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Steven shuffled aimlessly down the aisles of Beach City’s small organic grocery store, his shoulders nearly brushing against the wares more than once in the cramped space.  Grocery shopping was one of the few errands that got him out of the house these days.  He supposed he should be grateful for that, at least.

He paused in the freezer aisle, wrinkling his nose as he looked at the lean selection of vegetarian options.  He was getting sick of the macaroni, even though it came in three flavors, and he hadn’t been impressed with the tortellini or the enchiladas.  They always seemed to come out mealy and weird when heated.

He left the microwave dinners in the freezer case, wondering what else he should get.  He’d already loaded up on a few packs of protein shakes.  He wandered into the spice section and noted a hand-written recipe card under some Cajun seasonings.  He looked it over for a moment, raising his eyebrows, then took a picture of it with his phone.  

He nodded to himself.  He pulled a few things into his basket, then wandered back into the loaded produce section, piling peppers, celery, onion, okra, and garlic on top of the spices.  

“Why not?” he murmured, and headed to check out.  The worst that could happen was that he might ruin it, and messing up dinner sounded a lot less intimidating than some of the other mistakes he could make.

 

***

 

It had been a long time since Steven had properly cooked anything, and he was starting to realize it.

He did mess up in a few ways.  Nicked himself badly, his eyes burning as he tried to cut the onion. He kissed his hand to heal it and tossed the bloodied knife into the sink, reaching for another one.  Luckily the onion remained unscathed.

He was fine with chopping the okra, celery and peppers, getting into a steady rhythm.  He julienned them first, then diced the resulting strips until he had piles of colorful, slightly unevenly chopped vegetables.  The garlic was tricky, but he was more careful this time, using a smaller knife.  His tongue poked out the side of his mouth as he focused.  

The roux almost stymied him.  It took three attempts before he stopped burning the flour and creating a sludgy black mess in the bottom of the pan.  He summoned his shield to fan away the smell out the front door, grumbling to himself.

But he’d come this far, hadn’t he?  The fourth attempt with the roux was okay.  He had been tempted to give up and order another cheese pizza, but he was determined now.  What else was he going to do with the vegetables he’d bought if he gave up now?  He stirred the roux carefully, brow furrowed in concentration as he added more ingredients and allowed them to simmer.

It smelled so good.  So different, too, from the greasy smell of pizza, the clean scent of tea, the dull lifelessness of protein bars.  He really had been eating just to eat, hadn’t he?  The kitchen hadn’t smelled this good in months.

He half wanted to text the Gems and ask them to try it with him, but he felt a little uneasy at the idea.  They weren’t talking much these days; Steven spent most of his time working on his plants in the greenhouse, now that he’d left Little Homeschool, and the Gems were working hard to pick up his slack.  They mostly saw each other in vague elliptical orbits these days, a hello from one of them running into a goodbye from another.  He wasn’t sure how to fit back in with them again.  Maybe he was just going through a phase.  He stirred the pot, taking care to keep the vegetables from burning.

Besides, food wasn’t exactly the Gems’ thing.  Garnet only ate occasionally, mostly at Steven’s request.  Pearl would share a cup of tea with him once a month or so, though he knew she still didn’t actually care for it; tea was just the least offensive thing she had discovered in the entire lexicon of human foods and drinks.  Amethyst would readily eat both the food and the spoon as well, but he didn’t exactly trust her judgment when it came to fine dining.  Yesterday he’d seen her eating dry ramen in the wrapper  with chocolate and motor oil.  

He thought about inviting Dad over for dinner.  But lately things had been kind of weird with Dad, too.  Steven knew he was still having a hard time adjusting to losing his hair and being attacked, but he wondered if there was more to it than that.  He also kept trying to ask Steven questions that made him uncomfortable, questions about plans and the future and how he was doing, and Steven wasn’t sure he was up for it right now.  He let out a long breath.

His phone buzzed.  Hi you! What are you up to? Connie asked.  

He mentally kicked himself.  Of course, it was a Saturday.  Connie actually had a little time to hang out some weekends.  Why hadn’t he asked her to do something earlier?  Too wrapped up in his own head, he supposed.

Trying out a new recipe.  It’s hard.  I burned it three times already, but I think this time is the winner.  It smells awesome.  He sent her a picture, having to try twice because steam from the dish clouded the first shot.

That looks amazing!  Wish I could try it.  Actually, I’m getting hungry just looking at it!

He gulped, fingers firing off a reply before he could stop himself.  Want me to bring you some?

The phone buzzed again.  That sounds like a great idea!  But I told my parents I’d hang out with them tonight.  Dad found a new strategy game and he thinks he can take out my mom, but he doesn’t know how badly she’s going to stomp him.  My mom gets really competitive.  It’s gonna be hilarious.

He considered.  Well, there’s a huge pot of this vegetarian gumbo.  I could make some rice, and we could all share?

Let me check! 

He paced back and forth with his phone in his hand, hoping to feel a familiar vibration. He gave the gumbo a stir, then nodded.  It looked like the recipe had said it would, three hours after starting it.  He dipped in a tablespoon and brought out a steaming spoonful, blowing on it gently, then swallowed a bite.

Oh.

“That’s… that’s really good,” he croaked to the empty dining room.  Tears pricked his eyes unexpectedly.  He tasted garlic and pepper, heat and spice. He felt warmer than he had all week, a warmth that had nothing to do with his jacket or the temperature outside.  It seemed to fill him up from his chest and belly outward.  How was food this powerful?

His phone buzzed.  He wiped his eyes with the back of his hand and read Connie’s reply, and his face spread into a smile. 

