Actions

Work Header

Only 17

Chapter Text

“Hey, uh… my name is Greg. Greg Universe. I’m calling on behalf of my son, Steven. He’s seventeen and we’re in Beach City, but he can totally make the drive to Ocean Town.”

It isn’t unusual for parents to call for services for their children, and most sound just as nervous as the one on the line now. They don’t often realize it, but the fact they’re trying to find help for their child speaks volumes for their love.

“Hello, Greg. Does Steven know you’re calling for him?”

“Yeah, he’s agreed to see you. Actually…” There’s some hesitation, though without being present with him, I can’t piece together why. “Well, I think maybe it’s a long time coming. And the mother of one of his friends recommended you to me.”

Oh. Yes, I’ve heard about a Steven from Connie. I wonder if Steven knows Connie sees the same therapist he’s signing up for. Did that sway his opinion my way, or would he refuse if he knew?

“I would like to talk to Steven if he’s there, but first, let me ask: what prompted you to seek therapy for him now?”

“Oh, boy… You’ve gotten at least the 101 on gem stuff, right?”

For a moment, I debate whether or not answering that question constitutes a breach of confidentiality, but perhaps it would make it easier on both of us. “Yes.”

“Well, it seems like… I dunno, even if his life was more complicated than other folks’... I thought at least he was happy, that he was doin’ okay. I guess I was wrong. Some stuff happened recently that made me realize I’d missed a bunch of signs, and… well, you know what they say about hindsight.”

“I see. I’d like to talk to Steven now.”

“Oh, sure. One second.”

The immediacy with which I hear his son’s voice tells me they’re right next to each other. “Um… hi, Dr. Gottlieb.” Nervous. We’re on speakerphone now.

“You can call me Virginia, if you’d like. How are you, Steven?”

“Fine.” The brief pause indicates a look or gesture from his father. “I mean… well, I’m not trying to find a therapist because I’m fine, right?” There is a note of bitterness in his voice.

“I understand you agreed to this?”

“Yeah… I’ve had a lot of anger recently that I just can’t control. Can you help me?”

I take note of the different ways Steven and Greg framed his current struggle, even in each others’ presence. Greg only says that Steven ‘isn’t okay,’ while Steven emphasizes his ‘anger.’ “Well, that is the goal of therapy: to improve oneself. Would you like your father to be present for the first—”

“No.” The answer comes almost too quickly. “No… please. If that’s all right.”

“Of course. You have every right to privacy. It’s my understanding that you have your license and your own car, so let’s talk about what time would work best for you. We’ll need an hour and twenty minutes for the initial intake, and fifty minutes for subsequent sessions if you’d like to continue.”

“Uh… I dunno, my schedule’s pretty busy—”

“Don’t worry, ma’am,” interjects Greg. “I’ll make sure he gets there.”

The silence on the other end, though brief, is more tense than I’d like. “Well, here are my openings next week…”


Steven Universe walks into the waiting room at 10 o’clock on the dot next Friday morning. He has a glass bottle in one hand and a few sheets of paper in the other, messenger bag slung over his shoulder.

“Hi,” he greets me, flustered. I’ve just opened the door to see if he’s here and interrupt his arrival. “Sorry I’m late, uh — my schedule…”

“I understand.” I gesture to the papers in his hand. “Is that the intake form?” I emailed it to Greg to be printed, though I was sure he’d let Steven fill it out.

“Oh, yeah.”

He hands it to me, and I smile. “Well, come in. I’ll need just a minute to review this, and then we’ll get started.”

I lead him back into the room. Not surprisingly, Steven chooses a spot on the couch furthest from my therapist’s chair and closest to the door. He does not remove his jacket or his bag, but sets his bottle on the ground by his feet. As I take a seat, I glance over his form.

There is a lot to take in: he has no medical records outside of his vaccinations, nor any current general physician; no insurance provider, though Greg assured me he could pay anything I asked; he claims that he’s never attended school in any formal capacity, public, private, homeschool, or otherwise; and, finally, the page in which I asked for information about his history of trauma and abuse has been completely filled in, as if writing a school essay.

Ironic.

I’ll have time to read it more in-depth later. For now, I set it in my lap, When I look up — no more than 90 seconds later, maybe two minutes — Steven’s body language has shifted. His hands fist in his lap, ankles crossed, head turned down and eyes askance. 

“Let’s start easy,” I say, hoping to soothe his nerves. “Let’s talk about your family. What’s your current living situation?”

He looks up, surprise causing eyebrows to raise. “We’re… not gonna talk about anger management?”

“We’ll get there. This session is for us to establish a foundation, though it may feel a bit like an interview. You cannot rush these things in therapy if you want to achieve long-lasting results.”

“Huh.” He doesn’t sound pleased, but he nods. “Well, I live with Garnet, Amethyst, and Pearl. They basically raised me once I hit around seven or eight, since y’know… gem stuff.” He pauses. “I don’t know how much gem stuff you know.”

“I understand certain basics, such as their origin, regenerative abilities, fusion, hierarchical politics, and that powers differ between gems.”

Steven nods again. “Okay, so actually most of it. Aside from the history stuff, I guess. Did Connie tell you that I’m my own mom?”

She did, but only because at one point, she’d been worried about how it affected him. I raise my eyebrows and wait for elaboration.

“Well.” Steven huffs. “Since gems can’t reproduce like humans can, my mom, Rose Quartz… or Pink Diamond, whatever… she gave up her physical form in order to have me with Dad. That’s why I’ve got her gem.” 

To prove his point, he raises his shirt to show the gleaming pink stone, placed directly on his navel. I hadn’t realized just how big it is. Connie had described it, but it really is the size of a fist. I thought she’d been exaggerating.

He drops it after a moment and continues. “Well, so, Garnet, Amethyst, Pearl, and my mom all were part of a group called the Crystal Gems, and there’s a bunch of history involved… and… anyway. Since my dad didn’t know much about gem stuff, they took me in in order to train me.”

There is much he says in his ‘whatevers’ and ‘anyways.’ Feelings he doesn’t want to acknowledge or address.

“Has your dad been an active part of your life?”

“Oh, yeah.” A fire is in his eyes as he meets my gaze evenly. “Absolutely. Even though he doesn’t live with me, he’s the best dad any kid could ask for, but especially a kid like me.”

I tilt my head. “‘Like you?’”

It’s a comment I could let go, but I want to dig in, to know just where his head is at. Steven waves a hand at himself. “Well, I mean. Not many humans would sign up for raising the first alien hybrid known to the universe. I was probably a huge pain in the a—” A pause. “I mean. In the butt. To raise.”

I wonder how much that’s true. “Has he said you were difficult?”

Steven shrugs. “I know I didn’t age like most human kids. I apparently glowed as an infant. There’s probably more there that I don’t know about.”

So this is a conclusion that he’s come to, and not something directly said to him.

“I know you said that Garnet, Amethyst, and Pearl ‘trained’ you, but were they maternal?”

He nods. “Yeah, definitely. Garnet and Pearl especially. Amethyst… she’s kind of like a big sister. You know, the kind who, when you’re younger, will babysit you if she has to, but she’d rather play video games. Well, she kinda taught me how to play video games, but they all raised me.”

Steven adores them. You don’t need to have a doctorate in counseling in order to see that.

“Are you disciplined often?”

“Uh…” He blinks. “No. I mean… Gems have a hard time understanding babies and human aging. They just come out of the ground, fully formed with intelligent thought. So I think after I was able to walk and talk on my own, they basically treated me like one of them.” Like an adult goes unsaid. “But — well, not to say I haven’t been disciplined. I’ve been grounded before, but usually for doing really stupid stuff, like… trying to run away on a bus to live on an apple farm, or hopping into a spaceship that hadn’t been test-ran and it exploded midair.”

“I — sorry.” I shouldn’t interrupt. “It exploded midair?”

“Ah, yeah.” He seems sheepish. “That was… Pearl really missed space, so she built her own spaceship, and Dad told me I couldn’t go, so she suggested an ‘engine check’ to the ‘nearest star system,’ and I hopped on, and then it started falling apart. Oh, but we ejected right before it exploded, so we were okay.”

I shouldn’t be surprised. After all I’ve heard from Connie, Steven’s life is far from normal. But he talks about it as if he’d crashed his bike into a tree, not nearly died.

“I’m glad you are,” I say, and he just offers a half-smile. “I don’t know much about gem spirituality, but were you raised religiously?”

“Dad’s Jewish, and so am I.” Steven’s smile evolves into a full-blown grin. “There isn’t a synagogue in Beach City, and gem stuff makes my schedule pretty hectic, so we don’t always celebrate Shabbat, but we make time for the big holidays like Yom Kippur and Rosh Hoshanah. The gems have been joining us the past few years, and we’ve started inviting Connie and her family. I kinda half-celebrate Christmas, since like, all of Beach City is either Christian or mostly Christian, and I like giving people gifts. I don’t really put up a tree or decorations or anything.”

Another mention of his schedule. “And is there anything from the gems’ side?”

He hums. “Garnet meditates?”

“Let’s talk about school.” Steven’s brow furrows, and I wonder if his education history is a sore subject. “It says on your intake sheet here that you’ve never been enrolled?”

“Oh!” For a moment, he almost looked angry, but now he laughs. “You mean my… no, yeah, never. Well, I was for a week when I was fourteen. I did really well, cuz Pearl teaches me subjects ‘more efficiently than any institute of higher learning in the entire universe.’” I get the impression he’s quoting her from the voice he does, grin spread across his face. Then something forlorn interrupts that joy, and he frowns, looking thoughtful. “Taught me. Sorry.”

“She doesn’t anymore?”

“My schedule’s been so busy…”

Ah, right. I nod, and he nods back. Perhaps next time he’ll tell me just what it is that keeps his schedule so full, without school to worry about. “Why only a week? Why did you leave?”

Steven scratches at the back of his neck, fidgeting. “I… geez. I did something stupid. I brought a gem thing to school and it did a bunch of damage to the building. I was more or less expelled. It’s fine, though. I liked Pearl’s lessons better anyway.”

“Does that happen often?”

“Huh?”

“‘Gem things’ ruining it for you?”

“Oh, no.” Very quickly he shakes his head. “You’ve got the wrong idea. First of all, that was totally my fault, not the ‘gem thing.’” He’d only been fourteen. “I mean — sure, the gem part of my life can be tough, but I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”

“Tough how?”

He shrugs. Steven, I’m noticing, does that a lot when he doesn’t want to elaborate. “Yeesh. There’s a lot in there, and none of it’s justified. Maybe we can answer that question next time.”

So, obliging, I continue, though I take note of his word choice. There will be times I’ll push him to answer questions he doesn’t want to answer, but he’s more than welcome to set his own boundaries. “Are you working right now?”

To my surprise, that question makes him wince. “Man. You’re asking hard questions.”

“Am I? Most people answer these rather simply.” I’d been expecting a simple ‘no,’ really.

“My life is far from simple.” Again, there’s that note of bitterness in his voice. But he sighs and answers. “Well, for a while, I was running Little Homeschool. It’s a school where gems from around the universe can come and learn how to live in Era 3 — or, really, how to live without being beholden to their ‘original purpose,’ or to orders from the Diamonds — you know, the gem matriarchs. But I left that recently, since… y’know. I wasn’t great at that, just obsessive.”

I check the top intake sheet again, briefly, verifying that the boy is only seventeen.

“And I’m basically an intergalactic ambassador, y’know? The Diamonds are always coming to me when something goes wrong with Era 3, because they think I’m some sort of messiah, and also because I think they just want an excuse to talk to me because I remind them so much of my mom, Pink Diamond, which is infuriating.

“You know, I was away from Earth for the better part of two years. That’s a long time to spend with the Diamonds and to have minimal contact with my family, and with Connie. But even though I’m not actively dismantling the gem empire anymore, since I’ve handed those reins to the Diamonds for now — I still have to be their on call handyman twenty-four seven! It’s like I can’t get a moment to breathe without them or the gems or some other gem needing my help or calling me ‘Pink’ or needing something from me!”

I blink. Steven’s breathing has become somewhat ragged, but in the silence that follows, he seems to realize it. His face flushes, eyebrows twisting, and he closes his eyes, cupping his hands and pressing his fingertips together in his lap.

Breathing exercises. I wonder if Garnet, the meditative one, taught him that.

“You know,” I begin gently once he has opened his eyes again. “That is quite a lot of responsibility for someone so young.”

I expect him to nod and agree, to insist it isn’t fair, but instead he scowls and folds his arms across his chest, leaning back into the couch. “I’m not a kid. I’m seventeen. I can take care of myself.”

Does Steven realize most people would balk at the idea of leaving the fate of an empire in the hands of a seventeen-year-old, much less a fourteen- or fifteen-year-old? I think of my own son, not much younger than Steven, and picture him being handed any sort of political role.

Would I find that insistence on adulthood endearing — he wants to be so grown up so fast — or worrisome, that he felt he had to shoulder so much on his own?

“You’re seventeen,” I agree. That much is true. “Most people by your age are dating. Do you date, Steven, or is your schedule too busy?”

Immediately his face turns pink. “Oh—! Well! Uh. I mean.” He stutters for a few moments, but he looks genuinely happy I asked. “Yeah. Connie… She’s busy with school, and I’ve been busy with everything else. You know. But I haven’t — I mean, we text a lot — we call each other at least once a week, and I miss her so much.

I can’t help but smile. His adoration is palpable. “You love her.”

He turns even darker, and I can only imagine how warm he feels with both the blush and the jacket. Still, his grin spreads from cheek to cheek, the widest I’ve seen him smile. “Yeah,” he says, without an ounce of hesitation. “I really do.”

We sit for a moment in the silence that follows. We both feel warm, and I hope he basks in the declaration. I’m surprised it’s so easy for him to admit. Most teenage boys struggle to articulate their positive emotions, like love. Was it because he was raised by three women — regardless of how alien their species — or is that just who he is, part of Steven?

I mention this to him, how amazed I am that he has no trouble with it, and he laughs. “Never thought about it. If I love someone, shouldn’t I shout it from the rooftops?”

“Of course. It’s something to celebrate.” He chuckles again, and I let him breathe for just another moment. Then I dip my toes into the topic du jour. 

“So, Steven. Why don’t you tell me what brings you here today?”

Confusion and irritation shutter across his face. “I thought we talked about that already. On the phone.”

“Yes, your anger.” Which, notably, I haven’t seen much of. “What are the types of things that trigger it?”

That makes him withdraw. Not by much, but his shoulders tense; his eyes slide to the side. Embarrassed, maybe, by his initial reaction. “I… I don’t know. It’s always stupid stuff. Stuff nobody but me would get mad at.”

He must know that answer isn’t enough information for me. So I wait, patiently, and when it becomes clear that I won’t be filling the silence myself, he rolls his eyes and huffs. “You know, like. Someone calls me pitiful. Someone compares me to my mom. I hear about yet another awful, cruel thing she did that she told no one about because she was a coward.” He gestures as he talks, the first time I’ve seen him really talk with his hands. “Or — or — one of the gems tries to help me when I don’t want help. Things like that.”

“None of the things you listed sound particularly ‘stupid,’” I comment, though I’m doing some quick mental math on that comment about his mother. “In fact, I might get upset at some of those things, too.”

“But not mad!” 

Steven’s hands fist in his lap, and he stares down at it, resolutely. Tension lines his form. “Like… I get explosively angry. Literally, given my gem powers! Which, I don’t think I mentioned, are directly tied to my emotions! And I don’t know how to deal with it!”

I consider it. I wonder if that will affect our sessions whatsoever, but after a moment, I decide it isn’t any different than a normal human with explosive anger. 

“Your father mentioned a specific incident that made him realize you need help. Tell me about that.”

