The gems busy about the kitchen and the living room, Pearl writing in a calendar and Amethyst mixing together some concoction on the stove. Garnet looks up from her puzzle before he even addresses the group, which prompts the pale gem to look up as well.

Pearl smiles at him and the plant. "Oh, hello Steven! Hello to Cactus Steven, as well."

"Hey Pearl!" Steven holds out his mini-self with a grin. "You've gotta hear this."

"Hey Pearl!" the cactus grumbles cheerily.

All three gems gasp in delight, Pearl's eyes alighting with awe. 

Amethyst squeals and bounds over. "Oh that's so cute! When did he start talking?"

"Just this morning," Steven replies. "I think he's learning to speak by copying me."

"So cute," Cactus-Steven gurggles.

Pearl beams and clasps her hands together. "That's wonderful!"

"He's certainly quite the talker," Garnet says with a nod.

"And he said my name, first."

Amethyst rolls her eyes. "Yeah, yeah, yuck it up."

Steven chuckles as he watches Pearl and Amethyst squabble for a moment, before he looks down to the cactus. It bounces in place a few times, before speaking. "I'm honestly weally glad th' beach newver changes. I'm twyna be cool about all teh change, but it feels weiwd!"

Uh oh.

The teen's blood ices over with awkward panic. He forces a grin and a laugh. "Oohh my gosh..."

Amethyst gives him a weird, yet concerned look. "Dude, your cactus seems really down on himself, all of a sudden. You give 'im too much sun yesterday?"

"Amethyst, you can't give a cactus too much sun," Pearl interjects.

The cactus keeps talking. "Sowwy to dump this on you—"

Steven tries to cover the very talkative plant's mouth, but that goes awry when those needles stick into his hand and cause him to pull away with a yelp.

"I don't weally know what to do witf myself!" the cactus cries.

Pearl looks toward him, and he really wishes a hole or a portal or something would open up beneath his feet. She frowns at him, soft and worried, but something else lies behind her eyes. "Steven, are you okay?"

Mental images of the reef come back to him and he can't do this, he can't tell them, not like this, never like this. "Uh, yeah, perfectly fine!" he says with a quick nod. Before any of them can stop him, he zips up the stairs as the cactus wails "Why do I need to be needed?" over and over again.

This has really gotten out of hand.

Steven locks the conservatory's doors behind him and plops the cactus down on the table. He stands back in a huff, throwing his arms out to the side. "What was that?! Why the heck did you say that stuff, huh?"

The cactus glares at him and snaps back. "Why'd you say dat stuff, huuh?!"

At this point, the little shrub just has to be mocking him. Steven balls his fists, his cheeks flushing with sparkling pink. "Because I—I felt like I could kind of relax around you! That I could let my guard down for one, tiny second, because you're—well, you're a plant! You're supposed to be able to tell plants anything! I can't tell Pearl what's actually going on with all this—all this pink stuff, 'cause she'll misunderstand, blame herself, and then she'll spiral outta control, and I'll have to pick up the pieces!"

He keeps ranting. "And—And I don't want any more 'high and mighty' advice from Garnet. She just—she wouldn't understand anyway, since she's a fusion that can like, separate whenever she damn well pleases. I'm stuck with my other half all the freakin' time! A-And I'm so sick of Amethyst acting like she's so mature now. Ever since she started that program for finding new purposes for gems, she's just—grown up, overnight!"

"She's sooo matuwe now!"

"I know—it's like, get over yourself..." Steven's eyes bug, and he slaps his hands over his mouth. "Oh stars, please don't repeat any of that."

"I felf like I could kinf of welax around you! Like I could—"

Steven snatches up a cardboard box from the floor and slams it over top the chattering cactus. The plant yelps in surprise, before it goes quiet for a second. He sighs and backs away, turning toward the doors.

The box rattles. "Why'd you say all dat? Why?!"

He scowls, stormy and aggravated. "Oh you know why," he replies with a bit too much venom, as he walks outside. Steven gives a tense sigh, the doors closing behind him. "I can't let anybody find out about this."

"Find out about what, dude?"

Amethyst stands at the other end of the walkway with a raised eyebrow and a hand on her hip. Steven steels himself to not flinch, but it doesn't work very well. He gives a flimsy cough. "Ah-well, uh—nothing."

She doesn't seem to buy it for a second, as she fixes him with a frown. "For real, Steven... are you okay?"