They’d love that!  Come by as soon as you can!  Miss you <3

 

***

 

Steven rocked back and forth on his heels, standing on the Maheswarans’ doorstep, the food carefully nestled in his largest grocery bag.  He could feel the heat radiating through the cloth bag against his leg.  He rang the doorbell, his stomach flip-flopping as he did so.

She asked you to come, he reminded himself.  Yet he was seized with a sudden fear that the Maheswarans were just being polite, that Connie must have talked them into pitying him, that they didn’t actually want him around –

The door opened.  Doug Maheswaran grinned at him, looking comfortable and relaxed, no trace of pity in his warm eyes.  “Young Universe!  Good to see you.  Wow, have you grown again?  It’s been too long.  Come in, come in.”  Doug reached out and took the bag of food from Steven.  “Thank you for bringing dinner, it smells delicious. Saves me from having to come up with something!”

Steven blinked, slightly overwhelmed by the sheer force of Doug’s cheeriness.  “Hi, Mr. Maheswaran, you’re welcome!  Um, well, it made a much bigger batch than I thought it would, so it seemed silly for me to try to eat it all on my own…”

“Doug, for heaven’s sake, let the poor boy get inside before you badger him to death,” Dr. Maheswaran called from the dining room.  Steven peeked around Doug, hoping for a glimpse of–  “Connie!  Steven’s here, come on down.”

A barrelling of footsteps down the stairs, and Connie burst into the living room, grinning all over.  “Steven!”  She wore a shirt he hadn’t seen before on her, a pretty purple one with little white polka dots.  Her hair fell in loose waves around her face.  He fought a burst of giddiness.

“Connie!”  

Steven grinned back at her.  Normally they’d go for a full-on, leap-in-the-air style hug upon seeing each other again, but he held out his hand for a stiff handshake instead, conscious of Doug still standing a few feet away and Priyanka leaning into the doorway between the living room and dining room.  

Connie batted his outstretched hand aside and hugged him anyway.  He closed his eyes, her hair soft against his cheek, and held her for just a moment before she pulled back.  She was still taller than him by a good inch or two, but hadn’t grown since the last time he’d seen her.  Good. It hadn’t been too long, then.

“It’s, um, good to see you,” he breathed.

“Likewise,” she said, blushing.

Doug coughed delicately.  “All right, you two.  Come on, let’s get dinner set up before it gets cold.”

Steven followed Doug toward the dining room, but couldn’t help but take the opportunity to grab Connie’s hand and squeeze it, for just a moment, before letting it fall.  “You’re sure they’re okay hanging out with me?” he whispered to her.

She gave him a sweet smile. “Of course they are.  My parents love you, Steven.”

He chuckled, his nerves catching up to him.  “Are you sure?  I’m surprised they don’t think I’m a bad influence on you.”

“I’m perfectly capable of being a bad influence on myself, Steven,” said Connie loftily.  “Don’t flatter yourself.”  She winked.

They entered the dining room, where the table was already set.  He could see into their small kitchen through the propped open door, where Doug was already putting the rice and gumbo into serving dishes.  

Priyanka pulled glasses down from the shelf.  “It’s good to see you, Steven,” she said with a faint smile.  “This is so thoughtful of you.  Thank you.”

“Oh, uh, no thought at all, really,” blustered Steven. “I just was trying out something new and thought it would be nice to share it.”

“Were your father and the Gems busy?” Priyanka asked, opening the refrigerator.  “Water, or iced tea?”

Steven glanced at Connie, who caught the look on his face.  “The Gems are pretty busy these days, Mom,” said Connie.  “And they don’t have to eat, remember?  Iced tea for me, please.”

Doug laughed. “Oh, yes, I remember now.  It was very nice of them to try that time we went out to dinner.”  He set out the serving dishes on the table, faint wisps of steam still rising from the gumbo and rice.  

“And Dad… doesn’t like Cajun food,” said Steven quickly.  “Iced tea would be great.”

Priyanka gave Steven an odd look, but brought out their drinks without further questions.  “Well, I’m excited to try this. Connie tells us you’re an excellent cook.”

“Aw Connie, come on.”

“You are!” said Connie, sitting down at the table.  Steven sat beside her, and Doug and Priyanka took the seats across from them.  “I mean, I know you don’t cook fancy things all the time, but when you do, they’re always really good.”  Steven’s ears burned.

Doug doled out portions to each shallow bowl, setting out a scoop of white rice on each dish, followed by a full ladle of gumbo and a sprinkle of chopped green onions.  The gumbo was rich and reddish, thick-bodied and clinging to the edge of the rice, glorious with the scents of pepper, onion, garlic. Steven peered into his bowl, hoping it tasted as good as he thought it had in his own kitchen.

Priyanka was the first to take a bite.  She chewed thoughtfully, then smiled in satisfaction.  “Steven, that’s quite good.  This is your first time making this?”  He nodded. “Well, color me impressed.”

Steven’s eyes widened.  He knew exactly how much a compliment from Priyanka meant, and he blinked in astonishment.

Beside her, Doug dove in.  “Steven, this is fantastic.  This tastes just like something you’d have visiting the Crawfish State.  Send me the recipe, all right?”

“Sure,” said Steven. “Really?  You – you guys like it?”

Connie licked her spoon.  “That is insanely good.  What did you put in it?  It’s nice and spicy. Not exactly hot-spicy, but more of an earthiness? It’s delicious.”

“I just followed the recipe,” he said, shrugging and looking from face to face.  They each kept eating, apparently honestly enjoying the food.  He’d known he could cook, he supposed, but it was different sharing that with people besides himself.  He felt a sudden stab of sympathy for Lars being nervous to share his ube roll cake, back before when Lars still worked at the Big Donut. 

