Steven was sitting on the couch, feeling lonely and sad for no reason at all, when he heard Jamie coming up the steps. "O treachery! O happy dagger! Oh hi Steven, how's it going?"
"I'm doing okay, I guess. How are you? Happy to be back delivering the mail?"
"Yes indeed! The long walk over here gives me time to practice my soliloquies." He handed Steven a water and power bill addressed to Pearl, two red Netflix envelopes for Garnet, and a half-dozen padded mailers that were probably things Amethyst had ordered off of eBay. Steven piled them on the coffee table. "And I have something special for you, Steven Universe."
"What is it? I never get any mail." Jamie gave him a piece of paper that had been folded in thirds and taped shut. Steven checked the address label. "Uh, this is addressed to ‘Occupant.'"
"Well, aren't you the house's most important occupant?" Jamie looked around. "Or at least its only occupant, right now?"
"Yeah, the other Gems are off on a mission, so I guess it is for me! Thanks, Jamie."
"You are most welcome. Good afternoon, sweet Steven!"
"You too! Bye!" Steven waved as Jamie went back down the stairs, and then settled down on the couch and broke the tape on the piece of paper. He unfolded it and read:
MAYOR DEWEY INVITES YOU
TO THE 43RD BIENNIAL
BEACH CITY FAMILY DAY
Come join everyone else in Beach City for a day on the beach!
Bring a picnic and your biggest beach umbrella!
Rain or shine!
Steven scratched his head and reached for his phone.
"Hi Steven, what's up?"
"Hi Connie! What does biennial mean?"
"Oh, did you get the Family Day flier too? It means every two years. I can't believe that it's already been almost two years since the last Family Day!"
"It's been so long that I totally forgot about it!" Steven said. "But I think I remember the last one. Didn't Onion bury everyone in the sand?"
"And Mayor Dewey got a mega sunburn. And Lars forgot to pack a picnic and got really mad that the pizza place wasn't open."
"Oh yeah, that's right, all the stores and restaurants shut down so their families can be at the beach." Steven flopped over on his side. "Think your parents will come with you? I can't really see your mom playing beach volleyball."
"She's actually excited about it!" Connie said. "She's taking the day off from work and everything. And my dad said something about getting his surfboard out of storage."
"That's cool." Steven rolled over onto his front. He just couldn't seem to get comfortable. "So you'll be there with your parents, and I guess Onion and Sour Cream will be there with their parents, and Ronaldo and Peedee with their dad, and Sadie with her mom..." He sighed. "And I'll be there with the Gems and my dad."
"What's wrong with that?" Connie asked. "You sound sad. Do you wish your mom could be there?"
"Yeah." Steven rolled onto his back. "And my family's... kind of weird, you know? Everyone else has one parent, or two parents. I've got four, and I'm carrying around part of my mom in my belly button."
"Kiki and Jenny have their grandmother too. And Sour Cream has a mom and a dad and a stepdad. That's almost like having three parents."
"Not really," Steven said.
"No," Connie admitted, "I guess not."
"I wonder what it would be like if everyone had lots of parents like I do," Steven said. "Then my family would be normal."
"Who cares about normal?" Connie said. "Your family's great! They all love you so much."
"I don't know why it's bugging me," Steven said. He shifted around so his legs were on the couch and the top of his head rested on the floor. "Sometimes I just want to be around people who are like me. Who have things in common with me."
"W-well, we have things in common!" Connie protested. "We both like the Spirit Morph Saga and we take fighting lessons from Pearl and we, um... we enjoy dancing?"
"Thanks for trying to cheer me up," Steven said. "I think I'm just sad today."
"I get that sometimes too," Connie said. "I'm sorry it's a sad day."
They stayed on the phone in silence for a minute, just being together. Then Steven heard Connie's mother calling her. "I've gotta go," Connie said. "I'll come over tomorrow, okay?"
"Okay," Steven said. "See you." He hung up the phone and swung his legs down with a thump. Lying on his back on the floor, he stared up at the picture of Rose over the door. "Hi, Mom," he said softly. "I know you gave me the best family you could. I wish you were here to be part of it."
* * * * *
The next day, Steven's mood lifted. He was just starting to think about going for a walk on the beach when Connie came running up the steps and pounded on the door. "Steven!" she yelled happily. "I found something!"
"Oh boy," Steven said, jumping up to let her in, "is it another Ruby? A crashed Gem ship? A coupon for a free pizza? A really pretty seashell?"
"No, better than that—a book! I found it at the library. Look!" She pushed a book into his hands.
"I Less Than Three My More Than Two," he read. "So it's a book about numbers?"
"It's a book about families! Families like yours!" Connie turned the pages. "See? Families where kids don't just have one or two parents. They have lots of parents, like you! And they all live together and love one another! They call it polyamory, which means loving lots of people." She frowned. "Is it right to say that the Gems love each other?"