He gives her a grin and leans against the conservatory doors. "Yes, yeah, absolutely!" too much fake cheer, too much, way too much. "Why, uh, why do you ask?"

The gem gives a soft sigh and shifts her weight. "Well, like... you've been actin' kinda funky, ever since we fused. I just figured I should check in—y'know?"

Ah, yes. That whole... incident. Should he come clean about Maggie? Here? Right now? It would be so much off his chest, to have another person besides Connie and Bismuth be in the know. But then she'd ask questions that he can't answer, and she'd ask to see his other half.

"Yeah, I... I know. I'm good, though. Thanks."

 

X

 

"Your actions made Blue throw another sobbing fit. You are to stop these childish outbursts at once, Pink."

Maggie's fingertips dig and crack into the once again glossy and pristine pink flooring. He swallows the impulse to snarl at the image, even though she's said that opening line more times than he can remember and it's driving him up the wall.

If he plays the part, will it go away? Like that image of Blue?

(Will it be worth it to reprise her role?)

 

X

 

Why did things have to turn sour so fast?

Steven keeps the lights off in the concrosatory, his back pressing against the leg of the table. He draws one leg up to his chest, thoughts swimming. The teen gives a sigh and thunks his head against his knee. First Pearl, now Amethyst... if Garnet asks how he is, he might just scream. They shouldn't have to worry, he's—

A shuddering growl sounds off from under the cardboard box on the table.

The teen's blood chills as he slowly rises to his feet. The box trembles and shuffles, and Steven's stomach drops. None of his other accidental plant-childern were like this... Pumpkin was just a sweetheart, and the Watermelon Stevens were... well. They got along just fine, after his very younger self had banished them. He reaches for the box, something of an apology forming in his mind, when the box flies out of his grasp.

He jolts back with a gasp, the once lumpy mini-Steb now a grouchy, blobby mass. One stumpy arm wriggles at him as the cactus snarls and wails.

Steven cringes, moreso at himself. "Oh stars, you look... geez, you look terrible. What's wrong with you, little guy?"

The cactus grumbles and snaps at him. "What's wrong with you?!"

"I—what?" Steven stares at it for a second, thoughts scattering. "What's wrong with me? You—"

"Wrong!" 

"—You made me look like such a fool, this morning!"

The cactus points a stumpy little finger at him. "Fool!!"

Steven gawks at the deformed plant, a hand flying up to his chest in shock. "Wh—come on now, that's just...!" he grinds his teeth and balls his fists. "Ugh, I wish you never learned to talk!"

"I wish you never learned to talk!!"

A rush of anger sweeps through him, pink and molten, as he snatches up the cactus. Steven snarls something at the plant—a noise he himself can barely comprehend—just before Pearl's distant voice reaches his ears.

She sounds timid. Worried. "Steven? Are you coming to dinner?"

He blinks, all that anger rushing away like the tide. The teen looks down at the lumpy, angry cactus, and sets it down on the table. He'll just have to deal with... this later. "Y-Yeah, I'm on my way!"

 

Dinner is quiet. Skin pricklingly awkward. Amethyst takes five bites to finish her meal, but she doesn't say anything. Garnet remains absent for most of the hour, until he's helping Pearl with the dishes. The fusion takes over for him, and he doesn't object.

He shuffles to bed a little earlier than usual, but sleep remains a nigh-impossible thing to achieve. He lays in bed for what seems like hours, tossing, turning, his hand drifting down to his gem and pressing the against the surface.

His voice cracks a little. "I don't know what to do, anymore..."

Glass shatters somewhere outside. Steven's breath hitches and his heart rate skyrockets. He sits up, eyes wide. Has someone broken in? Steven's fear melts into frustration for a moment, because if it's that little cockroach, Bluebird, he's going to punt her into the star-forsaken sun. But the crash came from somewhere above, not below. His heart speeds up again.

The conservatory. Cactus Steven.

"Oh dear."

One slow and careful sneak up to his greenhouse confirms his fears. There's a sharp, giant hole in the side of the dome, and many of his plants lie in disarray. He's gonna need to do a lot of re-planting, come the morning. But perhaps the most alarming thing is the trail of needles on the steps and deck. Steven follows them all the way back to his bedroom, hackles rising with each step.

Steven's voice wobbles as he steps into his bedroom. "C-Cactus Steven...?"

No answer. The trail scatters around his floor, directionless. He pads further into his room, nerves on end. "Come on, where are—?"