But Steven had no reason to be nervous, right?  Connie was sitting beside him, relaxed and happily eating his cooking, and her parents both wore warm smiles.  There was something strange and familiar both about this, a scene he’d seen a thousand times on television, a scene he’d tried to recreate at home more times than he could remember.  He tried to imagine Dad and the Gems sitting around the table, each enjoying the meal, laughing together, conversation flowing as easily as breathing.  It seemed both more and less possible than it ever had before.  He watched the Maheswarans, eating and talking together, and he felt hungry in a way that had nothing to do with his food.

“Don’t you want some?” asked Connie, nudging him a little with her elbow. 

“Oh!  Yeah, yeah,” he said, carving out a bite of rice and gumbo.  The whole reason he’d come here!  He popped it into his mouth, heat and spice hitting his tongue, combining with the sharpness of scallion and the comfort of fluffy rice.  He swallowed and closed his eyes, breathing deeply.

Oh. Oh, no.

There it was again, that warmth, a comforting feeling that seemed less about the food than what the food meant.  He blinked, tears starting at the corners of his eyes.  Not here!  Not in front of Connie’s parents!  He stared furiously into the depths of his bowl, willing himself not to cry.  A losing battle.  A tear trickled down his cheek, falling into his food before he could wipe it away.

The conversation fell quiet, and the Maheswarans’ faces shifted from open and relaxed to suddenly worried.

“Steven?  Are you all right?” asked Priyanka, her voice cautious.  Soothing.  He wondered if she saved that voice for her patients.  He’d only rarely heard her use it with Connie.

“Is something wrong?” said Doug.  “It is a little spicy –”

“No!  I’m fine,” Steven muttered, setting down his spoon and rubbing at his face with his right hand. More tears.  Was he bright red?  He felt his cheeks flushing.  “I – might have put too much garlic in, that’s all –”

He felt Connie’s hand on his left hand, nestled in his lap beneath the table.  She took it in her own and squeezed.  He didn’t trust himself to look at her without crying even more obviously, and that was not what he had come here to do.

She fumbled, trying to come up with something.  “Steven Universe, afraid of a little garlic?” The words were teasing, but the tone was concerned.

He sniffed, straightened up, and let go of her hand.  “You’re right. I’m being silly.”  He took a few more bites, the food as delicious as before, his eyes feeling puffy.  He smiled through it.  “So, Connie said you guys were going to play a new board game?”

“Oh! Yes,” said Doug.  “Now, Priyanka always claims to be above such frivolous things as board games –”

“I do not,” she protested. “Games have a place and purpose, as long as your responsibilities are taken care of first.  Besides, they’re a good way to hone critical thinking skills and –”

“And crush everybody,” Connie supplied.  “Don’t pretend otherwise, Mom, you love being competitive.  How were you surprised at all that I took up swordfighting?”

Priyanka arched an eyebrow.  “Because swordfighting is an archaic form of battle and you were twelve.  But I have to say, I have always admired your determination.”

“She’s the best, isn’t she?” said Steven, finishing another bite.  The comforting warmth in his chest was more manageable now that the topic had changed, and he found himself enjoying what he’d made, something filling, something delicious, something real.  The stinging in his eyes faded.  “She’s always worked so hard.  She’s amazing at swordfighting, and science, and literary analysis – I mean, the conversations we’ve had about books –”

“Steven!” Connie hissed. “You flatterer!”  She giggled and nudged him again.

“All right, all right,” he laughed.

“I know it’s rough on you two not being able to see each other as often,” said Doug sympathetically.  He ladled a second helping into his scraped-clean bowl.  “What are you up to these days, Steven?  I heard you’ve been busy.”  He dug into his food.

“Hm,” said Steven, pushing a chunk of pepper around in his dish.  What am I up to?  “The school for Homeworld Gems is going well, I guess.  We had our first graduating class.”  Don’t think about the dome.  

He kept babbling, aware that the Maheswarans were looking at him.  “It went really well?  They were all pretty excited to head back out to space and move on.”  The chunk of pepper slid around in circles, aided by his spoon.  “I kinda stepped back from the school, though… I figured the other Gems were the best ones to be in charge.  You know, they actually know what it’s like, trying to adjust to life on Earth without being ruled by anybody.  I… don’t.  At all.”  He shrugged glumly.  “But I hear they’re doing great without me.”

Priyanka looked at Steven, then glanced at Doug, giving him a slight nod.  Doug finished his second portion, letting his spoon rest back in his bowl.

“That’s excellent news about the graduation,” said Priyanka, her voice measured. “You must be proud.  But I know that for me it’s always bittersweet, seeing the interns match to their new residencies and move on.  It does sound like you’ve helped a lot of people.”  She got to her feet and collected her dishes. “Doug, would you please give me a hand with these?”

“Of course, dear,” said Doug, gathering up his own dishes and following her into the kitchen. As soon as the kitchen door closed behind them, Connie turned to Steven, taking his hands in hers.

“Hey,” she said.

“Hey,” he said, gazing into her dark eyes.  He reached out, brushing a strand of hair back behind her ear. 

“Thanks,” she said softly.  “That was bugging me.”

“It was very cute though.  It made your ear look like an elf’s. Just the way it peeked through the hair.”

She smiled, but the action didn’t reach her eyes.  “Are you okay?” 

He looked down at their intertwined fingers.  “Ugh.  You noticed that, huh?”

“Of course I noticed you getting teary at the dinner table, and don’t tell me it was garlic.  You love garlic.  If you hadn’t realized, I know you pretty dang well, Universe.”  

He squeezed her hands.  “I – I don’t know if you do,” he mumbled.  “I don’t know if anyone does right now.  I feel like barely know me.”  He gulped past the sudden lump in his throat.

