"I was thinking," Connie began casually, in such a casual way he knew in an instant that it wasn't casual at all. He was extra sure because it was coming during a fighting game. Connie regularly snuck in important things during fighting games, hoping he’d be too distracted to talk much about it.
Not today. He paused their game to look up at her from where she lay on his bed, very carefully avoiding his gaze. That couldn’t be good. "Since my gap year is ending, and I'm heading off to college, I had some thoughts about us. About you."
The announcement hit his belly like lead. He knew this was coming, after all. Connie had a career ahead of him and he still had, well… He had a better relationship with his family at twenty than he did at seventeen, and better mental health, even if he was doing absolutely nothing with it.
But Connie had a future, and he supported that. His voice stayed calm. "Oh yeah? What kind of thoughts?"
She looked at him then, sat up on his bed, took a deep breath, and spoke: "I know this is a lot, and I was going to drip it to you but I didn’t know how to start. So, I guess, the first thing I should say is that some college force you to live in the dorms for a year, but mine doesn't. Since it's a college town, there's all kinds of affordable housing, we could absolutely live together no matter what you choose, okay?"
He blinked, the weight on his chest suddenly gone and replaced with a lightness so intense he had to think about sad animal facts to keep himself from floating to the ceiling. "What?"
"No! You have to hear me out!" Connie dropped the controller and held up her hands frantically, and he gawked as she continued her panicked babble, "Okay, so, it's too late to apply, and I get why you didn't apply, and I maybe should have pushed, but I didn't want to push? That doesn't matter. The point is that most people get a degree to get a job, right? But you have lots of money, and there's literally a whole universe of stuff you could be doing, so you don't need a degree.”
Steven began, “I guess that’s-” but she cut him off, not done with her tirade.
"But you don't really know what you're doing right now, or what you want to do. And that's okay! Who even knows what they want to do for the rest of their lives at twenty?” She laughed nervously. “I’m a weirdo who figured out she likes art. Most people don’t! Most people actually change majors and spend more time in college. We’re all stupid, Steven. But college can be about figuring stuff out, too, and you don’t have to be accepted or waste money on that!"
“Breathe.” He laughed a little and put his hands on her shoulders. "What are you talking about?"
"You could audit classes. You could sit in on classes. I've been asking around." Her voice was still a little unsteady, words tumbling out, and Steven felt his throat starting to close up for a wholly different reason as she rambled off all the effort she had put in for him: "I've sent emails, done research, even reached out to professors about it. Basically everyone said they didn't care at all if someone just really wanted to learn and wanted to sit in the back of the class and not bother anyone!"
He shook his head. “You’re saying teachers would be okay with me hanging out in their classes because I can’t figure out what to do?”
She beamed and nodded eagerly. "Most of them were really flattered by it, actually. They love the idea of being so interesting someone would want to come to listen to them for free. Some college students already do that, just to learn about other majors for fun! You wouldn't do the assignments for grades or anything, but you could sit in and learn all kinds of stuff, see if something lights a fire in you, you know?"
"I don't get it. You're not... You don't want to take a break.” His eyes were burning, his lips slowly turning up into a smile. “You want me to come with you?"
"Of course I don't want to take a break!" she cried. Her eyes went wide and she rocked back from him, already starting to panic. "Do you want to take a break? Oh my gosh, and I've been going on about dragging you to college and living with you. Steven, I’m so-"
"No!" he yelped. His arms wrapped around her, hugging her close to his chest. Hearing her say it outloud, even in shock, was far worse than he had imagined. "No break. I don't want a break. Jam Buds forever."
She giggled, pulling back just enough for him to see her blushing face. "Okay. Good. Then what don't you get?"
"You asking me to come with you, doing all this research. I’m sorry I didn’t do any of it myself." Steven frowned and swallowed the lump in his throat. "You're about to start the rest of your life. Why are you wasting all this time on mine?"
"Because there's no version of the rest of my life that you're not in," she answered, calmly and matter of factly as his heart melted in his chest. Connie’s hand came up to push his forehead to hers, the casual embrace soft and warm as she reassured his doubts. "No matter what happens, we're together. Friends, daring, married, anything. If you're not a part of my future, it's not a future worth planning."
"You want me to come with you," he murmured in awe. "You really want me there."
Connie laughed. "Always. No matter what you pick, it's you and me, Steven. We’ve got a million futures ahead of us and in every single one, we're partners that do everything together. So, what do you say? Did any of that sound good?"
"It all sounded good," he said. But he would have to think it over. He'd have to carefully make a decision. And right then, his heart was full to bursting with love, so any decision he made would have been the one that let him nip at her heels like a puppy, lovesick and wandering wherever she decided to go.
But that wasn’t how things should work. She had followed his lead for years through gem stuff, and even if she took the lead on human things it was only to show him the possible paths. He couldn’t live his whole life for her, no matter how tempting that may have been in the quiet, intimate moments.
So, instead, he just climbed on top of the bed. He climbed on top of her, and she was warm and he was warm, and everything was the quiet melancholy that came with change, even when it was change for the better. They felt each other's heartbeats in the quiet beach house, the quiet two-beat sound whispering all the reassurances they needed to move ahead.
Ba-dum. Ba-dum. As soothing as the tide rolling out below.