A gurgling growl rumbles behind him, and a lumpy shadow falls across his own. "STEEVVEENN!"

Fear taking the reins, he stumbles and yelps, losing his footing and toppling backwards as he tries to face the new monster. But the stairs are a lot closer than he thought, so he tumbles head over heels down to the base floor.

Steven groans and his head spins. He opens his eyes in time to see that lumpy shadow—shape, figure, cactus—barreling towards him as every single instinct screeches for him to MOVE, RUN, GET AWAY. Life or death danger churns in his gut, and he rolls just in time to not be crushed by the giant cactus.

He stares up at the much, much larger Cactus Steven, a sickly ache in his chest. Everything's all wrong and horrible again. The teen stands up on shaky legs, his hands held forward in caution. Maybe he could reason with it? "Cactus Steven... you need to go back to your home."

Cactus Steven just snarls. "You need to go back to your home!"

Steven's disbelief cuts off any kind of mediation he was about to offer, aggravation swiftly taking its place. "This is my home, you—! Urgh, just get out!"

In his blind frustration, he storms forward and tries to push the towering plant away—only for his hands to run into a bunch of needles and ow, sharp, ow, it's a cactus dumbass. Steven jolts back with a yelp, shaking his hands in a frenzy to get rid of the painful prickers. And much to his horror, Cactus Steven lifts his arms and shakes them with a roar.

Needles spray across the room, several grazing past the teen. He utters a strained groan. "Cut it out!"

The cactus roars again. "JUST GET OUT!!"

It takes a lumbering step forward, then another, and another, and Steven's heart drums wildly. His shield appears in front of him in a flurry of sparkles, and for a moment he hopes his Magenta-Me will accompany it, but he remains alone against the oncoming plant. "D-Don't come any closer..."

Another roar, another step, faster, and Steven moves without thinking. He throws his shield at the cactus, the force of the blow sending it stumbling back and into the wall. His shield sits lodged in Cactus Steven's shoulder.

Sharp regret bubbles up in his throat, and Steven covers his mouth. "Oh gosh—I'm so sorry, I just—"

The cactus rises to its feet with a guttural snarl, ripping the shield from its shoulder. The plant raises the weapon above its head and sneers down at Steven. "THIS IS MY HOME!!" 

Steven sees stars for far too long. When his vision clears, Cactus Steven is in the middle of flipping over the coffee table. But the teen's gaze cuts over to the window. Garnet, Amethyst, and Pearl are just on the cusp of the deck stairs. He wheezes, a hand reaching up to grip at his hair. "The gems... stars, what am gonna—?"

"They never really needed me in the first place!" the cactus bellows, kicking the coffee table with its more flimsy leg.

Panic wells up in the boy's chest. "S-Stop talking—we had plant-gardener private conversation privilege! Oh stars, I can't let them hear this...!"

Without wasting a second, Steven fumbles past the rampaging cactus and out the screen door. He slams it behind him, just as his guardians reach the threshold. Amethyst and Pearl look beyond puzzled.

Steven just gives them a wry grin as his skin prickles. "Heeeey guys! Uhh, everything's great and totally normal, but why don't you come back in—erm, let's say a couple hours, for no reason whatsoever—OKAY BYE!"

Quick as a whip, he spins back through the door and lets it slam shut. He flinches as Cactus Steven slams an arm down on the warp pad, before the screen door flings open with a loud squeak. Steven looks over his shoulder to see the gems, weapons drawn and in battle formation, and his heart sinks.

Pearl gives him a fearsome look, spear aimed at the hulking cactus across the room. "Steven, it's alright! We can help fight this—"

The cactus looks up, eyes on the pale gem. "I can't tell Pearl what's actually going on with all this pink stuff!!"

Steven's blood runs cold. No, no, no, no—

"She'll blame herself, and then she'll spiral outta control!"

Pearl's guard wavers and her expression shifts to confusion. "Wha...?"

Steven utters a hoarse, nervous laugh. Oh Stars, Oh Stars, no, no, no, no. "Ah, haha, I have—I have no idea why he's saying that."

"JUST. GET. OUT!!"

Everything explodes into chaos as the gems charge forward. Garnet lands a punch on the cactus, the hit actually snapping off one of the beast's arms, while Pearl goes in for a jab with her spear. The severed arm springs upright on new roots and launches itself at Amethyst, and Garnet slams the giant cactus into the kitchen so hard that the sink shatters. Water sprays out from the dislodged pipe, and before Steven can even gather his wits, the plant doubles in size, limb count, and gains four-too-many faces.