Connie leaned forward until their foreheads touched.  “Isn’t that what being a teenager is all about?”  They were quiet for a moment, their breathing matching.  

“Are you okay, Connie?”

She spoke into the stillness, her words winding, wandering. Wounded.  “I don’t know.  Mostly?  Not completely.”  She shrugged.  

“Come on.  You can tell me.”

“I know, it’s… hard to get started, is all.”  She held tight to his hands.  “I swear, I feel crazy some days.  It’s like I’m normal me, the same as I used to be.  But then there’s this new Connie fighting to form inside me, trying to figure things out, and I don’t understand her.  And in between the two of them, everything is just a mess.  Sometimes I mouth off to my parents and get in trouble, sometimes I just want to cry for no reason, sometimes I just don’t care about school, sometimes I hate everything –”  She squeezed his hands back, much harder than he had squeezed hers.  “Mom says it’s pretty normal for my age, but if that’s the case, this is a stupid age.”  Her eyes shone with sudden tears.

 “That sounds really hard.  And… kind of familiar, actually,” he said in a soft voice.  “I didn’t know you were going through all that.”

“That’s because I didn’t tell you,” she whispered.  “I knew you had your own stuff going on, and I didn’t want to pile on, especially when we don’t get to see each other as much as before.  It’s been weeks!”

“I know,” said Steven miserably.

“But it’s all so frustrating, and I hate not feeling like the me I’ve always been.  It makes everything more difficult.  I have a harder time focusing on my classes, but I need to, because for the first time in my life they’re actually challenging and it’s weird.  I got my first C on a test last quarter, did I tell you?  And sometimes I try talking to friends at school like Jeff or Bri, and that helps with the human stuff, but they don’t understand how much I miss seeing you and the Gems all the time. Especially you.  Because I do miss you, jam bud.”

 “I’m sorry, I should have been around more – I should have been here for you –”

“Don’t apologize, you dork,” said Connie, wiping her eyes.  “It’s not like it’s your fault.  Sometimes stuff sucks a little and that’s how it is.”  She took a deep breath.  “Now.  Tell me what’s been going on with you.  I went first because I knew you’d feel bad telling me unless I shared my stuff too.”  She leaned back and stuck her tongue out at him.

“So rude,” said Steven, laughing despite himself.  “I guess you do know me pretty well still.  Um, as far as what’s going on with me, I – I don’t know.  It’s like, everyone’s growing up, you know?  You’re getting ready for college prep stuff, and Lars and the Off Colors went back to space, and Lars, of all people, is… actually mature now.  I think he finally has his head on straight.  And it’s good, but it’s also confusing, because that was never the guy I knew.  And he and Sadie never made it work, and they’re fine with it, and that’s fine, but it just feels weird.”  He bit his lip.  “Did you hear, the Suspects broke up –”

“No!” Connie gasped.  “I heard about it, but I thought it was some sick prank –”

“Right? Me too!  But they all have their own things going on now.  Buck is going to medical school, Jenny’s got a little business going, Sadie has this new partner Shep and they have a totally different sound together… I don’t know.”

“Welcome to the club,” said Connie.  “Why do things have to be so confusing now?  I thought growing up was supposed to make things clearer.  Instead it seems like everything just gets more complicated.”

“It does, doesn’t it?” Steven mused.  “I keep thinking, it seems like Beach City is doing fine without me, and so are the Gems, too.  I hardly even see them now.  They’re doing great with Little Homeschool, and I wonder did they even need me at all?  What was I doing, trying to run a school?  I’ve never even been to school!  I was making it all up as I went!”  He huffed in frustration, then continued.  

“I guess I’m glad my schedule’s opening up now, but I haven’t figured out what I should do instead.  I have time to sleep in but I keep waking up in the middle of the night.  I could do music stuff, but I haven’t felt like it in forever.  Lately I’ve been messing with plants, growing them the old-fashioned way, but that doesn’t really feel like anything.”  His voice trailed off.  

“And…”  He hesitated.  He hadn’t told her yet about the dome he accidentally created on graduation night, how he’d nearly hurt everyone. Or what happened in the Reef with Pearl and Volleyball.  He still wasn’t sure how to say that out loud. To anyone. 

“– and I think my dad is still messed up after what happened with Bluebird,” he said instead.  “He was starting to get more comfortable with Gem stuff, but now he’s not coming over as much.  He doesn’t say it, but I think he’s kind of worried something might happen again.  I am too, I guess.  It honestly scared both of us.”

“I still can’t believe they went after your dad,” said Connie, a glimpse of her warrior side shining in her eyes.  “I know you let them go, but if I’d been there with my sword –”

“There’d have been no stopping you,” he chuckled.  Could they have stopped me? If I hadn’t stopped me?

“So what we do, then?  I’m a mixed up bunch of stupid hormones and you don’t know what to do with your life or your family, and I guess that makes us both at least a little awkward,” said Connie.

“I don’t know,” said Steven honestly.  But not knowing wasn’t as scary with Connie holding his hands.  There was that much, at least, and that was a lot.

The kitchen door swung open and Steven and Connie quickly let go.  He wasn’t sure if holding hands would be frowned upon by the Maheswarans, but didn’t want to find out, either.  “All done with your food?” asked Priyanka.  They nodded.

“That was truly delicious, Steven,” she said.  “Why don’t you help me finish up, Connie, and Steven, you and Doug can set up the game.  That is, if you’d like to stay for it.  You’re certainly welcome to join us.  From what I’ve seen perusing the rules manual, this game is much better balanced with four players than three.”

“Oh, please stay, Steven!” said Connie brightly.  “Maybe we could form an alliance and actually take my mom out for once.”