He sighs, the tension gradually leaving him in the exhale. It seems like an intentional effort. “Well… What is there to say? I upset everyone. I told Connie about it, so even if Dad didn’t give you all the dirty details when I wasn’t in the room, I’m sure she did, right?”

Regardless of whether or not there is truth to that assumption — which there isn’t — answering that would be a breach of confidentiality. Instead I say, truthfully, “Connie and I do not discuss you every session, Steven.”

He flinches as if struck, and I don’t know quite how to read the spectrum of emotions that cross his face. “I — yeah, of course.” And then again, quieter, glancing away. “Of course.”

I wait. Seconds tick by.

“Okay.” Irritation spikes in his voice. “So I’m just gonna talk, then. Is that how this works?”

I want to say something like, ‘That is generally how therapy works, yes.’ But that would be snide, and I don’t think that’s what he needs. So I simply nod, and he takes a deep inhale before he tells the story.

For as much as he emphasized his anger, he cannot go more than two sentences without dipping into such severe self-criticism, it crosses into self-deprecation.

“I’d just left Little Homeschool, right? Cuz I’d sucked at that, and the gems were obviously much better suited for running it than I was. I don’t even know what I was thinking, trying to do that, when they’ve got so much more experience with this sort of thing than I do…”

“... So I touch the cactus, because of course I do, and the spit brings it to life, and I didn’t even think about it…”

“... And then like an idiot, even though I know he’s just repeating me, I start ranting at him! About Garnet, Amethyst, and Pearl! I say all sorts of sh— all sorts of hurtful things! Things that are already cruel to think! But to say them is… is…”

In the brief moment where he struggles for words, I interrupt. “What sort of hurtful things?”

He rolls his eyes. “I don’t want to say them again.” I could push, but he continues quickly. He seems just as eager to finish this story as he is to solidify his role as the guilty party.

“... and I tried not to get them involved, but then they come in and — well — he told them everything, because of course he did! He told them everything I’d said about them! But that’s probably what I deserved, in all honesty…”

“And then I realized he was only doing this because that was how I’d treated it! Because of course, the first time I create sentient life in years I have to be a jack— a jerk —”

“You can swear,” I comment, the third time he censors himself. “I would rather hear your honest thoughts.”

That causes him to slink down into the couch. “Uh… no. I’d rather not.” His voice is smaller now, winding down from the stressful highs of retelling the events that led him to my office.

“Any reason?”

“I just would rather not.” He might sound angry if he were any louder. Right now, as he puts his head in his hands, he almost sounds afraid. “Is that okay? Am I going to have to justify every little thing to you?”

Once again, I debate reminding him that this is the point of therapy. You’re going to be forced to confront things about yourself that you don’t want to. But this is just the intake, and our time is coming up.

He goes on to describe the following scene: the gems, the people in his life that have been as mothers, questioning him in the living room for what, to him, felt like hours. And for the entire duration, he hadn’t been able to say a word.

“Not like, I just didn’t want to,” Steven clarifies. His voice is quiet, his form is more relaxed. He watches his fingers fidget with the sleeve of his jacket. “I just… couldn’t. I kept thinking about how I’d already caused them so much trouble. On top of all the damage that Cactus Steven did to the house. Like, of course they wanted answers. I was so cruel to them. But I… I knew if I opened my big mouth to say anything, it would just happen again. I’d hurt them again. So then they talked to Dad, Dad talked to me, we talked to you, and now I’m here.”

He stops, story finished. This time, when I’m silent, I’m mulling over all of the information, collecting my thoughts. For as young as he is, Steven has perhaps the most complicated history of any of my patients before him. Maybe that’s because he’s part gem. But he is only seventeen.

“It sounds like,” I finally reply, “you’ve been through a lot.”

Whatever response he may have been expecting, it wasn’t that. Steven visibly deflates, and it is as if every hesitation, every tension, every shard of anger has left his form. “Yeah.” He says after a beat. Quiet, slow. “Yeah, I guess.”

Our time is up. I ask him if the same time next week will work, and we both pen it into our schedules: me into my planner, him into his phone.

“I’ll see you next week, Dr. G.” He bids me farewell almost timidly, but there is nothing timid about his rapid steps out the door, like a frightened bunny rabbit.

When the door shuts behind him, I sigh. I’ve got ten minutes until my next appointment. Ten minutes to shift gears. It almost doesn’t seem like enough.

I’m rooting for you, Steven Universe.

Chapter Text

I receive a text at 9:55. Sorry, traffic’s bad. I’ll be a few minutes late.

Is he texting while driving? Is it a generational thing; can kids these days do that with no problem? I’m not his mother, but I consider sending him a reprimanding text in response. Then I realize the irony of that, so instead I simply type back, OK.

In the meantime, I go over the intake again. If we have the chance, then today I would like to touch on the part I wasn’t able to get to last week: the section on trauma and abuse:

-

I haven’t really been through much, especially not compared to the others, but I’ve caused a lot of trauma. I don’t really think I’m abusive, but maybe I am and I just haven’t realized it. That would really be the cherry on the whole Steven cake, wouldn’t it?

I’ve pushed people into doing things they don’t want to do. Just by existing, I made a bunch of people grieve. I screwed up a lot. I keep trying and trying to help people, even when they don’t need it. I don’t listen to boundaries and I don’t listen to what other people want.

There’s the whole thing about me being my own mom. I don’t think that’s technically trauma. Lots of people have dead moms and moms who died in childbirth and relatives who talk about how much you look or act like your mom. My relatives just happen to be intergalactic dictators, and my mom happens to be part of an alien species with no concept of offspring.

Really though, the worst thing that’s ever happened to me is something I don’t know if I can put into words, on paper or in person. Only two other people really know, and one of them was the person who did it. It was really invasive and made me physically sick and I still get nightmares sometimes. As I’m writing this, I’m realizing it sounds like rape. I promise it’s not rape. I’m lucky enough that I’ve never had to deal with anything like that. It’s something gem-related.

TBH, IDK if any of this will come up. I just need help w/ anger.

-

The first line is ironic, given our closing statement last week. I wonder if he realizes just how far he came during the intake. And the reverting to text shorthand as he runs out of room to write reminds me of my fifteen-year-old, who does the same. The rest of it paints a picture of a boy carrying so much trauma, he can’t quite see it. When you carry something, over time, it feels as if it gets heavier and heavier; but with a heavy enough load, you won’t be able to tell those differences in the weight. It’s just heavy. Who cares if it’s sixty pounds versus seventy, or one hundred pounds versus one hundred twenty? 

It’s difficult to tell which of his self-criticisms are genuine self-awareness and which are signs of his extremely low self-esteem.

At 10:04, I receive another text announcing his arrival. Good. I don’t want to waste what time we have; Steven, especially, will need the full fifty minutes. When I open the door to the waiting room, Steven springs to his feet.

“Sorry!” It’s immediate. He’s in the same jacket, with the same bag and bottle. He seems frazzled. “Sorry, sorry, I know I’m late. I… I got caught up in gem stuff.”

“You’re only a few minutes late.” I say to soothe his anxiety, hoping this won’t become a habit. He does let out a huge sigh of relief, and though I notice how he has two different excuses, I’ll assume it’s because he’s flustered. “Let’s make the most of our time, shall we? Come on back.”

Just like last week, he takes his seat in the chair furthest from mine and closest to the door. He sets his bottle down on the ground next to his feet. I notice that the ends of his pants are covered in dirt, like he’d been hiking.

“So.” I smile as I take my seat. I set my phone face-up on the end table so that I can easily check the time. Steven stares at the spot on the wall directly next to me, which is fine. I don’t have any clocks visible, otherwise I suspect he might be staring at that. “How are you today, Steven?”

He blinks. “What happened to ‘let’s make the most of our time?’”

“This is making the most of it.”

Steven raises a single eyebrow that tells me he doesn’t believe that. “Fine, I guess. Did some gardening. Thought about what happened last time I was gardening. Now I’m here.”

It reminds me of the comment he made over the phone. “I’m not trying to find a therapist because I’m fine, right?”

“How did that go?” I can’t imagine he finds it an easy hobby to return to, considering that last time, he wound up in my office.

He shrugs. “You really wanna know?”

“I wouldn’t have asked, would I?”

I get the impression that answer doesn’t satisfy him very much, but he shrugs. A beat later, he actually answers me. “It’s just… hard. You know? On top of all my other mistakes, there’s this, and now the gems — who I love, by the way — they’re being more suffocating than ever. I can’t get a moment alone anymore, even in the greenhouse. It’s obvious I disappointed them.”

“Did they say as much to you?” 

He rolls his eyes. “Just because they didn’t say anything doesn’t mean that it isn’t obvious. They told me not long ago about how proud they were of the person I’d become. But how could they be proud of the fact that I’m here?”

Therapy is not a punishment, I want to say. I’m more than certain the gems know that too, seeing as Steven hasn’t mentioned a single negative thing they’ve actually said about it. “And how does being here make you feel?”

Steven gives a great sigh, using the entirety of his body. Inhaling from his diaphragm and exhaling through his nose, it seems to travel all the way from his shoulders to his feet and leaves through his toes, his arms splaying out on either side of him. “I just hate this.”

I’m not surprised. “Even though you consented, you don’t want to be here.” Unwilling patients are among the hardest to treat. Most of the patients I see are self-motivated, just lost, unsure how to begin their transformation. Steven certainly has seeds of that, but I’m not sure he would be sitting in this room if Greg hadn’t made that call for him. 

“It’s not exactly that.” He puts his head in his hand, propped up on his knee, and stares at the wall. Not in my direction. “Like… I know I’ve got a problem.” He stops as if that’s the end of the sentence. Then I see his gritted teeth. “And I can’t… solve it. Not on my own. But I hate having to just sit here and talk! About myself! Like, how conceited can you get? Making someone else pay out the a—” He stops himself, grimacing. “You know. For me. Gosh.”

… Oh.

“That was difficult to admit.” He lifts his head to look at me, confused, but I’m determined to unravel this particular thread. “That you can’t solve this on your own.”

Steven tenses. He sits upright, eyes, for once, laser-focused on me. “And?”

“Why?”

“Why’s it matter?”

“It’s okay if you don’t know the answer.”

“I just—” His voice seems to catch in his throat. His eyes, I realize with a start, are wet. “I just hate being a burden. And that’s what I am. Instead of helping people, I’m the one who needs help. I’m the one weighing people down with my problems. Meanwhile, everyone else is trying to move on and live their own lives, and I can’t.”

Depression. Maybe he’s even dealing with adjustment disorder. But as I watch him — watch him compose himself, wiping at his eyes — I know this isn’t something purely chemical. Perhaps that’s a factor, but I can tell there’s some sort of history that lays the foundation for his mindset. 

“Steven, how often have you asked others for help?”

He gives a wave of his hand, dismissive. “I don’t know. Not a lot. I try not to need help, you know? I’ve got to be the reliable one, not this broken mess.”

“So, you needing help just this once makes you a burden? Makes you broken?”

He scowls. “Needing help at all makes me a burden. I should have my life together by now.”

“You’re only seventeen.”

He barks out a laugh.

I concede. “To be fair, your life is much more complicated than most seventeen-year-old’s. But you can’t just shove all your problems down and pretend they don’t exist. When you do, they fester, boil, and overflow.”

“Obviously,” he mutters, folding his arms and slinking back down into the chair. Closing himself off. I try another approach.

“You mentioned that others seek out your help, right?”

“Yeah.” Now when he looks at me, I definitely see the irritation crinkling his brow. “If you’re trying to make a point, just make it already. Stop leading me by the hand.”

“I will, but I’d like you to consider something first.” Steven may have a whole host of problems unique to him, given his gem heritage, but this? This is an inherently human problem. “When someone asks for your help, how does it make you feel?”

“Huh?” Before I can elaborate, he rolls his eyes again. “Oh, no. Look, I don’t really think anyone feels special or warm and fuzzy inside when I’m the one asking for help.”

Hm. I may have to rescind the compliment I paid him during the intake. He shouldn’t dismiss those feelings so quickly. “Why not?”

“Because, I’m—!” He gestures to himself much like he did last time. “Because if my problems could be fixed by asking for help, I wouldn’t be here, paying for someone to fix me.”

That isn’t what therapy does, but rather than correct him, I challenge him. “Would you?”

“I…” He presses his lips together for a moment, pensive, before he finally turns his head away. “I don’t know.”

Oh, he actually considered my point. I’ll take that. 

“I just…” I watch as he scratches at his head, still pointedly looking away. “I’ve got to be the helper. You know?”

“Why?”

He shrugs. I wait, hoping he’s thinking about the question and slowly putting words to whatever he’s feeling, but when a full sixty seconds pass by and he turns to meet my gaze without any look in his eye at all, I realize he’s attempting to end the conversation.

If this continues, I’m going to ban him from shrugging. 

“Has your family—”

“Nope.” He puts his chin in his hand, propped up on his knee. “Next question.”

I’m more than a little offended that he interrupted me. I refuse to let it show. “You don’t even know what I was going to ask.”

“Something about if my family put any undue burdens on me as a kid, right?” He sighs. “Gee. The answer’s still no. My childhood was as normal as a half-gem hybrid could be. I had four — mm — three and a half parents who loved me and raised me. Maybe they didn’t keep me out of harm’s way like most human parents, but that’s because I had a responsibility to protect humanity.”

It wasn’t what I was going to ask, but I find his response to that hypothetical question curious. That he even conceived the question on his own suggests he’s thought about it. “That’s quite a big responsibility. From how young?”

Steven shakes his head and scowls as he sets his hands on his knees, brows furrowing. “No. Don’t do that. It’s just how things had to be. It doesn’t matter whether or not it’s fair, because I did it, and I did a good job of it. Earth’s officially an independent planet! The gem empire’s gone! No more otherworldly threats! So it’s a mission success.”

I frown. The fact that he’s resisting so strongly to this only makes me want to push even more. “It sounds as if you don’t think it’s fair.”

“It doesn’t matter!” 

His stance changes. Upright, spine straight, feet planted firmly on the ground. His teeth are gritted together in a grimace, brows furrowed, and as he talks, he gestures wildly, shakes his fists. “It doesn’t matter whether I think it’s fair or not! The Earth is safe! I’m safe! Who cares if I don’t have a purpose anymore? Who cares if the one constant I had since I was a kid is gone? And who cares if I care?!”

His cheeks are turning pink.

Not from anger. Well, maybe. But it isn’t the normal rush of blood. His cheeks are literally glowing a neon pink, and I realize this is the harbinger of that ‘explosive power’ he warned me about.

“It sounds to me that you care, Steven.”

“So?!” The pink spreads now, creeping like shadow, up through his forehead and down through his neck. “It! Doesn’t! Matter!”

“It does.”

I can see the glow peeking out at the edges of his shirt. He stands up. I refuse to cower or hide from this anger that he is terrified of. Instead, I take a leap of faith.

“You remind me a lot of my son.”

He seems to freeze. Though the pink doesn’t dissipate, I see his expression change from one of rage to one of confusion.

“He’s a little bit younger than you,” I continue, meeting his gaze. I keep my voice soft, slow, soothing. “Now, he doesn’t have any magic powers and he doesn’t have issues with managing his anger quite like you. But, you see… I’m not a perfect mother.”

Show me someone who is, and I’ll show you a shattered mirror. Women who work that hard — to achieve the perfect image of the perfect mother at all times — always sacrifice parts of themselves in the process.

“There were times when I relied on him when I probably shouldn’t have. Times where he had to be the adult.”

The one in particular that stands out to me is when his father and I finalized our divorce. Lucas had been only eight and I, knowing I shouldn’t but unable to hold back, bawled my eyes out in the living room as I delivered the news.