"Ruby and Sapphire do," Steven said, "and it's like their love fills Garnet up and she spills it all over everyone else. Garnet's just made of love. And I think Pearl and Amethyst have gotten pretty fond of each other. Pearl barely even tries to clean Amethyst's room anymore." He flipped through the book. "Wow, if only your parents had read this, that would have made introducing them to the Gems and my dad a lot less awkward!"
"I know, right?" Connie whipped out her phone. "I did some additional searching on the internet and found that there's an Empire City Polyamorous Families Conference next week! I think you should go! So you can be around families like yours, the way you wanted. And you should take me with you! I really want to go."
"Oh," Steven said, "are your parents thinking of getting you more parents? That would be cool."
"Uh... I don't think so," Connie said. "I just think polyamory sounds like a neat idea." She blushed. "It just... it just makes a lot of sense! Like you love all the Gems and you don't have to pick favorites or anything."
"I pick favorites all the time! Right now Garnet's my favorite because she found me this really cute little frog on her last trip to check on Watermelon Island." He reached into his pocket and pulled out a watermelon frog. It hopped onto the top of his head, opened its bright red mouth, and stuck out a long black tongue. Connie giggled and patted it before putting it down on the floor so it could wander around.
"But they all take turns being your favorite," she said. "I think that's okay. As long as nobody's feelings get hurt."
"Well... I have learned that if I don't tell Pearl she's my favorite when she asks, she gets mad and says ‘Oh, that's fine, all I did was spend thousands of years on this planet and raise you from a baby and teach you how to fight and rescue you from floating in outer space, that doesn't matter, I understand,' and then locks herself in her room for like three days. So I tell her she's always my favorite, but Garnet and Amethyst are always my favorite too. She can't really argue with that." He beamed. "And you're my favorite too, Connie! And Dad, and Lion, and Lapis, and Centipeetle, and... actually you're right, I'm not really good at this favorites thing."
The frog hopped onto his foot. He picked it up. "You're my favorite too, Watermelon Frog," he told it, and he put it back in his pocket.
"Anyway," Connie said, "do you think the Gems and your dad would want to go to the conference, and, um, take me along? Because I don't think my parents would really be into it."
* * * * *
As Greg steered the van toward Empire City, Steven started to get nervous. "What if we're the only kids there?" he asked.
"It's a conference for families, dear," Pearl said. "I'm sure other families will bring their children."
"I think I'd still feel more comfortable if Connie and I fused," he said. "If that's okay with you, Connie."
"Sure!" Connie said. She was paging through a copy of the conference program that she had printed out. "And then we can go to all the evening events that the program says are only for adults. Stevonnie's an adult, right? Uh... how old is Stevonnie? Like both our ages put together? That doesn't seem right. But an average of our ages would be younger than Steven and I don't think that's right either."
"Who cares?" Amethyst asked. "Just say you're whatever age you want to be. Humans will believe anything." Greg finished his soda and passed her the can; she happily gulped it down, then wrinkled her nose. "Ugh, Greg, why do you always get the store-brand stuff? It's nasty."
"Old habit, I guess. And I actually kind of like the taste."
"It tastes like nail polish remover, except I like nail polish remover. What is ‘blue cola' even made out of?"
Tuning out the bickering, Garnet said, "I wonder why there would be events that are only for adults."
"Maybe it's advanced weapons training," Pearl said. "It's important to keep children safe if they're not ready for battle simulations."
"Hm," Greg said. "Maybe I should take a look at that program."
"Look over there," Steven exclaimed, "it's the Empire City Building! We're getting close!"
* * * * *
They parked and checked in at their shabby but cheerful little hotel—the conference hotel had sold out by the time they tried to book rooms—and then Steven and Connie fused and they all walked a few blocks over to the much bigger and more glamorous building where the conference was taking place. A long escalator took them up to an enormous open hall full of people with name badges clipped to their clothing. "Wow," Greg said, "I haven't seen this many guys with my haircut since that Guns N' Roses concert in 1987!"
Stevonnie turned around and around, looking at all the families. They saw groups of two and three and four and five, and nebulous clusters of people who all seemed to orbit around one another like complicated star systems. There were lots of kids, from babies in strollers to teens staring at their phones. One small child was yelling "MAMA SAID I COULD!" to three embarrassed-looking women; the one with curly blue hair patiently repeated, "Well, Mommy says you can't." When the yelling child abruptly bent at the waist and threw up all over herself, all her adults exclaimed in unison, and then the blue-haired woman scooped her up and the brown-haired woman grabbed a bag off the back of their stroller and they made a beeline for the bathroom as the black-haired woman flagged down a hotel staffer and made an apologetic request for a janitor's attention. It was like watching the Gems team up to fight a corrupted gem, except it was also completely different. It made Stevonnie feel a little dizzy.