Priyanka let out a sharp bark of a laugh as Doug took down a board game from the bookshelf behind the dining room table.  “You’d like to think that, wouldn’t you?”  

“All right, I’ll give it a shot,” said Steven. “But no promises, Connie.  Gemkind has abolished warfare, remember?  Strategy’s not exactly my strong suit.”

“Well, check out the rules and see what we can swing.  You’re going down, Mom,” said Connie.  They retreated, and Steven joined Doug in the living room, where he already had the game out on the coffee table.  Steven sat down beside him on the sofa.  

“Have you played this one, Steven?  It’s called Interstellar Showdown.  It can be collaborative and cooperative… or intensely competitive!”  Doug’s face glowed with anticipation.  “Priyanka always wins no matter what we play, but I’ve been studying strategies for this game on the sly.  Just between you and me, of course.”  He opened the box and started rifling through the instructions.  “Would you mind organizing the pieces for me?”

“Sure,” said Steven.  He held up one of the small transport ships.  “This is actually a pretty close version of some of the Gem ships I’ve seen,” he said.  “Do you think it’s a coincidence?” He grouped the blue pieces across from him, where he guessed Connie would probably sit, and got to work separating the pink pieces from the plastic that held them in place.  

“Hard to say.  What’s that thing Connie was telling me about the other day – convergent evolution?  Sometimes nature makes things very similar to each other because it’s the best shape for the task, like bird wings and bat wings. I think that’s what she said.  She’s always telling me about interesting things she’s learned in school,” said Doug.

“Me too,” said Steven.  “I never knew our atmosphere was mostly nitrogen-based until Connie told me.  Who knew, right?”

“Right!  Nitrogen’s not the first thing you think of when you think ‘breathable.’  I always thought it was all oxygen, all the time.”  Doug set down the instructions and picked up a deck, tearing off the plastic wrapper. He shuffled the cards, doing both the regular shuffling as well as the bridge where the cards fanned upward.  Steven watched, slightly jealous.  He’d never figured out how to shuffle like that.

“How do you do the bridge thing?” he asked Doug.

“Bridge thing?”  Doug looked down at his hands.  “Oh, with the cards.  It’s not too hard.  You basically do the same shuffling action, but in reverse.  Give it a shot.”  He handed the cards to Steven.

“See, I can do the regular shuffling just fine –”  He demonstrated.  “But then this always happens.”  The cards limply collapsed between his hands, refusing to arc.  “Splat.”

“Try again,” said Doug, pulling out another deck of cards from the box and shuffling them downward.  Slowly he arced them upward, the cards bending into perfect semicircles.  Steven watched his hands closely.

“Okay, let’s see –”  Down shuffle.  He fanned his fingers outward, trying to urge the cards to go up instead of sideways.  They splatted again, and he frowned, mouth twisting.  “I can never get it,” he muttered.

“It’s hard to explain.  I think I had to keep practicing.  And try to change the shape of your hands as you lift the cards.  That’s key,” said Doug.  He shuffled again.

Steven tried it three more times, getting more irritated each time.  The third time the cards fluttered away from him, making a mess and knocking over the pile of pink spaceships.  A few of them skittered onto the floor and Steven flushed, suddenly embarrassed at his own irritation.  “Sorry, I didn’t mean to,” he said hastily, picking the pieces back up.

“Hey, it’s fine,” said Doug, picking up a ship he’d missed under the couch.  “No big deal if the bridge doesn’t work out for you.  But if you want to keep trying, we can.”

Steven took a deep breath.  “Okay.”  He tried again, this time flaring out his fingers more widely, driving his thumbs downward as he did.  A few of the cards finally arced, weakly, and he looked in surprise at his own hands.

“See, you’ve got this!”  Doug showed him again, and Steven studied how his fingers curled beneath the cards on the upswing, the angles in relation to the table, how the thumbs moved.

Steven tried again, and this time the arc was actually visible, if not as neat as Doug’s.  “Hey! I’m doing it!”

Doug set his cards down, smiling.  “You just needed a little help.  It’s tricky!”  He clapped Steven on the shoulder, and Steven shuffled the cards once, twice, a third time, smiling.  Doug switched decks with Steven, and Steven shuffled the cards, the action getting smoother with each attempt.  

“Thanks, Mr. Maheswaran.”  

“No problem.”  They went back to punching out spaceship pieces from their plastic frames.  Doug took the white pieces, and Steven took the pink ones, leaving yellow for Priyanka.  

Doug cleared his throat.  “I’m sure you already know this, Steven, but in general, there’s never anything wrong with asking for help.”

Steven’s hands stilled on the plastic spaceships.  “With… shuffling?”

“With anything.”  Doug kept setting out the yellow plastic pieces, one at a time, his hands steady and sure.  “No one knows how to get everything right on the first try.  Sometimes it’s shuffling cards.  Sometimes it’s stuff at home, too.”

Steven’s cheeks flared.  “It – it was just too much garlic –” he faltered. “I wasn’t –”

“Hey, hey, I’m not trying to put you on the spot, Steven,” said Doug, turning a little to face him directly.  He looked worried, but kind.  “But you’re important to Connie.  And you’re important to Priyanka and me, too.”  He reached out again, and this time instead of a quick clap, his hand rested on Steven’s shoulder.  “If there are things that are worrying you, I know you already have a lot of people in your life you can turn to.  But when I was your age, sometimes the people closest to me were exactly the ones I didn’t feel like I could talk to.  And if you’re ever in a place like that, I want you to know you can talk to me and Priyanka, even if you feel like you can’t talk to Connie or your family.”

Steven looked into his face, then sniffed, reaching up to rub his eyes.  Part of him wasn’t sure what he could possibly say to Mr. Maheswaran.  But part of him felt like he was thawing, a cold layer of fear slowly breaking up and dissolving in parts.  Not completely.  Still, though, the feeling was a good one.  