‘It’s okay, Mom,’ he’d assured me, patting my back. His eyes were dry. ‘It’s gotta storm so the sun can come out later.’

Something I’d said to him countless times.

“I didn’t realize until later that I’d unintentionally encouraged him to bottle his own feelings inside. Even though I hadn’t meant that, even though I’d been devastated to learn that I’d somehow hurt him, that he would probably never come to me to talk about how he felt again… the damage was done. Do you know what I decided to do?”

Steven’s eyes are still on me, but they’re different now, softer. The pink is receding, no longer edging onto his fingertips but disappearing below the sleeves of his varsity jacket. “What?” He asks, volume matching mine.

“I hired a therapist.”

The punchline makes him chuckle, though it’s still tense. The pink vanishes from whence it came, and he plops back down onto his couch. 

“Sorry,” he says. All traces of that pink wrath are gone, and suddenly he looks extremely tired. “I shouldn’t have gotten mad. I probably scared you, and you probably didn’t wanna share all that personal stuff, and I’m sorry.”

I contemplate offering platitudes of ‘no, you didn’t scare me, I’m fine.’ But I think, despite my level headed response, that would be a definite lie. I could tell him it’s fine, that I didn’t mind self-disclosing, but I know that regardless of the truth of that statement, he’ll assume it is a lie. 

“I forgive you,” I say instead. He presses his lips together and stares up at the ceiling, head falling back against the couch. 

“Do you forgive yourself?”

Silence. I watch as his lip quivers, his Adam’s apple bobs. A glance at my phone on the end table tells me that our time is nearing, but I give him as much time necessary to formulate his reply. We go over time by one minute.

The reply comes in the simple shake of his head.

“Before we leave.” That phrase gets him to look at me, and I can see unshed tears in his eyes. “I would like you to consider the term ‘self-compassion.’”

“Huh?” His voice is laden with withheld cries.

“Have you heard of it?”

He shakes his head.

“There is a common misconception that the solution to depression, and in the same vein, to low self-esteem, is building a high self-esteem. I have found, in practice, that what helps more often than not is to encourage you to have compassion for yourself. You seem like an empathetic person, Steven. Allow yourself that same kindness.”

The emotions that comes over him are difficult to describe as a bystander. I see pieces of wonder or surprise. I see confusion. I see hope.

I see frustration.

I can only hope that next week is better.

Chapter Text

If you had told me last week that next session, Steven Universe would come in on time with a huge smile on his face and pep in his step, I would have laughed in your face. But that is exactly what he does. Though I am careful not to let my disbelief show, I can’t help but wonder what changed in a week’s time. Did the self-compassion comment do more than I’d hoped it would?

“Hey, Dr. G!” He greets, hopping up from his seat in the waiting room. “Nice day, huh?”

“It is,” I agree, blinking. “Come on in.”

As we enter the room, he somehow seems eager to stay. He actually removes his bag, dropping it on the floor next to his glass bottle. As I take my usual seat, he even meets my eyes without hesitation.

“You’re in a good mood today.” I’d welcome the change, but something feels… off. I don’t trust this peppy side of Steven Universe, especially after last week’s close call with the very near magical explosion.

“Yep!” He clasps his hands together. “See, last session got me on a bunny trail. I realized I’ve been thinking about this whole therapy thing all wrong.”

I almost laugh. This almost feels forced, but he almost looks genuine. That’s too many ‘almosts.’ “Is that so?”

“Yeah! Well, I guess it just hit me.” His hands rub together, and that’s when I realize. This good mood? It’s excitement. He is somehow excited to be here. “I don’t know that much about you! Not really fair, is it, that you get to know every little detail about my life and innermost thoughts, but I don’t even know how old you are!” 

Oh.

“I’m forty-five,” I answer reflexively, but my mind is racing. Most patients prefer not to hear about the private lives and personal details of their therapists. We act as a sounding board, a guiding hand, a way to look at your own life through unfiltered lenses. To discover evidence of our humanity — to stumble upon our Facebook page, to bump into us in the grocery store, to come to material terms with the fact that the therapist exists outside of the office — it almost always hurts the relationship with the client, except to self-disclose in minute doses, only as it becomes relevant or useful. 

I’d self-disclosed in the previous session only because I’d thought it would help. In the moment, it did. But now I’m wondering if he’s pouncing on that nugget of humanity I offered him.

“Okay, so you’ve got three decades on me.” Steven nods, like this fills in a hole for him. He’s replied too quickly for me to get enough of a grip on the situation to interrupt him. “I probably seem like a babe to you. Are you married, Dr. G? You don’t have any photos out of you or your family.”

I notice the way his eyes slip to my wedding ring. “Yes, I am.” A simple enough question with a simple enough answer, one he clearly already found on his own. “Steven, why—”

“I thought so!” He folds his arms across his chest, nodding again. There is a — dare I say — smug grin on his face, like he’s just caught me in a lie. “Any reason you don’t put up the pictures? Are you two having problems?”

There is a reason, and it’s because of the humanity bit earlier, not because of any ‘problems.’ “No.” I’m putting my foot down here. Steven tilts his head, either confused or concerned, but I’m not abiding by this game. “We are not switching roles, Steven, no matter how you might want to.”

“Oh, no,” he says quickly, grin stubbornly remaining. “I’m not — I’m just genuinely curious, that’s all!”

“Your father is not paying me a small fortune completely out of pocket to talk about myself.” That gives him pause. I think of the comment he made last time, about how ‘conceited’ he felt, just talking about himself for nearly an hour. “What is it that you’re trying to do?”

“Nothing!” The panic that rises in his face says otherwise, his smile vanishing. “Nothing, I… I don’t have any kind of ulterior motive. Can’t I just be curious? Be interested in who you are as a person?”

“Why?”

“B-because you’re a person, what kind of a question—”

“You were looking forward to this.” To learning about me. He even arrived early, like he’d had it planned out. Pieces are falling into place. “Were you hoping I would play along? That we would go an entire session without addressing any of the reasons you’re here?”

“No! I mean… no!” It’s amazing, the transformation of his body language. No longer easy, confident, relaxed; he’s tensed, like a coil ready to spring. “I just — I just thought maybe I could do something useful with the time I have to be here—”

“Is working through the anger you came to me for not a ‘useful’ way to spend your time?”

“This is just safer!” His voice raises, but there is no rage there, none in his tone or in his eyes. Pink does not surface. He only looks terrified, wide-eyed, arms extended as if to put more distance between us. “Last time we talked about me, I nearly blew up! And I like you! Even if you ask me hard questions, I don’t want to hurt you! So I thought — I thought maybe this time we could take a break from me, and maybe I could help you.”

I think about our thread from last time, how he feels the need to be a helper.

“What sort of problems do you solve in a typical day?”

I word it that way precisely because I’m trying to convey how silly that is, to constantly be ‘on’ every single day of your life, but he takes it in stride, as if he can’t even tell the irony. “Geez.” He lets out a nervous chuckle. “Anything you can think of. I’ve done everything from hiding war criminals to getting my dad and my mom’s ex-lover to make up to helping a donut chain in a food truck competition.”

It almost sounds like a sales pitch, but one of those things catches my attention. “Can you elaborate on that second thing you mentioned?”

“Oh, boy.” He says it exactly like Greg did over the phone. “Um. Well, so. My mom was Pink Diamond, right? All the Diamonds have a Pearl in their service — except not anymore, because I got rid of the caste system. Well, Pearl — the Pearl who raised me — she and Pink kind of had a thing? It seems really complicated and not really any of my business. Recently I learned what ‘polyamorous’ is, and maybe my mom fell under that, or maybe she just really liked messing with people’s feelings, I don’t know. But she was with, romantically, both Dad and Pearl, and because of that there was this huge, heavy tension between them, and then she went and died so it never got resolved. So when I was fourteen I took matters into my own hands and forced them to talk about it, and whaddaya know. They’re fine now! So I did pretty good.”

I don’t mean to, but I stare. Steven notices and tilts his head at me, as if prompting me to respond. I can’t help but think, despite the imperfection of the analogy, of children caught in a divorce, trying to get their parents to make up. Only somehow, Steven did. 

“Something about if my family put any undue burdens on me as a kid, right?”

When I find my words, I can’t help but ask, “Is that a normal problem for you to solve?”

He snorts. “Yeah, sure. A problem caused by my mom that I had to roll my sleeves up and fix myself since nobody else was gonna do it. That sounds about right.”

“No, not that.” Though I fully intend to circle back to that remark. “Are you often playing therapist for your parents? For your friends?”

“I…” He blinks. This is the first time I think I’ve genuinely stunned him. “I… don’t appreciate you calling it that.”

So the answer’s yes. “What would you prefer I call it?” And then, even though I know I’m about to step on his toes, I pick on these two particular parents to make a point. “Being forced to mediate between two fully grown adults who should know better than to drop their lifetimes of baggage on a child?”

From the jaw drop, I gather he has never considered this event in that light, ever. “Th-that’s my family you’re talking about!”

“Do you disagree?”

“I — I —” He stutters. “Y... yeah! Sure, it would’ve been nice if they’d talked it out on their own, but they didn’t! So why shouldn’t I step in?”

“The issue isn’t that you helped—”

“Well it sure sounds like it is!”

“Steven—”

“You can’t just—” He stands. He paces. He stops, trembling. I see the burgeoning pink glow in his cheeks. “I’m not going to just listen to you insult my dad and Pearl! They’ve been through so much shit, and they don’t need this on top of it!” His first actual, uncensored curse. “Do that again, and I am walking out and not coming back!”

Only then does he sit his ass back in the chair, a cold fire in his eyes.

I gnaw at my bottom lip. Perhaps that approach had been too aggressive. I would stand by what I said, but Steven clearly isn’t ready to hear that kind of criticism about any of his parents just yet.

… Except for one, who he can’t seem to stop criticizing.

“I’m sorry. I overstepped.”

He nods, and though his neck and shoulders remain stiff, that pinkness recedes. “I forgive you.”

We are silent for a moment as I consider the most delicate way to move forward. I don’t want Steven to regret coming here because of one poor judgment on my part.

“I only meant,” I begin carefully — Steven’s eyes are like daggers right now, “that perhaps you didn’t deserve to have that kind of responsibility forced upon you. You may not realize it, Steven, but you were so young.” He is so young. “Pearl and Greg aren’t perfect. Without meaning to, maybe they hurt you. Like I hurt my son.”

The show of vulnerability seems to soften him a little. He leans back into the seat, arms folded, looking up at the ceiling again. He looks lost in thought. 

“I…” When he speaks again, he’s hesitant. “I don’t know. Maybe. But I don’t mind being the helper. In fact, that’s what I like. It’s what I want to do. So, even if maybe they shouldn’t have dropped that problem on my lap — which, to be clear, I don’t think they meant to do — even if they shouldn’t have done that. I… I’m kinda glad they did. Even if…”

He doesn’t finish the thought, though I can put two and two together. I smile sadly, sympathetically. “That’s okay, Steven. It’s okay to admit something they did, however unintentionally, affected you negatively. I’m realizing now that it happens to everyone.”

He offers a small smile back, eyebrows wrinkled. It’s also okay if he isn’t ready to put that into words yet.

“You know,” I say, unsure if I should be proud of this or not, “you didn’t go full pink.”

“You’re right.” He gives a small, broken laugh and presses his forehead into his hands. “I’m… I’m sorry. I know you said it’s not — that I should ‘treat myself with compassion.’ But that could’ve gone very, very badly. I could’ve… what if I’d let it go too long? What if I’d exploded?” I hear what he seems too afraid to say again. What if I’d hurt you?

“I’d forgive you, Steven.” I’m very careful to say that, and I will, every time he apologizes for this raw, vulnerable side that’s manifesting in a dangerous way. “And I would still be here.”

“Would you?”

I’ve dealt with people with far worse anger problems than Steven has. Would saying that make him feel better or worse, knowing I’ve treated someone who I had to “baby proof” the room for?

“Regardless of whether or not you ‘explode,’” I reply, using the same terminology. “I will be here. You’ve trusted me to help you with your anger, and I won’t fail that trust just because of a little scare here and there.”

“Two out of the three times we’ve met, I’ve lost control.” He looks at me and I see the fear in his eyes. “Dr. G… that’s not a great track record. Ugh. I’m so sorry.”

“Think of it this way.” I gesture to him. “Your anger is a surface problem. A symptom. In order to take care of it, we’re going to have to dig down into what causes it. We’re going to have to unravel the rest of you.”

“That’s probably the scariest thing you’ve ever said to me, and that’s saying something.”

I chuckle. “I’ll probably say a lot scarier, too.”

He nods. We have a brief moment of silence, and as I glance to the clock, I see we have about ten minutes left. Not enough time to dig in deeper. Certainly not enough time to dig into either his history of trauma or the comments he continually makes about his mother.

“I’ll let you take the lead for now.” He blinks — startled — and I smile. I hope he considers this an olive branch. “What would you like to talk about?”

“You… sure?” His voice wavers, hesitant, but he relaxes immediately. Tension drains from him. “Aren’t you supposed to push my boundaries and make me uncomfortable and say ‘scary’ stuff and yada yada?”

“I think I’ve pushed enough for today.”

That makes him smile. At first it’s one of relief, of exhaustion, but then it turns into something almost shy. “Can… I ask about you? I know earlier you shut me down, but that’s because I was being a brat, right?”

I raise my eyebrows. “You weren’t being a brat. You were coping.”

“By being a brat.” For a moment, I think he might be being self-deprecating — I think I might need to seize these last few minutes in order to assure him I’ve forgiven him for that, too — but the grin on his face now appears genuine. There’s even a little twinkle in his eye. I smile back to show I understand the joke, and it seems like that makes his grin even wider. “So?”

“Sure.” I hope I don’t regret this. Not many patients really ask to ask about me. “You can ask. But I might not answer.”

“Sweet!” He clasps his hands together. “Let’s see. How many kids do you have?”

“Just two.”

He raises his eyebrows at me, eager. Silent. When I realize he’s pulling my own move on me, I can’t help but laugh. “Lucas is fifteen. Gabriela is nineteen.”

“Do you have pictures? Can I see them?”

I don’t normally show my patients photographs of my family. But not only is Steven not from this city, he’s also the first person to ask unprompted. Most of my patients who ask do so immediately after I’ve mentioned one of them in conversation, which I only typically do if they are parents themselves. I don’t see a lot of teenagers.

“Okay.” We only have a few minutes left, anyway. I pick up my phone and move to the couch, deliberately picking the spot furthest from him, but he scoots close to my side anyway. I find it difficult not to smile. A few taps later, and I’m in my camera’s gallery, swiping through the images. “Just a second.”

I find exactly what I was looking for. I can’t help the smile that comes, unbidden, as I hold out an image from our outing last weekend. We went camping. My wife, Josefina, fell asleep sitting by the campfire. Lucas had curled up next to her, her dark hair falling over the blond mop on his head. Gabriela is in the background of the picture, sneaking forward.

“Swipe right,” I urge, so he can see the full story.

But even as Steven sees that first image, something bright glows in his eyes. The smile on his face now is soft and sweet. He looks younger than he ever has. He swipes through, watching as the story unfolds in a series of images: Gabi sneaking, Lucas looking up at the camera with groggy eyes, he turns his head toward her as she gets closer, but it’s too late; in the fourth image, all you can see is the blur as she tackles him, waking my poor, confused wife.

Lucas still complains of the soreness that followed that tickle fight.

Steven bursts out laughing. I smile, and it’s as I’m about to explain the tickling that he shakes his head, grinning. “S-sorry. That one… of your finger covering the camera. I wasn’t expecting that.” 