"So where do we go now?" Amethyst asked.
"There's the sign for registration," Pearl said. "The program said to pay our attendance fee and get our badges there."
There was a bit of difficulty when Greg was the only member of their group who could produce a last name or a valid photo ID. (Steven had his Lonely Blade fan club membership card, but he'd left it in the pocket of the shorts that his Steven-body was wearing and he didn't want to unfuse to get it out. Being fused with Connie was like they were holding each other's hands all the time, and in the middle of this big crowd of strangers, that felt really good.) Eventually the registrar agreed that they could all still come in as long as they paid full price and only attended all-ages events.
"Do you have a house, group, or family name that you'd like on your badges?"
"We are the Crystal Gems," Garnet informed her.
"Oh, that's a nice one, very original." She typed it into the registration form.
"Hang on," Greg said, "I'm not sure I should have that on my badge. I mean, I'm not one of the Crystal Gems, officially. I'm more like... a groupie."
"It's okay, Mr. Dad!" Stevonnie said. "We can make you an honorary Crystal Gem for the trip, right, Garnet? We're all here together."
"Sure. Welcome to the team, Greg."
"I think it's fine too," Pearl said. Amethyst snorted.
"Mr. Dad, huh?" Greg said with a little smile. "I like that. Thanks, Stevonnie."
The registration woman swiped Greg's credit card, printed up their badges, put white bands on their wrists, and handed each of them a tote bag full of books and fliers and heart-shaped candy and thumb drives that said I Made a Connection at EmPolyFam 2017. "Oh wow!" Amethyst exclaimed. "Free junk!" She popped a thumb drive into her mouth and chewed noisily. "Mmm, ith crunchy."
"You can get your badge stickers over there," the registration woman said wearily. "Enjoy the conference. Next in line, please."
They moved on to a table covered with markers and sheets of stickers. "Oh, humans and their names and genders," Pearl said, picking up a sheet of round blue she stickers. "In an orderly society, you'd be able to just look at a Susan and know she's a Susan!"
"Garnet, look," Stevonnie said, "they have 'they' stickers for fusions!"
"Oh," Garnet breathed. "That's wonderful." She proudly placed a green they sticker on the lower right corner of her name badge. Then she put a blue she on the opposite corner. "One for Ruby and Sapphire," she explained, "and one for Garnet."
Stevonnie dithered over the stickers for a bit and finally opted for just they. Sometimes they felt more like Steven-and-Connie, but today was definitely a Stevonnie day.
"Hah, this one's perfect for you, P," Amethyst said, sticking an ask before hugging sticker onto Pearl's badge. "Wouldn't want some innocent person to get stabbed for hugging you without permission."
"Ooh, can I have a hug, Pearl?" Stevonnie teased.
"Oh, well, you certainly may," Pearl said, and she wrapped her arms around Stevonnie in a big warm hug. I've never been hugged by Pearl before, Stevonnie thought. It's nice. I should ask her for hugs more often.
"Okay, gang," Greg said as he finished drawing stripes on his badge to match his van, "are we all going to stick together, or split up?"
Stevonnie spread the schedule out on the table and they all bent over it. "Looks like the next batch of items starts at one o'clock."
"There's a two-hour self-defense class for women," Pearl said. "I think I'll stop by and give them some pointers."
Garnet adjusted her visor. "I think it would be a good idea if Amethyst and I go with you," she said in her I have looked into the future voice.
"Why?" Pearl said, frowning. "Does something dangerous happen otherwise?"
"Not to you," Garnet said.
"I'm getting hungry!" Greg said. "Do you kids—uh, kid—Stevonnie, do you want to grab some lunch? The hotel's got a nice restaurant."
"Yeah, lunch sounds great," Stevonnie said. "And then at two o'clock I can go to the youth meet-up. I'm still not sure how old I am, but hopefully they'll let me in."
"Sounds like a plan, kiddo. I'm sure I can find something to do at two. Maybe the men's encounter group! My dad used to do stuff like that in the Seventies. I didn't even know they still existed." He frowned. "Uh, do any of you have phones?"
"I have Connie's," Stevonnie said. The other Gems shook their heads.
"That's going to make it hard to find each other." Greg flipped through the program until he found the hotel map. "Well, there's a lounge on the seventh floor that's supposed to make a good meeting place, so let's all meet there at three—does that sound good to everyone? Then we can decide whether to go to the Seebles concert or check out some wild Empire City nightlife."
"Look at you, Greg," Garnet said with a smile, "only on the team for a few minutes and already making tactical decisions."