“Thank you, Mr. Maheswaran.  I – maybe I will.”  He let out a long breath.  “Though we should probably finish setting up the game.”  But impulsively he leaned forward, and Doug’s hand on his shoulder became a hug, brief and a little clumsy but warming all the same.

“Sounds like a plan, kid,” said Doug, smiling.  His own eyes looked a little watery, or was that a trick of the light?  “Come on, ladies,” Doug called.  “Are we going to defeat you, or what?”

 

***

 

They did not, in fact, defeat Priyanka.  Though it was very, very close.  Steven’s Pacifist aliens did form a powerful alliance with Connie’s Warrior race, and Doug’s strategic use of the Zombie aliens constantly stymied them.  But in the end Priyanka’s Virus aliens stood victorious with their colonies towering above the others’, with most of the other players’ ships lost to the warp. 

Priyanka was a restrained, if slightly smug, victor.  “Well,” she said, smiling faintly at her collection of yellow colonies.  “That was certainly tricky.”

“Modest as always,” Doug teased, reaching out to squeeze her hand briefly.  “Ahhh, one of these days I’ll get the perfect strategy together.  Maybe.”  He let out a long sigh.  “I thought for sure that last gambit was going to work….”

“My dad, the eternal optimist,” said Connie.  “What’d you think, Steven?  It ended up being a very Gem-like game, didn’t it?”

“Uncannily so,” said Steven.  He was glad he’d managed to draw the Pacifist card at the beginning of the game and could worry more about helping Connie win.  Even in board game form with painted on planets, the idea of colonization couldn’t help but creep him out a little.

Despite that, though, it’d been fun to see Connie with her brow furrowed in concentration, poring over the board to come up with a strategy.  He’d enjoyed Priyanka complimenting him on a particularly clever bit of negotiation, and it had been fun to cheer Doug on with Connie for the final encounter.  “It’d be cool to play again as some of these other alien species.  They all seem to have a special power that breaks the rules just a little bit. It’s a neat game.”

“I wouldn’t say no to a rematch another time,” said Priyanka.  She checked her watch. “But it’s nearly nine o’clock.  Won’t your family be getting worried, Steven?  Beach City’s not exactly down the block.”

Steven met Connie’s eyes.  He knew he’d probably be unable to convince the Maheswarans that it was fine to stay longer, that the Gems hadn’t had the concept of “bedtime” for him in years.  “I hadn’t realized it was getting so late,” said Steven.  “I hope I didn’t intrude on your family time –”

“Not in the slightest,” said Priyanka.  “It’s been a pleasure to have you, Steven. We should do this more often.”

“Besides, you were kind enough to bring over a delicious dinner!” said Doug.  “Don’t forget to send Connie that recipe for me.”

Connie reached out and poked him in the side. “If you don’t remember, he will hound me forever about it,” she warned.  “You wouldn’t do that to me, would you, Steven?”

“Of course not,” he laughed.  “Don’t worry. I’ll send it as soon as I get home.”

“Speaking of dinner, there was a little bit left. Let me go package it up for you,” said Doug.  “There’s plenty left for a few more servings.”

Doug and Connie both stood from their seats, and Steven gave Connie a questioning look. “I’m just going to the restroom,” she said.  Steven nodded, and realized he was now alone with Priyanka.

For a moment they didn’t speak, looking at each other from across the game board.  Steven wondered about Doug and Connie both excusing themselves, remembering how long Connie’s parents had taken in the kitchen after dinner. After he’d cried.  His cheeks burned as he put the pieces together.

He cleared his throat.  “Dr. Maheswaran, can I ask you something?”

She blinked, looking as if she had been lost in thought.  “Of course, Steven.”

He looked down at his hands, fingers twisting together.  “Did you and Mr. Maheswaran plan on… giving me a talk?”

“What do you –”

“Mr. Maheswaran talked with me earlier.  He told me I could always talk to you both.”  Steven looked pointedly at his shoes.  “That was planned, wasn’t it?  After I got weird at dinner?”

Priyanka sighed, then rested her elbows on her lap, leaning towards him.  “I suppose I can speak plainly, then.  Yes.  We saw that something seemed to be bothering you, and we didn’t want to leave it unremarked upon in case you needed to reach out.”

Steven blinked in surprise.  He’d fully expected her to deny the whole thing.  It was what the Gems would have done.

“Oh!  You – I thought so.”

Priyanka smiled ruefully.  “You’re nearly an adult, Steven.  I’m not too surprised you realized.  I hope you don’t think that we’re trying to patronize you.”

Steven stopped twisting his hands and shoved them in his pocket instead, willing them to stay still.  His leg betrayed him by starting up a quiet jitter.  “No, I don’t think that,” he said in a rush.  “At least, not exactly.”  His leg stilled a little, remembering Doug’s quick hug, the way he’d felt like he was thawing.  “It was… really nice, what he said.”

She nodded. “That’s why I asked Doug to talk to you, instead of talking to you myself.  He’s far more approachable than I am.  I have been told I can be… intimidating.”

Despite himself, Steven could feel a smile tugging at the edges of his lips.  “I was pretty scared of you at first,” he admitted.  “I think Connie was too.”

Priyanka’s gaze softened.  “I can be very stern.  Subtlety isn’t one of my strong suits, Steven.  That’s why I wasn’t going to belabor the point by trying to corner you, if that’s what you suspected is happening right now.”

Steven looked anywhere but at her face. “Maybe…”

She chuckled.  “No. I wasn’t planning on pulling you aside myself, and Doug really did just decide to go box up the food.  And Connie wasn’t in on it, if you’re worried about that.  This was solely a parental decision.”