“What?” I do a double take. Sure enough, the image of Gabi’s triumphant victory is soured by my finger creeping into the shot. “Well.” I shrug. “Nobody’s perfect.”

He grins. “No, it’s good. It makes it better.” He hands the phone back to me, looking at me now with… respect, maybe. There is something warm here. “Thanks, Dr. G.”

“Anytime, Mr. U.”

He laughs. “Same time next week?”

Chapter Text

When the text comes this time, it is so close to the top of the hour that though the timestamp reads 9:59, by the time I swipe across my phone and open it, the clock now reads 10:00.

Sorry. Running late.

I’m going to have to break this habit of his. I thought he understood that we needed every moment. I thought he understood that he was here on his father’s dime. It doesn’t align with everything else I understand about the boy.

Which means, of course, that this tardiness is a symptom of something else.

When he arrives at 10:03, I go out and fetch him. There are bags under his eyes, like he hasn’t been sleeping well. He’s got his normal pink jacket, but the water bottle is missing. “Sorry,” he mutters, running a hand through his hair.

“Come on in.”

As we sit down in the room, I fold my hands over my lap. “How are you doing, Steven?”

He shrugs. “Fine. Nothing to talk about.”

I raise my eyebrows and wait. He raises his in return, lips pressed tightly together and arms crossing over his chest.

“You were late again.”

“Yeah, well!” He huffs and sinks into the cushion. “Sorry I’m not perfect. I told you my schedule’s pretty busy. So sometimes I’m late.”

“You were only on time last week.” When he was planning on tricking me, somehow, into wasting the session.

“One out of four isn’t bad,” he mutters, eyes falling to the ground.

Silence follows. If he isn’t going to open up on his own, then there isn’t much I can do for him. Steven is a puzzle. I’ve got some of the pieces, most of them along the border, but he keeps the inside pieces close to his chest, unwilling to give them up.

And he’s probably around fifteen hundred pieces, so this is going to take a while.

“What?” He nearly bursts, as if I’ve been pushing him to speak this entire time. “Okay, all right! I hate being here, and I hate talking about myself, so of course I get here early and then sit in the car forever trying to convince myself to get out and come in here because like you said, Dad’s spending all his money on me here, and I can’t let him waste it. And I start thinking about how, really, in the grand scheme of things it isn’t that big of a dent in his wallet, speaking in percentages, and then I feel awful because it still isn’t my money, and if it was I’d probably be more willing to skip this, and then I get up to drag myself in and realize it’s actually way past time to show up.”

“Breathe.”

“Shut up.”

Immediately he winces, and he puts his head in his hands. I don’t even get enough time to take offense. “No, I’m sorry. It’s not your fault. This is what you’re paid to do.”

“What is it, exactly, that I’m paid to do?”

He looks up and waves a hand in my general direction. “You know.”

“I wouldn’t ask if I knew.”

“You don’t know what you’re being paid for?”

“I don’t know what you think I’m being paid for.”

Steven sits up now, and head tilted. There’s a crinkle to his brow, and he works his throat for a moment. Then: “To help me, obviously.”

I almost smile. “Let’s cut the bullshit, yeah? Just be honest with me. That’s what I’m supposed to be doing. What do you think I’m doing?”

“No…” He groans. “I don’t… Let’s not do this.”

“Do what? Be honest?”

“Yeah.” Steven’s ankles cross. “You know, the gems are hard enough on me right now. It feels counterintuitive to have to be open and emotionally honest and raw with them, and then come in here and do it all over again.”

“Are you honest with them? Raw with them?”

That question makes him hesitate, too. “I… well… it’s not that… I just.” He shakes his head. “I can’t be. And they expect it of me now, like… like therapy’s just gonna magically make me able to articulate everything.”

I open my mouth to ask what happened, but he breezes past me. Or maybe he just doesn’t notice, eyes on the floor again. “I was talking to Connie on the phone, and… I don’t know why, but it’s just easier to talk to her. And I mentioned I was seeing you, cuz for some reason I thought you’d told her? But she was surprised. And then she said she was proud of me, and then the rest of it all came up and I word vomited a bunch of stuff, and I guess Pearl overheard me. And as soon as I hung up she was in my room, and I hadn’t even noticed her, and she was all teary-eyed and said she was so glad that I was ‘making progress!’ And that she couldn’t wait to see me continue! And it really ticked me off. But I…”

He laughs, the sound empty. I get the impression he’s laughing at himself, and not in a good way. “I can’t just tell her that it made me mad, right? Because then she’ll blame herself and get depressed, or whatever. But I tell her to get out of my room. And the she gets mad! And then the other gems get involved, and suddenly I’m the bad guy.”

I tap my finger against my arm as he talks. When he stops, falling back against the couch, I make a comment. “You’re responsible for others’ feelings, then.” 

“Well…” He waves a hand. “I dunno. It sounds weird when you say it like that.”

“How would you say it?”

He shrugs. “Not like that.”

I raise my eyebrows and wait. After nearly twenty seconds, he looks up to meet my gaze, and there is something determined in there. As if he’s fighting me on this.

“So you're responsible for their pain. By your logic, Pearl is the one responsible for your anger in this scenario.”

“What? No!” 

“Then by all means, explain the difference.”

“You’re so…” 

His fists clench, legs twitch. I can tell he wants to stand, either to pace or to leave, but he does neither. “You’re… you’re interpreting the things I’m saying in bad faith, and I don’t like it.”

I bite back a laugh, but the smile still comes. “Would you like me to play devil’s advocate? I can do that, if you’d prefer.”

“What do you call this?”

“A normal conversation.”

“All due respect, no conversation we’ve ever had has been ‘normal.’”

“That’s because you don’t understand how to talk about yourself.”

“I…” The fight is there, in his face and in his voice, but he blinks, recognition flashing in his eyes. “Huh?”

I wish I could say I don’t believe the confusion, after everything we’ve talked about. “You call yourself ‘conceited’ for attending therapy because the sole purpose is to benefit you. Yet the very fact that you’re here, that you come — even if you arrive late —  shows an innate awareness of how you affect your loved ones, and how much room you know you have to grow. It shows, Steven, that you know you can’t do that alone.

“But you still hate it. For as pleasant as our last session ended, for you it doesn’t absolve this practice of being forced to talk about yourself, even if you understand the end goal. Because your primary motivation isn’t to help yourself. It’s to avoid others’ pain.”

The silence that follows is thoughtful. His expression is of a softer kind of frustration, and as he leans back against the couch again, his arms drop to rest on his legs. “Man. I… kind of hate that you’re so good at reading me.”

I smirk. “That’s what I’m paid to do.”

Steven doesn’t realize it, but so often, I find myself simply rephrasing something he’s just said. In the counseling world, we call this reflection, and makes it infinitely easier to understand just what’s going on in my patient’s head. And if I’m inaccurate, he has no problem saying so. It’s when I hit the mark that it either irritates him, or causes a revelation.

“Is that… wrong?” His hands shove into his pockets, his shoulders curve. But he’s looking at me as he asks. “I mean… is that the wrong reason to be here? Should I be doing this solely for myself?”

I take a moment to consider my answer. “Ideally, you would be motivated to improve yourself to lessen your own suffering, and a byproduct of that would be that your loved ones would worry less for you. But you’ll get there with time.”

“Will I? I just…” He sighs, frowning. “For a moment, I thought I was making… ‘progress.’ I thought I was getting a rein on my anger. Then you pointed out that the anger isn’t the big problem, and suddenly it was like I was drowning. I couldn’t get air, I couldn’t breathe. And I thought about it, and I realized it’s because you were right.”

I blink, stunned.

“I realized that a lot of my anger comes from… from stuff that I keep trying not to think about. Like—” He hesitates. “Like that stuff you said about having to ‘play therapist,’ even if that’s what I wanted to do. Even if that’s what made me feel useful, or… maybe because it made me feel useful? I dunno. Or… or like… my mom. You know.”

I’m surprised he brings her up at all. I frown, tilt my head. “Let’s talk about your mother.”

“No.” There is absolutely no room in his voice for debate, which earns a raised eyebrow from me. He sighs. “If we do, I’m going to lose control, and I don’t want that to happen.”

He’s referring to that ‘going pink’ mode. “Is there a reason you try not to think about her?”

The look that Steven leverages at me is so teenager, it almost makes me laugh. “You can’t put that together yourself? I thought that was your job.” Throwing something I’d just said back in my face.

“Why don’t you articulate it for me?”

“No.” He crosses his arms again, sinks again. “I don’t want to think about her, remember? So what makes you think I’m going to be willing to talk about her?”

I hum. “It just seems as if you could use an outlet. Given your current relationships with your family, I’d be surprised if you felt you could talk to any of them about it.”

“There’s no point. I…” His Adam’s apple bobs, and then he looks away. “No. I don’t want to talk about this.”

I push a little more. “It seems as if you need to.”

“Hey, back off.” The words are a warning, one I’m surprised to see him issue. He meets my eyes as he says it, something angry flashing across his face, but as soon as it’s there, it’s gone, and he’s averting his eyes again. “...I’ll talk about her when I’m good and ready.”

“Do you believe you’ll ever be ready?”

“Someday!” He throws his arms up in exasperation. “But that day isn’t today! So leave. It. Alone.”

He’s nearly growling. I nod, understanding that right now, there might be no pushing. Most of my patients will, with a little bit of pressure, open up about things they don’t want to. Steven clearly isn’t one of them.

“All right.” I ease off the gas. “But I don’t want you to get too comfortable. We are going to talk about things you don’t want to talk about, because that is how we’ll make progress. Remember—”

“Yeah, yeah. We’ve got to ‘unravel’ the deeper problem, I know.” Steven sighs. He sits up just enough to lean against the arm of the couch. “I wish you could just hand me a pill and make it all better.”

“You’re not the only one who wishes that, Steven.” I hesitate to say this next part. “But… if you want to talk about medication options, I would be more than happy to recommend a psychiatrist. So long as you are taking them in junction with attending therapy—”

“Oh, no.” He winces, waving a hand. “Sorry. I didn’t mean to… I don’t mean that this isn’t helping. I think it will, it just… it’s helping long-term, not short-term. And it isn’t like I want to just forget how to enjoy the things I like. So no pill popping for me.”

Whoa. “No, that… that isn’t what I meant, either.” He blinks, confused. “Steven, there is absolutely nothing wrong with taking medication. It won’t fix all your problems — even if your depression was chemical, it wouldn’t do that. Medication helps, it eases your burden, but the burden is still there. It might help you think more clearly, with less of a negative bias, but your issues, the errors in your line of thinking… those will remain. The medication may help you to identify those errors, but you’ll need to work here, in therapy, to unlearn them.”

“...I know you’re right.” He puts his head in his hand, elbow on the arm. “Connie’s sent me tons of articles about this kind of thing. But I feel like asking for meds is just admitting something is seriously wrong with me.”

I crack a smile. “You’re in therapy. You’re already there.”

That gets a snort of derision out of him. “Heh. Maybe you’re right.”

“Would you like that recommendation?”

He lifts his eyes up toward the ceiling, a pensive look on his face. “Mmm… let me think about it.”

I want to ask if there is a reason he’s hesitant, but I know that by now, he knows I want to ask that. I won’t push him to take something he doesn't want. 

“What other topics do you find yourself avoiding, either internally or in conversation?”

“Ah, gee. Besides the other thing… I don’t know. I get stressed about my friends leaving, but that’s like. Normal, growing up stuff. We don’t have to talk about it.”

“We can talk about ‘normal, growing up stuff’ in here.”

Steven rolls his eyes. “I don’t want to waste any of your time.”

“Whatever we talk about in here, Steven, even if it isn’t something incredibly heavy, is never a waste of my time.”

He raises his eyebrows, mouth pressed into a thin line. “Not the message I got last week.”

He’s being prickly now, intentionally obtuse. I raise my eyebrows in return. “Avoiding the subject?”

“Well, yeah. You asked what topics I avoid, and this is one of them. I don’t really want to talk about it.”

“Is there any particular reason?”

“Gee. What do you think?”

I frown. “You brought it up for a reason. There’s no need to fight me on this.”

“Fine.” The word comes out with a rush of air, and he pinches the bridge of his nose, eyes shut. “Everyone’s leaving Beach City and leaving me behind, and they’re off to do bigger and better things, and meanwhile, all I can do is just sit and play in the dirt, but I can’t even do that right, because I just project all my problems onto the plants around me, and boy, it sucks that they’re going on to become the best versions of themselves without me there, and I’m just getting worse.”

I watch him as he squeezes his eyes tight. His shoulders raise to his neck, and the fingers of his other hand dig into the cushion.

“Your friends moving on leaves you feeling neglected.”

“I guess!” He waves his hand now, eyes blinking open. Though they land on the floor and not on me, I still catch the wetness in them. “I should be happy for them, right? They’re all doing so well. Buck is going to college, Sour Cream’s got a successful DJ career, Jenny’s got a new business. Lars is going to space! Sadie’s got her life together and a brand new partner and I…”

He looks down at his hands, and he laughs, the sound weak. “Wow. What am I doing?”

“You’re getting the help you need.”

He shrugs. 

“It’s normal to want things to stay the same. ‘Same’ is comfortable. Change is not.”

“Nobody else seems to feel that way,” he mutters, not looking up.

I consider it. For most teenagers, like Connie, the change that comes with adulthood is inevitable. It’s expected that by eighteen, you’ll either be in college or preparing for it. Even if there is some moaning and groaning, you understand that high school will end.

But Steven never had that. The war was, in some ways, his schooling — except it didn’t have a deadline. The end was sudden, and he’s been struggling for purpose since.

“You aren’t getting ‘worse,’ Steven,” I reply at last. “Your feelings of inadequacy didn’t sprout from nowhere. You’ve been harboring them for years, sheltering them, allowing them to grow and fester. Ignoring them is what brought them to boil over. Now you’re in a place where you can address them without judgment.”

He shrugs. It isn’t at all a proper response, but I suppose it is better than nothing at all. We are coming up on time, and as much as I’d like to pry him open and force him to talk this out, I know that will come as his healing does.

“One thing that might help,” I begin gently, “is that, for as much as you miss your friends, Steven… they’re missing you, too. You care so much about them, and though I’ve not met them, I’m certain that it’s reciprocal. If they could do the things they want to do in Beach City, I’m sure they would.”

“Yeah,” he murmurs, sounding… defeated. “I guess you’re right. I could probably just visit them, if they’re ever free. I just… can’t walk down to the boardwalk anymore and say hi, y’know?”

“Change is not inherently bad. You will watch your friends grow and improve. You should allow yourself to do that, too.”

He chuckles. “So, what? Focus more on myself instead of them?”

“If you set your own goals for yourself, you’ll find time will fly by. If gardening becomes more of a burden than a release, you should find something else you can do, a new skill you can learn. On your own.”

“Maybe.” Even though he sounds reluctant, I can tell something about that is sticking. He’s actually making eye contact now. “I’ll think about it. But what if that doesn’t work? What if I try everything under the sun and nothing works?”

“Then report back to me, and we’ll come up with something else. You need something you can do for fun. Something that doesn’t inherently fulfill any sort of grand purpose, something that won’t help anyone other than yourself.”

That makes him laugh, high and nervous. “Geez. I… okay. When you word it like that… maybe I do.”

The boy agrees. I smile and reach to the side, grabbing my planner. “Unfortunately, our time is up for the day. Do you have anything else you’d like to mention before we close out?”

As Steven pulls his phone from his jacket pocket, a pensive look crosses his face. After a moment, he says, “Can we… schedule for a later time next week?”

I blink. “Sure. Anything going on?”