"They never really needed me in the first place!" the cactus stomps and rattles the whole house. "I thought I could talk to you!"

Amethyst lashes out with her whip, snaring one of the plant's legs. "Hush, you."

She gives her weapon a hard yank, Cactus Steven crashing to the floor. But it just rises back up, looking angrier than before. "Cut it out!!"

Pearl and Garnet rush the cactus again, Pearl managing to stick her spear into its side. The monstrous plant attempts to punch at her, twisting and stumbling as it wards off Garnet at the same time.

The pale gem groans as she dodges another punch. "Why is it so durable?!

"The cactus is Earth's most resilient plant!" Garnet replies, just before she lands a hit.

Little spikes fly out and stick into Pearl, throwing her off balance and letting the cactus slam her into the wall.

"I don't want any more 'high and mighty' advice from Garnet!!"

The fusion pauses, taken aback by the plant's snarling. But that moment of hesitance is all it takes for her to go sailing across the room and into the wall, right next to Pearl. Amethyst drops down from the ceiling, landing on the cactus' shoulders with a cackle, but her small victory doesn't last long. One of the cactus' upper arms snatches her up like a child's toy, and dangles her in front of its faces.

"I'm so sick of Amethyst acting like she's so mature now!"

The gem squeaks and tries to wriggle out of the plant's grasp. She shoots Steven a panicked look. "DUDE, why's it being so—so, weirdly specific?!" she lets out a yelp as the cactus slams her into the wall alongside his other guardians.

A terrible chill runs up or down his spine, and Steven takes a desperate step back. "He's repeating me. He's repeating everything I said to him when I—"

Wait. Repeating...

Steven's eyes widen. "He's... he's copying me..." he glances down, an idea forming. "Th-That's it! Guys, hold off, I've got an idea!"

The gems hardly seem able to pick themselves back up, anyway. Steven bristles as the cactus turns toward him, all snarls and low growls. The teen brandishes his shield, but he tosses it to the ground instead of attacking again. The plant stops in its tracks and gives him a funny look.

Ashamed sympathy crawls up the back of his neck. "Cactus Steven... I'm sorry."

The cactus tilts its heads at him.

He takes a steadying breath, before speaking. "I'm sorry I mistreated you! I should've—I should've been better. I know you didn't mean to hurt anyone... you're just learning from the only role model you've got. Me. I should've offered you love and kindness from the very beginning, because you deserve that. So... I'm sorry."

The apology feels bitter and scratchy in his throat. This is such a dumb idea.

Steven gently holds his arms out. "Can I give you a hug?"

Cactus Steven tilts its heads again. "Huh?"

With much trepidation, Steven walks forward and wraps his arms around the cactus' large leg. The needles stick and dig into his skin, but he just clings all the more to the emotionally messed up plant. Tears form in the corners of his eyes as large, needle-filled hands come to rest on his back.

"I'm sorry..."

That hits kinda different, for whatever reason, and Steven has to keep himself from freezing up.

Steven lets the cactus end the hug, and he releases a shaky sigh. He looks up at the plant, giving it a watery smile as he spies new, bright pink blossoms littering the cactus' form. "O-Okaayy... c'mon, big guy. Why don't I take you back to the dome?"

"NO."

The teen flinches and steps aside as Cactus Steven tromps forward. He struggles to find his voice for a few seconds. "W-wait! Where are you going?"

"Home," the cactus simply replies.

That sense of panic returns with a vengeance. He apologized—they both did! To each other!—so Cactus Steven should be able to stay, and Steven can teach him what being loved is like. He can help. "Please don't leave, I-I'll fix it up extra nice for you! I-I could grow you some friends—!"

Steven's voice dies in his throat as the cactus turns toward him. The plant plucks a flower from its shoulder, before offering it to the boy. Steven takes it, gently, oh so carefully, as he tries to figure out what else to say. But his thoughts scatter as Cactus Steven bursts through the front of the house, and starts toward the beach. He watches as the cactus-monster stomps away, getting smaller and smaller, until it finally disappears around a the corner of the cliffs.

Pearl steps up, her voice soft and wary. "Steven, do you—is there something you need to talk about...?"

He looks down at the flower in his hands, and his gut twists. "I think I've said enough."