Steven relaxed, a fear he hadn’t even fully articulated slipping away.  “Oh.  That’s, um, good to know.  Thank you.”

“However, since you’ve brought it up… would you mind if I shared my thoughts?”

He thought for a moment.  He was, quite honestly, still a little afraid of her.  But he liked that she had asked.  “I’d like to hear them,” he said cautiously.

Priyanka straightened back up, leaning against the back of the sofa and looking thoughtful.  “I worry about you both,” she said, looking up at the ceiling.  “To be frank, this is a terrible age.  Every problem is magnified, large or small.  Human brains struggle so much at this age to mature, to grow, to form identity.  I wouldn’t go through it again if you paid me.” She let out a short, sharp laugh before continuing, still keeping her gaze fixed above him.  

 “I know Connie is having a hard time of her own, and sometimes she lets us in, but sometimes she doesn’t.  It’s normal, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t difficult.”  She sighed.  “And I know she worries about you. She’s always wanted to fight by your side, but soldiers often struggle after their war ends.  I know that neither of you was a soldier in the traditional sense, but still… as I said, I worry.”

“Was I a soldier?  I don’t know.”  He’d never thought of himself like that.  Yet he knew battle, didn’t he?  Didn’t he know sacrifice?

“Maybe,” she said.  “I don’t know all the details.  But I know it was a war.”

“Yes.  It was.”  He swallowed.  “There are things that happened to me I still haven’t told anyone,” he said, so softly that he could barely hear his own voice.  He followed her lead and gazed up at the ceiling, its plain eggshell surface slipping and blurring in his vision.  “And some things that only Connie knows.  Terrible things.”

A moment’s pause.  “I… wondered.”

“I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to say them out loud.  They’d be real, then, wouldn’t they?  The war is over.  Why do I still think about old scars?”  The tears started again, but if he didn’t look at Priyanka, he could pretend they weren’t happening.  He kept staring at the ceiling.  “And then there’s new things. I’m not human.  Not fully.  And sometimes things happen that I don’t understand – that I can’t control –”  He sucked in a breath, suddenly remembering where he was.  He snapped his head back down and tore his gaze from the ceiling.  “No. I shouldn’t –”

Across the table, Priyanka’s eyes looked red.  She folded her hands in her lap.  “What if you did talk about it?”

Steven stared at her, his cheeks damp, his nose running.  “I can’t.  I – I’ve already said more than I should. I’m sorry.”

Priyanka nodded.  “All right.  You don’t have to speak about it to me. Or to Doug.  Or even Connie.  But I would ask you… please think about sharing with someone.  When you’re ready.”

Steven nodded blearily.  “I’ll… think about it.”

She stood up, bringing him a tissue from the box on the end table and taking one for herself.  She dabbed at her eyes.  He got to his feet, feeling uncomfortable sitting while she stood.  He wiped his face, then balled up the tissue and stuffed it into his pocket.  

“You aren’t alone, Steven,” she said, standing beside him with her arms crossed, looking through the window to the darkened street outside.  “Even if it must feel that way sometimes.”

“It does,” he mumbled beside her.  “And I feel stupid for even thinking that, when you’ve both been so kind, when I have Connie, and my family, and –”

“That doesn’t mean it isn’t difficult.  Sometimes, it makes it even harder,” she said, and the fact that she didn’t tell him it was fine, or that he was going to be okay, made his chest ache.  He was more grateful to her for it than words could convey.

“Um… Dr. Maheswaran,” he said awkwardly.  “I don’t, um, I don’t know if you’re a hugger, but –”

Before he’d finished his sentence, she put an arm around his shoulders and pulled him to her.  He rested his head against her shoulder, closing his eyes, trembling only a little.

“Usually, I’m not,” she said, and he could tell by her voice she was smiling.  “But I make exceptions for those I care about.”  She embraced him a moment longer, then let go. He found the balled up tissue in his pocket and used it again.

“Thanks, Dr. Maheswaran,” he said in a hoarse voice.

“You’re very welcome, Steven.”

“Uh… what are you guys up to?” asked Connie uncertainly from the entrance to the dining room.

“It’s a clear night, and Steven was pointing out the regions of some of the nearer Gem outposts,” Priyanka answered without hesitation.  “I was curious about some of the missions he’s been on.  Once things settle down with school, hopefully you’ll both be able to explore further.”

“Thanks, Mom,” said Connie, though she still looked suspicious.

Doug appeared beside her, holding the bag of Steven’s food.  “Thanks again for sharing with us,” he said.  “Any time you want to come by and bring us dinner, you won’t catch me saying no.”

“Nor I,” said Priyanka. She nodded toward the front door.  “If you two want a few minutes to say goodbye outside, take your time.”

“Just not too much of it,” Doug joked.  He handed the bag to Steven, and gave him a warm smile.  “We’re up for a rematch any time though, Steven.  Take care.”

“Drive safely,” said Priyanka, smiling as well. “We’ll see you in a few moments, Connie.  Goodbye, Steven.”

Steven followed Connie through the front door and onto the doorstep, where she promptly sat down, patting the step beside her.  He closed the door and gratefully joined her, setting the food down between his feet.

“Um, what was that?” Connie asked.  

“What was what?” said Steven, trying to keep his voice casual.  Not that that would work on Connie.

“You and my mom talking.”  Connie waved a hand at the night sky, which was covered in clouds.  “I know she didn’t develop a sudden interest in astronomy.”

Steven buried his face in his hands, the ups and downs of the evening catching up to him.  He took a few breaths before he lowered his hands and looked at her with a watery smile.  “They worry.  About you.  About me.”

“About us?  Being together?”