“No, uh, it’s just…” He rubs the back of his neck, looking flustered. “I… I’ve basically had to cancel anything I’m doing after these sessions. I get kinda messed up. Or, not messed up, but I… I’ve got to sit and process and not do anything for a while. And it’s kinda nice, since it means Dad and I have time for Shabbat on Fridays now. But uh. I’d also like some time in the morning to do everything else I need to before I close the day out.”

I smile. “All right, sure. Most of it’s full, but I’ve got…” I flip to the day. “How does three o’clock sound?”

“Oh, wow.” He laughs, and this time it’s genuine relief. “Man, and get out at four? That’s perfect. Thanks.”

“I’ll see you next week.”

“See ya, Dr. G.”

Chapter Text

Steven is late again.

This time, he does not grant me the privilege of a text while driving. I go out to the waiting room at the top of the hour, find he isn’t there, and return to my office. I shoot a text asking where he is — and if he is out in his car, to come in, that we can talk about his reluctance if he likes — but I don’t get a response until 3:07. 

Here.

That’s it. That is all the courtesy I get.

When I see him in the waiting room, the criticism dies on my tongue. Steven takes a moment to look up. He sits with his elbows on his knees and fingertips pressed together. His eyes are droopy, dark circles beneath them.

“Sorry, Dr. G.” His voice is small as he pushes himself to his feet. He does not have his bag, his jacket, or his bottle. “I got up kinda late today.”

I don’t say it’s okay. Nearly one fifth of our time is up, and what is this boy doing, sleeping past noon? But I can tell that this is not the time for a scolding. “Come on in,” I urge instead.

His movements are sluggish. As he sits at his usual spot, his shoes slip off, and he pulls his knees into his chest, arms resting atop them.

My butt hardly hits the seat before he says, cheek pressed into his arm and eyes on the wall, “Let’s talk about my mother.”

I feel… outmaneuvered. I’d been wondering how and when to approach this issue, after last week’s outright refusal to discuss it. Yet here he is, bringing it up himself. “Rose Quartz.”

“Pink Diamond.” It’s a correction, but not delivered with any hostility or aggression. He heaves a great sigh, eyes shutting and turning so that his face is hidden behind his arms and legs. A barrier, or an expression of vulnerability? “I keep having this dream, where I’m angry about being treated like I’m incompetent. And I don’t have the word for it, but I’m really mad that I’m being treated like a child. And I’m on Homeworld, and I let out this ear-piercing shriek, and then there’s this… shattering sound.”

As he takes a moment, I remember Connie mentioned that ‘shattering’ a gem was the equivalent of killing them, but… worse. ‘An incomplete existence, without full consciousness.’ The look on her face had been one of horror.

“And I turn around, and there’s Pearl. Not Mom’s Pearl — well, yeah, Mom’s Pearl, but I mean the one who raised me. Sorry, I… I should’ve told you this earlier, but Mom had a Pearl before the Pearl who raised me. I call her Volleyball. Long story. But Volleyball was separated from my mom because my mom screamed and the scream cracked her. So I turn around, and there’s Pearl. Except I don’t just crack her. She screams, and it’s not like the spoiled, bratty scream I made. It’s like… painful. And then I see her gem, and she shatters into pieces before I can do anything. And I reach for her, and I’ve got my mom’s gloves on my hands.”

I watch his fingers dig into his arms. He’s trembling. He stays curled up in that position. There’s nothing that indicates crying, only heavy breathing.

“So,” he says, voice small. “Let’s talk about my mother.”

“Do you think you’ll be able to have this conversation without losing control?”

It’s an honest question. It doesn’t get Steven to move from his spot, but the silence is contemplative. After a few moments, I hear a muffled, “No.”

“But you want to talk about her anyway.” I’m not surprised. There’s a reason he’s consistently mentioned her.

“I’m just…” He sits upright, hand in his hair. His knees stay pulled up and his eyes look down, but he sits up enough for me to see his face. “I’m just tired. I’m tired of having nightmares about her. I’m tired of reminding people of her just by existing. I’m tired of hiding from her. I used to look up to her so, so much, and now I’m being suffocated, and there’s nothing I can do about it. You know I ended up cancelling all my plans today because of this one dream? It’s like she’s haunting me.”

I consider his words. I consider the dream, the significance of ‘wearing his mother’s gloves.’ “Are you worried you are becoming like her?”

His face crumples with frustration. “But I’m not her! I went through so much to prove that I’m not. Garnet, Amethyst, and Pearl used to always compare me to her, and then other gems kept mistaking me for her, to the point that they tried to kill me for it on a regular basis. And then the Diamonds kept refusing to see me as anything but her until the end… But I’m not doubting that! I know who I am!”

I almost wish I was taking notes. No wonder he feels ‘suffocated.’ “That is not quite what I asked.” He blinks at me, eyebrows raising. “You know you’re not her. It’s good that you’re secure in your sense of self. I can only imagine the journey that it took to get there. But you mentioned in the dream that you ‘cracked’ Pearl, much like your mother did. Did she have ‘anger issues,’ as well?”

“... Yeah.” It is hesitant, but at least he’s talking. “It feels like I’m walking in her footsteps, repeating her mistakes. But even though I know that, I can’t… I’m stuck in this path. There’s no ship to abandon, no river to jump into.”

“Well, then it’s a good thing you have me as a road map, isn’t it?”

He smiles. Or, he tries to smile. It looks painful and forced. “Yeah.”

Even though I can put a few context clues together, I find that I have very little to actually go off of, in terms of what exactly his mother went through. I suppose I could contact Greg and ask for some more background information, but I find myself doubting that Greg would know more than Steven does.

“Tell me a little more about her.”

He opens his mouth. He pauses. “... I don’t want to get mad.”

I shrug. “Do it.”

“What?”

“Get mad, Steven. Let yourself be angry. It isn’t inherently an unhealthy emotion to have.”

“Are you stupid?” He looks at me with horror in his eyes. “I could hurt you! And — and I could hurt anyone else in this building, too! Without even being aware of it!”

“Maybe part of the reason your anger manifests in such a powerful way is because of your fear of it.”

“It isn’t an unreasonable fear to have!”

“No, it isn’t.”

He flounders, mouth agape, unable to reconcile what I’m asking of him.

“Both of these things can be true simultaneously. Your fear of your power is based on real evidence, and no one can fault you for it. But if you learned to express your anger in healthy ways, ones that didn’t rely on that power, perhaps it in turn wouldn’t hold such power over you.”

His mouth presses into a firm line, brows furrowing. “It’s not as if I’m letting my anger ‘hold power over me.’ That’s…”

He trails off, scratching at the side of his head. Then finally, he sighs. “Well. I guess I’m the one who wanted to talk about her, huh? So I guess we might as well just go all in. Leave no stone unturned!”

His nervous laughter warrants addressing. “I need you to trust me, Steven. Trust that I will find a way to talk you down if it gets to that point.”

He hesitates. For a moment, I worry that he’ll refuse. But after several long, long seconds, he nods. “Okay.”

And in we dive.


When he was younger, he was constantly compared to her. Garnet, Amethyst, and Pearl all seemed to struggle without her. Steven assures me that he never felt any resentment toward his caretakers for saying the things they did; they were lost, trying to understand his mother’s choice to have him in the first place.

It doesn’t sound like an especially healthy place to be in, as a child. But when I say as much, he rolls his eyes. “They still loved me, like any parents would. They just… didn’t really understand that I wasn’t her, for a while. It took time. It’s fine.”

Even if it isn’t, he doesn’t want to dwell on it.

He talks about his mother’s history, as he learned it. First, the video tape, hidden inside of a pink lion’s mane. I can barely wrap my head around what he says about her tears resurrecting the dead animal, so when he tries to explain the bit about… 

“He’s got this extra-dimensional plane inside there,” he says, gesturing to his neck. “I don’t know exactly how it works. But you can store things in there, and it’s things only I can reach, since I have my mom’s gem. Oh, and when I resurrected Lars, we found out that you could pass between the two of them through that plane.”

I can feel the confusion showing on my face. I’m trying very hard to remain blank, as if it all makes sense, but Steven reads me easily. “Okay, so… Lars and I went into space because of… well. That’s a whole other story. But he got hit by a laser from one of these anti-Off Color… oh, that’s a whole other thing. To summarize: he got hit and died, and I cried, and my tears resurrected him and he turned pink, so that’s how I put two and two together about Lion. And then I was able to go back home to Earth through his hair, because he also had an extra-dimensional plane inside of his hair like Lion did, and they were connected. Like, they go to the same place. Does that make sense?”

I decide to prioritize. “Let’s not worry too much about the minutiae.”

That makes him laugh, which is a relief.

The tape itself is a message left to him by his mother. 

“In it, she talks about how much she wants to have me, how being human is a gift because we’re naturally designed to change, blah blah blah.” He waves a hand, eyes rolling. “Anyway.”

“Wait.” He’s seriously intending to blow it off? “That sounds like an incredibly positive message. She knew she would never get to meet you and wanted you to have something to know how much she loved you.”

“She didn’t love me, she didn’t even know me.” 

I wonder what I would’ve done if, when I was pregnant with Lucas, I learned that I wouldn’t survive the birth. I might have done something similar, something I could pass on to him, that he could hold and treasure.

“Besides.” He seems to sink further down. “It’s not like she meant any of the stuff in the tape anyway.”

“What makes you think that?”

“Ugh, nothing!” He waves his hand quickly, as if trying to erase what he’d just said. “I’m moving on, I’m done talking about that dumb tape.”

I want to double down on it, but he pushes right past it, stubborn and headstrong. He talks about the stories Greg has told him about his mother. 

“Treated my dad like a plaything at first,” he grumbles with arms crossed over his knees. “Man, that still makes me mad. She really intended to string him along for his entire life, until he died, never knowing she didn’t really love him.”

I frown. “Is that true? Do you have evidence of that?”

“I… no.” He looks remorseful, for the first time, for saying something negative about her. “No, I don’t. And it’s mean of me to assume that, since… I think in the end, she probably really did love him. Even if at first she wasn’t intending to take it all that seriously. She was just so childish.”

Maybe she was. She could have been both childish and in love. We all grow in our relationships with one another.

“No, wait, let me ask you.” I blink, stunned, as he flips his arm toward me, palm extended. “What do you think about her? You’re both moms.”

“I do not have nearly enough information to come to a conclusion.” And then, though I know it will bite me, I have to add. “And you seem to have a bit of a bias about her.”

“Do I?” He scowls. “Think there might be a reason for that?”

“I’m not faulting you.”

“Let me hear what you think about her anyway. Honest opinion.”

I tap my chin. Considering everything I know about Steven, and everything he has told me about his mother… what do I think of her?

“Why don’t you tell me more, and I’ll give you my honest assessment at the end of the session.”

He huffs. “Cop-out.” But he continues, reluctantly obliging me.

He talks about the time he discovered that she’d ‘shattered’ Pink Diamond. Of course, now he knows that she’d never shattered anyone, but…

“To be honest, if she had shattered someone, it’d be preferable to what I know about her now.” 

I raise my eyebrows to indicate my disbelief. It may be true, but I have heard just how horrific the act of shattering is.

“Did I tell you…” He sighs. “We used to have this big portrait of her up in the house. It’s pretty, I guess. I mean, my friend is the one who painted it, and she’s really talented, so of course it’s gorgeous. I was trying to find a new place to put it, but rather than finding somewhere appropriate for it, I just hid it away. I stuffed it in Lion’s mane because I was so sick of looking at her.”

“Do you think that hiding her from your field of vision was beneficial at all?”

He shrugs. “Made me feel better. It was nice not having to be reminded of her every time I walked in the room.”

“You weren’t reminded of her every time you didn’t see it there?”

“Well…” The question makes him scowl. “Maybe a little. But she looks so holier-than-thou in the portrait. I was glad to see it disappear.”

“Were the others okay with that?”

He shrugs, arms folding across his chest. I wait, patiently.

“They didn’t tell me if they did,” he mutters when it becomes clear I’m not moving on without an answer. “They used to tell me all these grand stories about her, about how she was always so kind and caring and empathetic, how she felt real sorrow when her friends were hurt, and that’s how her healing tears worked… but I don’t know. I think they’re distorting how it really happened with how they wish it really happened.”

“Is that your call to make?”

“I’ve got a clearer picture of her than they do,” he snaps. “They’ve got all these memories, thousands of years of memories and nostalgia. I never even met her. I’ve gotten facts from people who were there, firsthand accounts!”

“Their accounts are also firsthand.”

“Look.” He meets my gaze as he talks now. “If they’d known who she was, they wouldn’t have been friends with her. But because all the Rose Quartzes were bubbled, they never had a real chance of even figuring it out on their own! She was real good about covering her tracks! And I met some of the Rose Quartzes. The originals, I mean. And they look and sound completely different from her! She basically snatched one design to play ‘pretend’ in, and—”

I hate to interrupt, but I have to. “Wait, sorry. Why were they all bubbled?” My understanding of ‘bubbling’ is vague at best, but I understand it to be a sort of… recovery mechanic for corrupted gems.

He blinks. “Oh. So… my mom wasn’t a real Rose Quartz, right? She just pretended to be one. Well, because she was spearheading a rebellion as a Rose Quartz, all of the actual Rose Quartzes got poofed and bubbled. Put in stasis for thousands of years. All those years are gone now, taken from them, and they’ll never get it back, and it’s all her fault, because rather than dismantling the colony on her own regardless of what the other Diamonds thought, she decided she needed their approval, too.”

Harsh. “Can you elaborate on that?”

He rolls his eyes. “Yeah, sure. So apparently she tried to talk them out of the colony as Pink Diamond, and they didn’t listen. But she was still a Diamond. She could’ve commanded the gems on Earth however she wanted, and the other Diamonds might’ve been mad, but they would’ve dealt. Instead, she began an uprising that cost hundreds, or maybe thousands, of gem lives. I don’t know how many were shattered, used for forced fusion experiments. More lost their minds in corruption and are only now returning to conscious thought. It’s awful.”

I frown. “That certainly seems like an error in judgment on her part.” Though who can say, without being there to assess the situation themselves? When we say hindsight is 20/20, we mean that there is absolutely no way to know what choice will lead to what outcome. All we can do is make our best guess. In wartime, the stakes are even higher. “Would you say that was her worst—”

He laughs. It hurts me a little to hear that.

“Last year, this gem I’d never seen before showed up in Beach City with this giant injector full of biopoison.” Oh, I remember that. It’d made the local news, and Connie had mentioned to me how worried she’d been in the aftermath about the effect it would have on wildlife. “Spinel. I think she was created specifically to be Mom’s playmate. Thousands of years ago, Mom told her to stay put. So she did. For thousands of years she was solitary and alone, and when she discovered Mom died, she came straight to Earth. She was angry, and she had every right to be! She took it out on the planet, which was wrong, but I can’t blame her! Mom had all that time to come back and bring her to Earth, and she never did! She just abandoned her!”

Here it comes. That pink glow seems to almost nervously rise, as if it had a mind of its own. Steven hardly seems to notice as he gets to his feet.

“Steven.”

“And then there’s the whole thing about how she cracked my friend Volleyball! To the point that even though she’s fine, her wound still manifests! Like — add all this up! What kind of image am I supposed to have of her?!”

The glow spreads so rapidly I almost miss it. “Steven—”

“It just — it just paints this picture of her that I can’t stand! Horrible, neglectful, abusive! And if I could talk to her and try to figure out what she was trying to do, maybe I could forgive her, but she went and killed herself so I’ll nev—”

He goes still. Hands freeze mid-gesture, arms stay suspended. His face wipes of the anger that was there a moment before, pink vanishing, and his eyes sink back down to me.

I’m staring. I shouldn’t be. I’m still staring. 

“Steven.” It has never been quite this difficult to keep my voice steady. “Do you believe your mother killed herself?”

His eyes skitter to the door. I would never lock my patient in, but he still looks cornered.

“I wouldn’t…” His voice is weak now. Slowly he sits back down, with such reluctance that he might have been forcing himself to sit through a meal with an enemy. His fingers curl, nails digging into the flesh of his palms. They fall, with aching carefulness, and set against his knees. “I wouldn’t… no. No, of course not.”

But he said it. We both know that he can’t take that back.

“It’s just…” His voice breaks. “It’s just that I — for the longest time, I thought she’d had me just… because she wanted to have me. Right? And even though she knew she’d have to give up her form to do it, she just wanted it that much. That’s what moms do, right?

“But then… every time I learn something new about her, it’s about some horrible mistake she made. Or something that — that she should consider a mistake. Something maybe I even can’t forgive. And… her decision to have me suddenly makes a lot more sense beyond just some — some ‘maternal bond’ with a child she’d never see. Oh, she didn’t really want to have me. She was just tired of looking back on thousands of years of mistakes. She didn’t want to deal with the repercussions of all of it, or she didn’t want to deal with the guilt of all of it. She wanted out.”

He presses his face into his hands, suddenly, but not before I see the tears. He curls up against the corner of the couch, pressing between the back and the arm, as if trying to hide. 

“And… it’s basically impossible to kill a gem. A diamond, even more so. So of course, she took the only way out she could…”

“Wait.” I hold up my hand. I don’t intend to stop him — really, he isn’t even looking at me, so it’s not as if he’d respond to it. I see the train of thought that led him to that conclusion, and it’s truly heartbreaking, but it doesn’t add up with all of the evidence he’s given me. “What about that tape you mentioned? The one she left behind for you?”

“Just covering her tracks,” he mutters. “Didn’t want the others getting any wiser. Especially Pearl. She probably would’ve caught on to it really fast.”

“I thought Lion was the one who had the tape. And you said Pearl didn’t know about him at all until you were twelve?”

He doesn’t say anything. He stays curled up, hiccuping, shoulders trembling, trying desperately to pretend he isn’t crying. My mind is racing, struggling to figure out a way to reach him. 

“Okay, Steven Universe. Do you want to hear my assessment?” He blinks at me with wide, wet, childlike eyes. A boy forced to grow up too soon, and never allowed to grow up at all. Slowly he nods, voice gone.

“Your mother seems to me a selfish woman. She threw tantrums, hurt others, never quite thinking her actions through until it was too late. She abandoned her family and her friends for the sake of curiosity, until that curiosity became genuine care; and then, unable to stomach breaking their hearts, she chose to confront them under a mask. The mask she chose cast blame and consequence onto hundreds of others’, but never herself. 

“But then she fell in love with a human. She decided she wanted a child with that human more than anything in the world, regardless of the cost to herself. And she decided to leave that child a message, so that he would always know she loved him, so that he would never have wondered what she would say to him if she were there. Instead, the consequences for the selfish decisions she made in the past came down on his head, and now he sits in my office, wondering why.”

“I…” His voice is raw. He sniffs, clears his throat, but the sobs weigh his words. “I didn’t mean… I mean, as a mom. Do you think — do you think she was a good…?”

He trails off, watching me for another uncertain moment, before he buries his face in his hands again.

“I think she wanted to be,” I say at last. “I can’t say what she would have done if she had been able to care for you herself. Maybe she would have protected you from the consequences if she had lived to be here today. Or maybe she would have run away from them again. But either way, her intent, in giving birth to you, was to allow you to be loved. And I think that it is possible that the wonderful stories the gems have told you about her and the horrible things you’ve discovered about her can coexist.”

Steven leans against the back of the couch, hands dropping, and he stares up at the ceiling. His eyes, nose, and cheeks are red. It is encouraging to see.

“...You know,” he says, in the gentle quiet as we approach our time. “I don’t… hate her. I know I’ve said some pretty awful things about her, but I don’t. I never did. I just wish I could talk to her. I wish I could sit down with her about some of the horrible things she’s done. And I hate that I’ll never be able to. I hate that the best case scenario is I learn to move on and accept that she’s done all these awful things. Am I supposed to just… forgive her for them? Just because she loved me?”

“No.” He seems surprised by my immediate answer. “Steven, you’re never ‘supposed’ to forgive anyone. It should never be expected of you. And you shouldn’t be expected to pay recompense. You are not your mother. Your existence is not defined by her, and you should not allow it to be.”

The silence that follows feels, for the first time, whole.

Chapter Text

I open the door into the waiting room on Tuesday morning and smile as I make eye contact with my next patient.

“Hi, Virginia!” 

“Hello, Connie.” I step back to let the smiling girl inside. “Come on in.”

Connie carefully sits down on the couch. Her spot is about as close as she can get to my therapist’s chair. “How was your month?”

I can’t help but smile. “Mine went well. I got in a few naps, went camping. And how was yours?”

As a therapist, I’m not technically allowed to have favorites. It’s a bit like being a teacher in that regard. All of my clients are in equal need of me, so I would never admit to preferring one over the other.

“I did what you said to do for the presentation, and it went great! The teacher totally understood about my anxiety and offered to let me use flash cards. She gave me some helpful suggestions too!”

However, whenever a patient consistently listens to the advice I give, I can’t help but feel some fondness for them.

“I’m glad to hear it.” I smile, and Connie beams back at me. “So, school’s going well?”

“Oh, yeah.” She laughs. “I’m doing a lot of studying, but I’m trying to do what you said. ‘Balance’ it with everything else. I haven’t had my sword lessons with Pearl for a while, but I talked to her about that, and we agreed we should have one soon. We’re meeting up two Saturdays from now, which will be perfect, because that’s right after the SAT. Perfect time for me to not have nearly as much studying to do, and also to blow off some steam.”

I raise my eyebrows, knowing exactly what she’s not saying here. “It also sounds like the perfect time to drop in on Steven.”

Connie giggles, her cheeks darkening. “Heh. Yeah, I’m not subtle. But it’s going to be a surprise!” 

“A surprise?” 

“Yeah. It’s…” She stops here, a contemplative look on her face. “It’s just… been so long since I’ve gotten to visit. Which sucks. I miss Steven a lot, but… I also miss the beach. I miss getting to mush sand between my toes, or running into the water and getting salt in my mouth. I miss the boardwalk, where we could get fry bits. I’ve never been brave enough to ask for the bits at any place here, but in Beach City, where everybody knows that’s all Steven gets? It’s totally normal. So it’s a surprise, because some of the things I want to do there are things I want to do on my own first, before I head up and meet him. I love him—”

She blushes again. She stumbles over the word about as much as I first expected Steven to.

“—I love him, you know! I really do. But once I meet up with him, that’s it. We’re by each other’s side till I have to get going. And I like to spend some time alone.”

“You’re more than allowed to want that, Connie. Have you told him that?”

Connie hums, tapping her fingers against her thighs. “I could, I guess. I don’t want him to take it the wrong way. And as it is, we already rarely see each other. So I’d rather take the time I have to myself and enjoy it before I go up and see him.”

“That may work for now, but it is perfectly all right to set boundaries and let him know you’re going to spend some time alone.”

She shrugs. “Yeah, I know. If I’m ever annoyed by him, I will. But… there’s also.” She laughs, nervous. “There’s also something… calming about his presence. I don’t know if I’ll ever want to be alone when I’m with him.”

I raise an eyebrow. All of her problems with social anxiety combined with her natural introversion cause me to doubt the claim, but I suppose that isn’t my call to make.

“And I miss seeing the gems. Not just Pearl, Garnet and Amethyst, though I do miss them too. I miss the other ones, too; the ones that are healing from corruption. I always enjoyed talking to them, even if I got the anxiety jitters. It was eye-opening.”

“It sounds like you’re going to get some much-needed you time.”

“Yeah.” She sighs, softly. Longingly. “One day I’ll live on the beach. Maybe even in Beach City. And then I can just do all that stuff on the regular.”

“You know…” Connie sits with her hands in her lap, eyes bright and eager, attentive. “You’ve made a lot of progress since you started.”

“You think so?” Connie shrugs, scratching at her cheek. “I don’t know. I still get anxious all the time. My palms start sweating when teachers announce group projects. Dad talks about work, and I start trying to plan out how the good-byes are going to go when we get moved again. Mom criticizes one of my friends, and I have to try not to cry in front of her. Because Mom doesn’t have to like all my friends all the time.”

We’ve talked at length about how her younger years, colored by isolation due to a helicopter parent and frequent moves, have fed her social anxiety. Her mother’s gotten better, her father's job has been more stable, and that in turn has helped Connie, but the scars remain.

“But you’ve learned coping mechanisms to deal with the anxiety you struggle with. You’re on medication that helps you manage it. And you’ve learned how to open up to others about it. Am I wrong?”

“No.” The admission is soft. “Like… Steven has been really patient with me when I need reassurance. Though I think sometimes he needs reassurance more than I do, but he doesn’t know how to ask for it.”

She winces. “Oh, crap. I’m sorry. Now that he’s your patient, I probably shouldn’t tell you much about him, right?”

I shrug. “Just because I can’t talk about him doesn’t mean that you can’t. If it affects you, then you should.”

“Okay. Well, in that case.” She claps her hands together. “I was wondering. Uh… did Steven mention that he told me he was seeing you?”

I recall that conversation clearly, and surely something like this is appropriate to share, without giving any details. “He did.”

“I’m not mad that you didn’t tell me. I get it. Patient confidentiality and all that.” Her fingers twist each other in her lap. “I… uh. I know you probably can’t tell me about any of the things you’ve talked about.”

“I can’t.” She looks crestfallen. “Connie, you know I can’t share anything you’ve told me with him, either.”

“Oh no, I’m not worried about that,” she clarifies. “I… I’m worried about Steven.” A beat passes, and she quickly elaborates. “Well, I mean, you know I’m always worried about Steven. That’s basically a personality trait of mine by this point.”

I frown. “To care for a loved one is not a negative thing, nor is it part of your personality. Especially if said loved one is in a rough spot.”

“Well, yeah, I know you’re right. But it seems like recently…” She scratches at her head. “I don’t know. He’s always been busy. And now that he hasn't been busy, now that he’s had all this time to himself, the only thing he can do is turn his thoughts inward. And even though I totally think he should, because I’ve learned that trying to minimize your feelings only makes them bigger… I think he’s struggling a lot.”

She pauses for so long that I’m just about to reply when she continues. “And he… he’s got a meeting with the Diamonds tomorrow.”

Ah, right. I’m probably going to hear about that from him on Friday. “He’s a bit resentful of them, isn't he?” From what they’ve both said to me, at any rate. Refusing to call him by anything other than his mother’s name and pronouns for the longest time, followed by insisting on calling him for what Steven sees as things they could handle on their own, they seem to have earned Steven’s ire.

But Connie hesitates again. “You… could say that. With Yellow and Blue. But with White…”

I blink. This is the first time she’s bothered to differentiate between them, as if they aren’t a monolithic entity. “… what about White?”

Connie averts her gaze, fidgeting with the sleeves of her shirt. “It isn’t like irritation or annoyance, not with her. White isn’t present for most of his visits unless she’s somehow relevant, and Steven tries really hard to make it so she isn’t.”

“What is it about her, in your perspective, that causes him to avoid her?”

She bites her lip. I frown, trying to put together pieces, but Steven has spoken so minimally about the Diamonds. Only that he’s exasperated with their persistent attention.

“I shouldn’t tell you.” She sighs and crosses her ankles, leaning back into the cushion. “I saw what happened. And I haven’t told you yet because I’m not the one who got hurt. Even before I knew he was going to see you, it felt wrong to talk about it like I was the victim.”

Why is it that I suddenly think of the part in Steven’s intake form, at the very end of his history of trauma and abuse? He mentioned something so terrible that he couldn’t word it, mentioned that it was only something two others knew about: the perpetrator, and one witness.

“I had nightmares for the longest time,” she murmurs, fingers curling. I remember when she first entered therapy, she spoke of nightmares, but was similarly evasive as to their content. At the time, I'd chalked it up to stress. She'd had plenty. “I have no idea how Steven coped with it. We don’t talk about it.”

“It sounds to me as if you should. Talk about it, that is.”

“And give you this kind of information before he's ready to tell you himself?” She scoffs. “I can’t do that! That’s like… imagine if someone told you I was bi before I had! I’d’ve been pissed.”

Hm. This is a tricky situation. If it affects her that deeply, we should absolutely discuss it. But I understand her concern for breaking Steven’s trust.

“If not with me, then you should at least be able to talk about it with Steven.”

“Oh, no.” She shakes her head, biting her lower lip. “No. I couldn’t. He’d probably be mad at me for bringing it up, for acting like I was the one hurt by it.”

I wonder if I should mention to Connie that Steven has only ever spoken of her with adoration in his eyes. “Does he get angry at you often?”

“Well, no, but…” She sighs. “He does get angry, and sometimes it’s at me. But most of the time I think he’s angry at himself, and that makes him lash out at others. You’re helping him with that though, right?”

“Of course. But it will be a long journey for him, a slow one.”

“Well, yeah. I’ve been in therapy for like, two years? And I’m only just now getting to a point where I’m good on the regular. We only need to meet once a month now, that's crazy good! But I can’t imagine how long it’s going to take him.”

“He may surprise us. Therapy can take you to some startling places. But either way, I’m sure as long as you’re there to support him, he’ll make it through it.”

“Oh, it’s not just me.” Connie laughs. “They don’t always know how to show it, but all the gems are there for him, too. You know the saying about how it takes a village to raise a child? I feel like that’s true for Steven, but more like, the entire village all wanted in on raising him. He’s loved so, so much, by everyone in Beach City. I hope he knows that.”

She smiles, and I smile in return. Then she blinks. “Wait. I don’t want to talk about Steven the entire time. Let me summarize that with: just be careful with him this week.”

I smile. “I think I can do that.”

“Okay, great! Let me tell you about this really stupid thing that Jeff did. You won’t believe the drama he’s dragged me into this time…”

And isn’t it a sign of how far she’s come, how she can talk about this ‘drama’ with exasperation in her voice and a roll of her eyes rather than overindulged fear.


It is nearly 6:30 on Wednesday night when I get a phone call. I’m doing dishes in the kitchen when my work phone starts ringing. Josefina picks it up and squints at the caller ID as I tug off the rubber gloves.

“Is that really his last name?” she asks incredulously, and I know exactly who it is. I take the phone from her and pick up the call, pressing it to my ear.

 “Hello, Greg.”

“Uh, hi, doctor.” There is a moment where I pray, however foolishly, that this is just a call about scheduling. But no.

“We’ve got a situation.”

Chapter Text

Beach City is half an hour out. Greg insists on covering the gas mileage and paying my rate and a half, all without me saying a word about it.

“It’s going to be at least thirty minutes before I can make it there,” I’m saying as I get into the car. “Can it wait that long?”

Greg sighs. “It’s gonna have to.”

“Tell me what happened.”

“Well, he had this meeting with the Diamonds today. Usually they go fine, even if he’s a bit grumpy about it. Today… I dunno, I guess maybe it didn’t go so well.”

My phone vibrates with an incoming text. I ignore it, putting Greg on speakerphone so I can properly drive.

“We were gonna have dinner when he got back, so I was there. I’m usually not at the house for this kinda thing, but I’m glad I was there today, because he was… frantic.”

Another text.

“Frantic how?”

“Well, first off, the moment he warps in, he’s running. Like he’s scared for his life, I-I’ve never seen him so panicked. And I call his name and he doesn’t turn around, he just shoots up the stairs.”

Another text.