“Not like that.  I think they’re fine with that.  I do think they like me,” he admitted. “But they know we’re not exactly fine.”

“Mm.”  Connie leaned against him, laying her head on his shoulder and wrapping an arm around his waist.  “I thought they might try some kind of concerned talk after I realized how long they were talking in the kitchen.  I’m sorry I didn’t get a chance to warn you, but they came back too soon.  That’s where they go to be sneaky.  ‘Oh, we were just doing the dishes, Connie!’  And then the next thing you know it’s ‘we’re not mad, we’re just disappointed.’  They didn’t do that, did they?”

“No, no.  They were kind.  Really kind.  Your mom… She’s actually a big softy, isn’t she?  I never knew that before.”  He reached up, putting his arm around her shoulders.  He’d never stop marveling at how right she felt beside him.

Connie laughed, the sound sweet and silvery.  “It took me a long time to realize that’s why she’s so scary sometimes.  She doesn’t want anyone to know.  Whereas Dad – he’s just out there with it.  He doesn’t care who sees.”

“Sorry if I made dinner weird.”  He tried to think of a way to explain how he had felt.  “I just… did I ever tell you about Together Breakfast?  That was before I knew you.”

“You mean Garnet’s wedding cake that we didn’t get to eat?  I figured there had to be a story behind it.”

“Yeah, we had one then, but there was an original Together Breakfast.  There was one day I was trying to get the Gems to hang out with me.  I was twelve, I think.  I made this nasty breakfast – waffles covered in chocolate and whipped cream and popcorn – and I wanted them to share it with me so much.  But they were all hiding in the Temple, and then Amethyst tried to eat the whole thing, and Pearl and Garnet were too busy…. Anyway, a Gem monster got out and it turned the breakfast into this hideous horrible whipped cream nightmare.  We defeated it and went out for pizza in the end.”

“That sounds messed up, but also, completely normal for you.”

“Right?” he laughed.  “But I thought about it a while back.  The messed up part wasn’t the monster.”  This was hard to say.  Harder than he’d thought it would be.  “Why’d I have to beg them to hang out with me?  I was twelve.”

“Oh, Steven.”  She was quiet.  “They really are aliens, aren’t they?  But that doesn’t make it okay.”

“I saw you and your parents sitting around the table, happy and normal and enjoying something I’d made – something good, something I was proud of  – and I don’t know.”  He pressed a kiss to her forehead.  “I really enjoyed dinner with all of you tonight.  But it was hard, too.”

“I didn’t know all this stuff was going on with you,” said Connie.  

“I didn’t know about your stuff, either,” he reminded her gently.

She nuzzled against him, her face soft against the crook of his neck.  “Okay, okay, fine.  I’ll talk to you if you talk to me.  Deal?”

“That seems fair,” he said, though his mind raced with thoughts of pink flashes and white-hot rage.  He forced the thoughts away, stuffing them down.  He’d talk to her about more things.  No need to bring up everything.  There were still some things he had to figure out on his own.

“I don’t know if I can see you every week,” said Connie sadly.  “Not until some of my classes start dying down.  But we should do a video chat every week for sure.  We’ve been bad at that lately.”

“Agreed,” said Steven.  He’d been the one to say he was too busy for the past three or four calls.  He swallowed his guilt and kissed her forehead again.  “I missed you, Connie.”

“I missed you too, Steven.”

A gentle knock at the door. Connie let out a long sigh.  “Ahh, that’s my cue.  I could sit here with you forever, you know.  But I guess they have a point.  I’m freezing.”

He laughed, holding her close.  “I’d better warm you up before you go.”  A quick kiss, then a longer one, slower, softer.  They broke apart, blushing furiously.  

“Now they’re really going to give me a concerned talk,” Connie giggled.  “‘Why are you so flushed, young lady?’”  

“Because it’s cold outside!” said Steven, his eyes wide in the picture of innocence.  They broke down laughing almost immediately.

She got to her feet and crossed her arms.  “Go on, you.  Before I do get in trouble.”  She beamed at him.

“Oh, fine,” said Steven, standing up and grabbing the bag of food.  He grinned as she kissed the tip of his nose.  “But… call me tomorrow?”  

“I will. And don’t forget to text me that recipe!”  She blew him a final kiss as she opened the front door.

“Bye, Connie!  Bye, Dr. and Mr. Maheswaran!” Steven called.  He turned and headed back to the Dondai, gently swinging the bag in his hand until he remembered it held his food.

He drove back home, the car still pleasantly full of the smell of spices and peppers.  This time of night there was an utter lack of traffic on the road.  The drive home passed quickly, smooth and dreamlike in the cloudy dark.

The Dondai’s wheels drove over the gritty sand, coming to a stop just below the path up to his house.  He sat in the car for a moment, considering, then pulled out his phone.

First he sent a text to Connie.  Made it home, safe and sound.  Here’s the recipe, he sent.  He included a few photos and perhaps an overabundance of heart emojis.

Then he hit a familiar phone number and raised the phone to his ear.  After three rings, it picked up.  “Steven?” asked Greg.  “Is everything okay?”

“Oh!  Sorry, Dad.  I forgot how late it was.  Everything’s fine.  I was just wondering… have you had anything for dinner yet?”

“No, I was just snacking around…”

Steven smiled, looking at the bag in his passenger seat.  “Want to come over and watch a movie?  I made dinner.”

Greg’s voice through the phone was surprised, but glad.  “I’d love to, son.  I’ll be over in five.  Love you.”

“Love you, too, Dad.”

He ended the call and lowered his hand.  He let out a long breath, then unbuckled his seatbelt and grabbed his dinner.  He stepped out into the sand, heading up the path home, and he left behind the sound of waves upon the shore.