“So I go up, and all the gems come with, because it kinda freaks all of us out a little. And he doesn’t stop at his bedroom, he goes out the balcony door and heads to the greenhouse. Which — hey, it’s already a little weird he warped into the main house and not the base we built with the warp pad specifically for him. But before we can head out, we hear the warp in the house activate again and there’s Spinel, and that’s when it hits me that he’s being followed.”

“Followed?”

“Yeah, okay, so — we get to the greenhouse base thing, and Steven’s got his glowing pink thing going on. I try to talk to him, but then Spinel barrels in, and he…”

My phone buzzes again.

“…he just snaps. He yells at all of us to get out, and I felt like maybe we should. We probably should give him some space. But before I can say anything, Spinel tells him to knock it off, and then — then he just starts screaming, and we all get blasted back, and the floor under him cracks and so does the glass walls of the base. And then comes the dome.”

The dome. The dome? “What do you mean?”

“Uh, he. He hasn’t told you?” And then Greg heaves out a sigh that tells me he isn’t so surprised about that. “So, for some reason, when he goes pink, sometimes he creates this pink dome. Or, he told me once that it’s been a wall before too. But it happens when gets really overwhelmed. Or really angry. Or… well, when he’s got some intense emotions going on.”

I think of all the instances he’s gone pink or nearly pink and wonder just how much danger I was in.

My phone buzzes with another text.

“And it overlapped the greenhouse. Glass came down around him and while we were all outside the radius of that—”

He stops. For a moment I worry my connection’s fuzzy, but then he lets out this sound: painful, choking, teary. 

“He got cut up pretty bad.”

“Wh—” I pull my phone in close to my mouth. “Call a doctor, Greg! A real one! An ambulance! You shouldn’t—”

“No, he’s fine.” Even though Greg says that, he’s still shaken. “He’s fine, he… he can heal himself. He did heal himself. But it. It was a lot of glass, and he’s still in there, and you gotta get here soon, Dr. G.”

“I’ll be there soon.” I’ve got about fifteen more minutes. “Anything else I need to know?”

“Uh… no.” He pauses. “W…what should we do till you get here?”

“Leave him alone.” It comes out a little harsher than I’d like it to. “We don’t know what happened, so it’s best to give him the time he wants to cool off. You were right to want to respect that, so make sure the others do so as well.”

“Got it.”

“Did Spinel tell you anything?”

“No. Soon as she got blasted back, she ran off.”

Of course.

My phone buzzes. 

“I’ll see you soon, Greg.”

“Thanks.”

At the next red light I hit, I unlock my phone to see six text messages from Steven Universe. I’m not surprised. They read as follows:

uh, hey doc. i think my dad’s calling you? don’t worry, it’s fine! no need to worry. :)

seriously don’t worry about it, he’s freaking out over nothing. :) i’ll talk about it on friday. see you then

wait, are you really on your way?? no PLEASE don’t come

please please PLEASE DON’T COME

WHY DOESN’T ANYONE EVER WANT TO LEAVE ME THE FUCK ALONE

fine. i don’t care anymore.

And it’s as the light turns green that a final text comes in:

i’m sorry.


Greg is the one who answers the door. “Hey,” he says. His eyes are rimmed with red. “C’mon in.”

I step inside and take a look around. Sitting at the couch is a tall woman with afro-textured hair, glasses that obscure her eyes, appearing mostly unaffected. Garnet. In the kitchen, grabbing something from the fridge, is a short, stocky woman with purple skin and long, lavender hair. Amethyst. Pacing by the staircase is a tall, lanky woman with pale skin and a prominent nose. Pearl.

They match everything I’ve heard from Steven and Connie.

“Hello everyone,” I greet, wanting to keep introductions brief. I’m not here for any of them. “Is he upstairs?”

“Yeah.” Greg glances toward the staircase. He looks much older than he actually is, and I suspect it has to do with his boy. “Up the stairs, right out the balcony. You can’t miss it.”

The pink dome, he means.

“Wait.” Pearl speaks just as I walk past her. I pause, of course, turning to her, and find that all eyes are on me. “You said we should leave him alone. If you’re going to speak to him, then we want to be there with you.”

I already know Steven’s answer. “No.”

“Hey!” Amethyst snaps, closing in. Garnet and Greg remain where they are, eyes averted. “Steven isn’t yours. What gives you the right to, to just come in here and tell us what we’re doing wrong—”

“I’m not.” There’s no right way to raise a child, but that’s irrelevant. “Steven’s lashing out at all of you for a reason. Until he’s calmed down, I don’t want any of you there unless he asks for you. By name.”

“Wh…!”

Amethyst looks incensed, but Garnet stands upright. All eyes on the room turn to her. Out of respect, I gather. But Garnet looks to me and gives a single nod. “Go.”

Permission granted, I make my way up.


The building that was acting as both Steven’s base of operations and a greenhouse has been destroyed. Glass litters the walkway, and I’m relieved I chose closed-toed shoes tonight.

The pink dome supersedes the glass one. Though fragments of the original remain, barely standing, Steven’s dome overrides it. The original door remains outside of his barrier. 

I knock. “Steven?”

There is no answer. I observe the door for a moment. It appears automatic, but doesn’t open for me. Then I spot the hand-shaped imprint to the right, and press my hand to it.

It opens. Voilà.

Inside, I see even more shattered glass. Plants have fallen over in their pots, dirt spilled everywhere. The boy himself sits in the middle of a diamond-studded pink creation, arms folded, knees drawn up. His head is turned away from the entrance. As I come closer to the pink wall that separates us, I notice tears in his jacket with dark stains, blood smeared against his hands.

I can only imagine how shaken he is.

“Hello, Steven.”

“Hi, Dr. G.” His voice is resigned and exhausted, embarrassed and horrified. Quiet, as if afraid I might hear him. Or perhaps, afraid he might be expected to provide me some answers. “I’m sorry you had to come all the way out here over this.”

“You are not a burden.” This does not call his eyes to me. I wonder what I would see in them. 

I glance about the room for a spot to sit and discover what appears to be a giant cat bed. The word Lion is embroidered in its side, though for how clean it is, I wonder if the feline ever uses it. I bring it to the edge of the barrier, turn it over, and sit cross-legged on its glass-free underside.

“Why don’t you tell me what happened?”

He shrugs. The movement is so small that I nearly don’t catch it.

“Steven.”

“Isn’t it obvious?”

“No, it isn’t.”

One arm, the one closest to me, gestures vaguely to the surrounding area. His head remains down, hidden. “Look how gardening turned out for me,” he mutters, a non-answer. “First I mistreated my cactus. Then he ran away. Then I neglected the rest. And now I’m hurting them again.”

I glance at the plants in question. Now that he mentions it, some of them do appear to have browning, yellowing leaves, but I don’t know enough about horticulture to know if that is significant or not.

“What happened with the cactus was a mistake.”

“No, it wasn’t. It was a dot in a graph, the mark of a trend that I’ve been ignoring for a long time.”

“What are you talking about?”

“The only thing I’ve ever done is hurt people. When I was venting to Cactus Steven, I wasn’t ever thinking about what he wanted. I was angry and hurting, but he’d only come into existence that day. Shouldn’t I have been showing him the good parts of life, instead of the bad?”

I still don’t understand. “You weren’t in your right mind—”

“I’m never in my right mind!”

It’s a shriek that could shatter glass. It doesn’t. But he’s turned toward me, rage more blatant on his face than it has ever been. I blink, stunned, but my silence doesn’t help. He growls and slams his fists against the ground, and then I realize there is glass on the floor at his side. “St—”

“I’m always in pain, I’m always hurting, and there’s always something I have to take personal instead of accepting that that’s just how life is! I’m never going to be okay! And I hate it!”

I watch as he slams his fists again. It takes a long moment, but slowly the wince comes, and he holds up his palm to his face, right hand around the wrist as he examines it. Blood flows from a long cut across the heel of his left hand.

I’ve never witnessed his healing powers. It is a marvel to behold, something out of a comic book or a TV show. He presses a slow kiss to the cut, and it vanishes with a sparkle, as if it were never there, leaving baby-smooth skin behind.

I ask a question I have to ask.

“Are you hurting yourself intentionally?”

“No!” The answer comes too quick. I raise my eyebrow and then comes the sigh, a sound of defeat. “Not… no. I don’t… I don’t—”

Then, the anger. “Ugh, I don’t want to be! I just get so… so angry, and — and the glass is here, and — and if yelling won’t snap me out of this, then —”

“Then talking will.” 

His head jerks up to meet my gaze, eyes aflame. I refuse to flinch. “You won’t touch that glass in my presence. Is that understood?”

“Or what?”

“Or I will call an ambulance and have you put on suicide watch.”

“I wouldn’t—!”

“Not intentionally, no.”

“I can heal myself just fine! It’s not like it even matters!”

It does, and it breaks my heart that he can’t see that.

“What would you say if you saw Connie doing this?”

That question stops him. It resets him, almost, the way his expression skitters from anger and self-loathing to panic and fear to aching sadness. “N-no, that’s not… she wouldn’t.”

“What makes you so sure?”

His hands grip his arms. “I… it’s different. Connie can’t heal herself. If she could…”

“If she could, would you tell her it doesn’t matter, as long as she fixes it?”

Steven winces. He seems to recede further back, turning away from me. “Leading question.”

“This isn’t court.”

“Feels like it sometimes.”

I want to ask when he’s ever been in court, but I should know better than to do that by now.

“I want you to think about what you would say to Connie.” I won’t push him to tell me what he would say to her, if it really is so difficult a scene for him to envision. “And I want you to say it to yourself.”

He blinks. “...Out loud?”

“If you’d like. Because, Steven, it hurts you in more ways than one.”

I watch him chew on his bottom lip. After several long moments, he pushes himself to his feet — I watch very carefully to make sure he isn’t hurting himself on those glass shards again — and he walks closer, to my side of the dome.

To my therapist’s chair.

He kicks what glass is there out of the way before he sits down, criss-cross applesauce, directly in front of me, so close I could reach out and touch him if not for this wall. With hands settled on his knees, he looks me in the eye.

I see determination.

“Okay.”

“Okay?”

“Okay.” He nods. “I… I’m kind of scared. But I’m going to try to have compassion.”

My heart swells with pride. It must be more evident on my face than I realize because he immediately winces. “Oh, don’t do that.”

“Sorry.” I laugh a little, gentle and soft. “I’m just proud of you. You have no idea how far you’ve come.”

“Doesn’t feel like it.” He props his chin up in his hand, elbow on his knee. “... Did Dad tell you what happened?”

“His version of events. From what I understand, Spinel wasn’t very forthcoming with information. So you get to tell me whatever you’d like about what happened during your meeting with the Diamonds.”

Steven nods again. “It… it’s probably going to get a little heavy.”

“It’s been plenty heavy already.”

He cracks a small smile. “Yeah, that’s fair. So…” He takes one big, deep inhale, and then he tells me his version of events.


The meeting with the Diamonds went swimmingly. I’m surprised, but he breezes past the details of what they’d been intending to meet about, because it’s not important to today’s discussion. There’s a part of me that wants to argue that, and there’s another part of me that figures Steven may be the best judge. Something about colonies, something about recalling gems still in the field. It’s a bit over my head.

They’d been looking at a screen full of relevant information. Near the end of their talk, Steven made a passive comment about how he was too short to really properly read the thing. In response, the Diamonds insisted he come up to their level. He’d refused, feeling it unnecessary, but then White Diamond had reached down.

“I’m sure she just meant to pick me up,” he murmurs, brow furrowed, eyes watering. “I’m sure she didn’t mean anything bad. But…”

There’s context here I don’t have. He saw her hand — he mentions in particular her long, knife-like nails — and panicked. Flashed back, found himself in a smaller body, a different setting, a different time. White Diamond must have read his reaction, because she paused.

Then Spinel spoke up — she’d been there the whole time, he assures me, but she’d just been hanging out, not quite paying attention —  and she’d pressed, hard. She’d invaded his personal space, seeming to take personal offense to whatever look he’d had on his face. And Steven, like a frightened rabbit, ran. He stumbled past Spinel, called back something about finishing up later, and was gone.

He knew he’d be followed. He was certain that if it wasn’t Spinel, then Diamonds would send someone after him. So he led them to the main warp in the house, so that he could retreat to his personal warp in the greenhouse, lock the doors, lock the warp, and stay there until his panic attack dissipated.

It didn’t quite work that way.

He screamed when he was cornered. He was terrified and high-strung and unable to calm himself, and having everyone around him only made things worse. He doesn’t even mention Spinel saying anything at all to him, only that she was there one moment and gone the next.

“And now I’m here,” he finishes, looking distraught.

He glances upwards, towards the top of his personalized dome, as if he’s expecting something. But nothing happens. Frustration flickers across his face, and I wonder what it is he’s looking for.

“What was it, exactly, about White Diamond that triggered such a visceral response?” 

He winces. I think of what Connie said to me about White Diamond just yesterday, and I think of Steven’s intake form. And I don’t have but a few moments to wonder just what it was she did to him.

“… I don’t know how well I can talk about it.” His hand grips his stomach, directly over his gem placement.

“I would like you to try.” There is only so much I can do without all the information.

“Once…”

His voice gives.

“…right before we convinced the Diamonds to get rid of the empire. There was… I was with Connie and the gems, right? But White Diamond has this ability to control people. And she’d used it on all of them but Connie, I think because she’s not a gem? But… So, it was just the two of us against all of them, and of course things went south, because neither of us were going to hurt the gems, and I really just wanted to talk to White Diamond. But she kept calling me ‘she, her, Pink Diamond,’ and she kept insisting that my mom must really be in there. In my gem. That she wasn’t really gone, that… that on some level, I am her.”

Oh.

He isn’t looking at me as he talks. His arms fold, and he stares at the ground. But he’s talking.

“And then… And then, with one of the gems she mind-controlled, she had Connie, holding her back. And White reached down and picked me up between her fingers. And then she removed my gem from my body.”

I… I don’t have any context for that, either. I’m sure it’s much different than removing a piercing; that gem is part of who he is. I don’t know why he says it with such a horrified look on his face, one hand coming up to cover his mouth as if he wants to stop talking. But whatever that means, it must’ve been truly terrifying, maybe on par with shattering.

“The only reason I’m even still alive is because Connie… Connie helped me. I couldn’t even walk, I was barely conscious, and she… she brought me back to my gem. Even with White Diamond doing everything in her power to control my gem, she couldn’t, and Connie must’ve been so scared…”

Connie had nightmares for months.

“That’s horrifying, Steven. I’m so sorry you had to go through that.”

He laughs. He laughs, and he laughs, and this close I can see tears in his eyes. “Y-yeah. Yeah, I… I always have to be the one to make things right. Right? I always have to be the one to fix everything. But that day… Connie saved me. And I know she was probably really messed up about it. But I can’t… I can’t ever think about it or talk about it because if I do, I get like this.”

He gestures to the dome. To the glass around him.

“And I’ve been trying so, so hard to forgive White Diamond for doing that. For what she did to me. Because I’ve still got to talk to her on a regular basis. I’ve got to work with her to make sure that Era 3 goes smoothly, that she doesn’t… change her mind about it.”

“You know,” I begin.

“I know,” he answers. The laugh this time is full of relief as, finally, that tear slides down his cheek. “I… I don’t have to forgive her. Just like I don’t have to forgive my mom.”

“If you were another person, Steven, you would not pressure yourself to forgive either of them.”

“Have compassion.” He puts a hand over his heart, something soft crossing his face. “I will.”

And then, something amazing happens. There is a shimmering sound from above, and we both look up to witness a star pattern forming in the pink dome, descending down its sides, dissolving the diamonds that compose it. Until Steven and I are no longer separated by a wall at all, and above us, instead of a neon hue, is a crystal clear view of the stars.

We are swaddled in the silence now. There are the environmental sounds of crickets singing, of the hustle and bustle of Beach City just down the road, of the wind brushing against a windchime hung on his patio. But for a moment, as I look upon him and he looks back, there is nothing else.

“Thank you,” he says at last. “If you hadn’t shown up… who knows how long I would’ve stayed in there. Who knows what the others would have done to get me out.”

“You are still going to have to face them,” I remind, gently. “And they may want answers. You worried them a lot.”

“I know.” He groans, putting his face in his hands. “Geez. I really don’t want to have that conversation.”

“It’s going to be hard.” All conversations about your own mental health are. “The important thing to remember is that they only want the best for you. If you communicate with them and tell them what you think will help you the most, they will want to do that. For you.”

“…I know you’re right.” Steven gives a small sigh, hands dropping. “But even I don’t know what that is. Should I tell them about what happened with White Diamond? They were there for it, but none of them remember because they were under her control.”

“It is your trauma, Steven. You nearly died that day. Only tell them what you’re ready to tell. Hold fast if they ask questions you aren’t ready to answer.”

“You really think that’s going to work? You met them, right?”

“I don’t think you give them enough credit. They wanted to be here with me while I talked to you, but when I told them no, they eventually respected it.”

Steven chuckles. “‘Eventually,’ huh?”

I shrug. “Nobody’s perfect.”

“Yeah. I guess you’re right.” He pushes himself up to his feet, starts to offer his hand to me, then pauses. “Uh. I’d offer you my hand, but I probably need to wash it first.” He glances at his jacket, and he winces. It’s a very nice jacket, which makes the bloodstains quite a shame.

I stand up and do not wobble as circulation returns to my legs. “Here. Why don’t you wash up and change. Is there anything you want me to tell them on my way out?”

The question makes him pause. He scratches his arm where his wounds no longer are, considering. He seems to take almost too long to think. I’m about to say that I don’t need to say anything at all to them, but just as I open my mouth, he sighs.

“Tell them I’m sorry.”

Chapter Text

“Steven, it’s good to see you. How’s the journaling coming along?”

He sighs. There is a composition notebook in his lap as he sits criss-cross on my couch. “I don’t know. It’s… weird. It feels like I’m leaving evidence of all my horrible thoughts. I get worried about the others seeing it.”

“Did you tell them what you’re doing?”

“Yeah.” His fingers fidget with the corner of the journal, thumbing it repeatedly. “I did.”

“How did they react?”

“About how you’d expect, I guess.” Steven shrugs. “It was a sort of… ‘oh, I don’t really understand why he’s telling me this,’ kinda vibe, coupled with ‘we’re gonna support him no matter what because that’s what parents are supposed to do, even if we think it’s weird.’ And Pearl asked if she could see it, which… I mean, at least Amethyst socked her shoulder for asking, but I still felt… weird, having to say no.”

“But you said no?”

He nods. He leans back against the couch. “Yeah. I did.”

I smile. “That’s good. I’m proud of you.”

He waves a hand, dismissing my words from the air. “Yeah, yeah. Anyway, did you want to hear what I wrote down this week or not?”


“… and I kept apologizing. I’m still not really sure why.”

Hmm. I tap my finger against my chin. Steven’s eyes are on the page in front of him, but he’s lying down today, neck supported by one arm of the couch and feet propped up across the other. 

“Where do you think that comes from, this guilt?”

“Oh, I-I don’t know if I’d say I was feeling guilty.”

“But you were compulsively apologizing.”

“I just…” He hesitates. “I’m not sure. I was, you’re right. But I hadn’t done anything wrong.”

I lean forward. He isn’t looking at me, eyes still on the notebook, folded over and several pages in. “If that’s true — if you hadn’t done anything wrong — why did you feel guilty enough to apologize?”

“I…” He swallows. Slowly, he sets the notebook on top of his face so that his arm can drop, hanging off the couch. “Geez. I don’t know. Are you telling me I did do something—”

“No.” I dismiss that outright, refusing to allow him to consider it. “You are correct. You’ve done nothing to be ashamed of. So why does needing help make you feel like this?”

I’m not expecting an answer, but here comes one: “Because I had to fix everything for everyone else. So now I’m tied down with guilt about needing one of my problems fixed.”

He picks up the notebook and glances at me, and perhaps it isn’t appropriate, but I smile.


“I had another meeting with the Diamonds. Uh… all three of them. Spinel not included this time. I think she’s banished from our meetings now, haha.” 

“How did that go?”

He gives a quiet, anxious laugh. “Gee… Not well. White didn’t try to pick me up this time, at least? But Yellow and Blue wanted an explanation, so… I gave them one.”

I blink. “… the truth?”

“Yeah.” He props his elbow on his knee and puts his chin in his hand. “Well, kind of. I intended to, because I knew they were going to ask about it, but it’s still hard to talk about. I asked if they remembered what happened back when we were in White’s head, and they said no. So I said I had a flashback. They didn’t really get that, and Connie told me once that PTSD used to be called ‘battle sickness’ when we thought only soldiers could get it, so I tried that phrase. I guess Blue knew the Gem word for it, because she said something that definitely wasn’t in English, and then she and Yellow started arguing, then they started yelling at White. And… I pretty much backpedaled all the way to the warp pad and didn’t come back.”

That gets an eyebrow raise out of me. “Did you have any unexpected visitors following you?”

“No.” He sighs. “But the weird thing is… even though I haven’t forgiven White, when I saw her, it almost felt easier than it had last time. Like I’d be able to push through it now without freaking out. I didn’t get a chance to test that, of course, but… before, when I’d had to meet with White, I kept everything super minimal and I think she picked up on it and respected it. But even with that, when I got home I’d be a mess. Even though this meeting didn’t go well, I wasn’t like that. And maybe I’ll forgive her in time, but I’m just not ready yet.”

“So you’re getting better. Slowly.”

“Is that what this is?” he murmurs. “Getting better?”

“That’s what it looks like from here. Even though it’s an uphill battle, and you may slip more than once. That’s okay.”

Steven looks down at his hands for a moment. I’m pondering the next thread to take when he speaks up again. “Uh… by the way, if it’s not too late, can I get that recommendation?”

I blink, mind blanking.

“That psychiatrist.”

I’m trying very hard not to show just how proud I am of him. The cringe on his face says I’ve failed horribly.


“I went out with Connie and had a blast.”

Today, Steven does not have his composition notebook with him. Perhaps he just forgot it, but the look on his face says otherwise.

“I mean, tons of fun. She’s always amazing and can help take my mind off everything. We even fused for a bit to go around Beach City — Stevonnie’s pretty good friends with Kiki, you know? So we had fun.”

His arms are folded, one ankle on his opposite knee, and he’s leaned back into the couch. He bites his lip.

“But?” I probe.

“But when we got back to the beach house, I found out Pearl went through my journal! And I got pissed, and that was making Connie pissed, and Pearl apologized but when she handed it back to me I just lost it! She said she was just trying to figure out how to help me, but she could have just asked! Instead of… of doing the one thing I told her not to do! So of course I’m not just gonna let this go!”

I don’t blame him. “What do you mean, when you say ‘you lost it?’”

He opens his mouth to snap — then pauses. He blinks, and when he looks up he sits up a little straighter. “Uh. I… I yelled a lot. I didn’t curse her out or anything and I — I didn’t go pink. I just… let myself be angry.”

And even though we have so much more to talk about — this invasion of privacy not the least among them — I can’t help but offer him a smile. “So you were able to experience anger without that terrifying, destructive power. Are you proud of that?”

After a small, quiet moment, he nods. His face twists a little, embarrassment bringing the color out of his cheeks. “Y-yeah, I am. Is that bad?”

“No, you should be. I’m proud of you too.”

“Okay, all right.” He sighs, scratching at the back of his neck. “Thanks. But like I was saying…”


“I… I don’t know what happened.” Steven’s leaning back, legs crossed under him and flip-flops on the ground, head against the back of the couch, eyes skyward. “I just — it isn’t like I got mad. But when Garnet mentioned Mom’s portrait, I…”

He hesitates. “I started… crying?”

I remember he explained, weeks ago, that he’d banished that portrait to a place none of the others would be able to retrieve it. “What did she say, exactly?”

“She just asked where I’d put it.” He shrugs. “I don’t know if she even meant anything by it, if she meant that she wanted to see it again or wanted to put it back up, or if maybe she just wanted to know that I hadn’t destroyed it… or something.”

“So she didn’t elaborate?”

“No.” He shakes his head. Then he sighs and sits forward, elbows on his knees. “She asked, and I kinda just stared at her for a bit. Then all these waterworks came, and I don’t really know where from.”

“Did you hope that none of them had noticed?”

“Actually…” He trails for a moment, as if searching for words, for a thought. He swallows, and when he speaks again, I hear an echo of the tears he’d shed then. “I think I was afraid that they hadn’t.”

“Oh?”

He’s quick to add, “I mean, I still — I still stand by why I took that thing down and shoved it away. But when none of them said a thing to me about it, there’s this part of me that thought… maybe I was the only one who was making a big deal out of it. Maybe I’d been reading into it too much. Maybe the rest of them were just fine, no conflicted feelings about her whatsoever, and they’d been able to process everything and didn’t mind looking at this giant picture of her day after day.”

I consider everything I know about his mother’s relationship with his caretakers. “They have a fairly deep history with her, and they only learned her true identity within the past few years. I imagine they must be as conflicted as you.”

“Logically, that’s true, but I hadn’t seen any evidence of any of that!” Steven sighs. “And when Garnet asked, and I started crying… we sat down on the couch and we talked about it.”

I blink. There is a raw element in his voice, vulnerable. “You did?”

He nods. “For the first time in a long, long time… we talked about Mom. And I didn’t go pink, and I didn’t get really mad about her or at her or at Garnet. And it was rough — but…” He smiles now, and he looks up to meet my eyes almost shyly. “She… held me, like everyone says a mom is supposed to. And it was just the two of us, and I cried so much that her eyes started misting too, but she held it together. I’m still working out how I feel about Mom, but when I have Garnet to talk to — when I have all of them… I don’t know if it matters as much.”

They talked.


“Do you remember when I asked you if you were hurting yourself intentionally?”

Steven nods. He looks down at his clean wrists, unmarked; as if he could just erase that it happened with a kiss. The medication has kicked in and, like I warned him — and like I’m sure his psychiatrist warned him — the first few weeks while on them are perhaps the most dangerous. To experience a surge in energy before your mood picks up means having the energy to do things you shouldn’t.

“I didn’t really think I was going to do it again,” he murmurs. 

I hadn’t been expecting it, but I’d known it would be a possibility.

“Even when you guys were talking about how I had to be extra careful until my brain settled down on the meds… I just kept thinking it wouldn’t be me.” 

And now it is.

“What instigated it?”

“Just—” He waves a hand. Irritable. “I don’t know, everything? I was just getting pissy about nothing. Connie made this comment about college and it freaked me out, and I tried not to show it while I was talking to her but I spiraled. And then it wasn’t just about how Connie’s going to college, it was about Pearl refusing to let me do my own laundry and how she’d never see me as an adult, and it was about how I don’t have the right to ask anything of anyone when I’m the product of a suicide, and how can I even justify my existence in that case?”

He pauses to breathe, then grabs the notebook in his lap and hurls it across the room. “Fuck.”

I raise my eyebrows. “Ooh, a curse.”

“I’m gonna let myself curse in here,” he grumbles. “I don’t do it anywhere else. But with you, it’s fine. The air here is already so negative. It’s not like I can make it any worse, so I might as well get it all out of my system.”

“Were there any instances in your youth that reinforced this idea, of…” I struggle with wording it. “Of… somehow, it’s okay to be hurt as long as you can heal it?”

“I dunno,” he shrugs, noncommittal. “Maybe. I don’t think there was ever anything… specific? But if I ever got hurt, I could just heal it, so it never mattered.” I open my mouth and he grimaces, immediately waving both hands to stop me. “Not that, like, it didn’t matter! Sorry, poor choice of words.”

“But it didn’t.”

He shrugs and leans back again. I suppose that when your tears can literally bring back the dead, even temporary moments of pain can seem inconsequential.

“Did it ever matter when others were hurt?”

“We’ve had this conversation already,” he reminds, dryly. “It’s fine. I know, I know. I should treat myself like I’m someone else, because it’s easier to be compassionate to someone else than it is to be compassionate to yourself. But it’s hard to remember that — or, well, hard to apply that when I’m… like that.”

“What do you think helps you when you reach that critical low?”

“Venting.” He winces. “I don’t know. No, it doesn’t. I hate being around people when I’m like that, but I guess I can’t exactly be trusted to be by myself, either.”

“It isn’t about ‘trusting’ you not to hurt yourself, Steven. It’s about getting you to a point where that won’t be an option.”

“Maybe one day,” he grumbles, obstinate.

“Do you still believe your mother killed herself?”

“We’ve had this conversation before, too.” I raise my eyebrows and he sighs, relenting. “No. Yes? I don’t know. I know you said it’s probably not likely, but it’s not like I’m ever gonna know for sure. And if she did, then what does that make me?”

I suppose that even if I presented him with all of the evidence that I have, in my limited perspective, against that little theory of his, he would still find a way to rationalize it. So let’s try a different approach.

“Is that part of why you carry so much guilt with you? You said you can’t ask anything of anyone because of this.”

“Yeah.” He folds his arms and sighs. “Yeah. Basically.”

I think of children whose mothers died in childbirth. An imperfect analogy.

“Do you believe any of your family members hold any resentment towards you over it?”

“No. I mean… Maybe towards my mom, for the things she hid from them. But I don’t think they’re mad at me. Unless—”

“Trust your gut on this one.” I interrupt only because I don’t want to allow him to spiral. “If you have not seen evidence of this, trust that.”

He shrugs, sinking down into the cushions. He folds his arms across his chest, and if I didn’t know better, I’d think he might actually be trying to disappear.

Actually… knowing Steven, that isn’t implausible.

“I want you to think of it this way, Steven. Even if Rose used you as a vehicle for her own demise, the fact you survived that is not a curse. It is a gift. You are not her choices. You did not choose to kill her. Her death allowed your birth, and you have actively repaired her mistakes and made progress where she failed. The universe would not be what it is today without you.”

And though the last sentence is something I’ve said to many a client — sometimes using chemical estimations to prove my point — few have made as big an impact on the universe as the one sitting in front of me.

He blinks. I see his eyes misting, but he doesn’t move to wipe them. Instead, after a long moment, he gets up and grabs his journal from the other side of the room, near my chair.

“Uh.” His voice wavers. “Do you… have a pen? I’m… I’m gonna write that down. If that’s all right. Just so that way I can look back on it when I need to.”

I think of the way he threw that notebook. I think of the way his anger manifests destructively, either towards his environment or towards himself. I extend my hand. “Here. Let me?”

I have no doubt that he won’t allow himself to destroy it if I write it in my handwriting. He seems nervous, but he flips to a blank page and hands the journal over. As I start to write, I get another, brilliant idea. “Remind me what I said, exactly.”

Say it to me. Out loud.

“Oh, geez.” He rolls his eyes, and I know I’m being transparent, but I want to know how he heard it, and I want him to get used to saying something like this aloud. “Um… It really sucks that Rose used you as a way to kill herself—”

“That’s not right.”

He clears his throat, eyes averting. “Even if Rose used you as a way to kill herself, it’s… not bad that you survived. It’s good.”

“Try again.”

He groans. “It’s not a curse—”

“From the beginning.”

“Seriously?” He rolls his eyes, takes a deep inhale, and tries again.

And even though it’s difficult, he tries.