* * * * *
Stevonnie hadn't had to navigate a restaurant menu before, and it turned out that their culinary tastes were different from both Steven and Connie's, which confused everyone. But the veggie burger was really good, and when two o'clock came around, they felt fully fueled up and ready for the youth meet-up. The orienteering skills they'd learned from Pearl came in handy as they figured out how to get to the fourth floor and find the William Henry Harrison room.
They pulled the door open just a little and peeked inside. The room had a table at one end and rows of chairs facing the table. Some of the chairs had been dragged into a circle of sorts, and they were occupied by about a dozen people who looked up and smiled when the door opened. "Come in!" called a young man. "We're friendly!" His broad build, big smile, and dreadlocks reminded Stevonnie of Bismuth, and they felt a little pang of recognition and sadness.
Stevonnie went in and found a chair between a short thin teenager wearing a black motorcycle jacket and a tall fat teenager whose t-shirt and power scooter were decorated with rainbow hearts. "Hi," they ventured. "I'm Stevonnie." Then they felt silly, because of course everyone could read their name badge.
"I'm Shawn," said the guy who'd called them in. His badge had a he sticker and he'd drawn on a symbol Stevonnie didn't recognize, with what looked like arrows pointing off in three directions.
"Yay, another non-binary person!" their tall neighbor exclaimed. "I'm Jin-Soo. It's super nice to meet you, Stevonnie. Love that navel jewelry."
"Thanks," Stevonnie said. "It was my mom's. Um, what did you call me? A what person?"
"Non-binary," Jin-Soo said, pointing with their chin to the they sticker on their own name badge. "That's why you have the sticker, right?"
"I... I guess?" Stevonnie flushed. "I don't know what that means, really. I have the sticker because I'm not... just a boy or a girl... I'm both."
"Then you're non-binary!" their short neighbor said. Her name tag read Debbie and she. "Like, the binary is boys or girls, men or women, right? And non-binary is not-that. Not a boy or a girl, or both, or something else."
"Wow," Stevonnie said. "I didn't know other humans could do that."
Everyone laughed, though not in a mean way. "This is your first time at EmPolyFam, huh?" said a woman whose name tag said Sofia. She looked a little older than the others, maybe old enough to be in college. "We get all kinds of humans here."
"Even humans like me," Stevonnie said wonderingly. "Non-binary. There's a word for it and everything."
Debbie beamed at them. "Stevonnie, can I give you a hug?" Stevonnie nodded and she reached up and slung her arm around their shoulders. "I'm really glad you're here."
"Me too," Stevonnie said. "Me too."
There was a moment of awkward silence. "So," Shawn finally said, "we were just talking about what our different families are like. What's yours like, Stevonnie?"
"Well, my mom and dad—uh." Steven and Connie meant such different things by that phrase that Stevonnie had to pause to make sure they didn't unfuse. They hadn't thought about how fusing meant their families were fused too. "One of my moms and dads, my mom's a doctor and my dad is a security guard. He moves around a lot but right now we live in Beach City. And my other dad used to be a rock musician and now he runs a car wash. And my other mom gave up her physical form when I was born, but she was part of a group called the Crystal Gems and the other Gems kind of took over being my parents. So I live partly with the Gems—except for Peridot and Lapis, who live out at my dad's cousin's old barn, but they're not my parents at all, it's more like we adopted them, I guess?—and partly with my first mom and dad, and I see my other dad a lot." They took a breath. "That sounds super complicated! It doesn't feel that complicated when I'm living it."
"That sounds like my family," Sofia said, "except all four of my parents live in one house and my three younger siblings live there too. I was so glad to move out and go to college where I only have one roommate!"
"I'm so sorry about your mom," Debbie said, hugging Stevonnie again. "But the way you talk about her is so beautiful. ‘Gave up her physical form'—that's just so ethereal."
"Um, thanks," Stevonnie said, thinking that that was a weird thing to be complimented on.
The time flew by as Stevonnie gradually got used to being around people who said things like "all my parents." It turned out there were lots of ways to have a polyamorous family. Shawn lived with both his moms, and his dad had moved out but had an apartment just a few blocks from them. Kirti had grown up on a communal farm and now lived in Empire City with three of her parents who'd decided they preferred city life; she went back to the farm every summer to reconnect with her other parents there. Mark's parents were swingers who only dated other couples. Jin-Soo's mom and dad both had boyfriends. Debbie's parents were monogamous ("ugh, they're so boring white-bread American, it's ridiculous"), but Debbie was polyam and had come to the conference with a friend in hopes of connecting with other polyam teens or at least people who wouldn't judge her.
The Connie part of Stevonnie took lots of mental notes and mostly hung back so the Steven part could bask in the experience, which he appreciated, but she never went so far away that they felt at risk of unfusing. It was less like holding hands and more like being on the training ground, back to back, facing their individual challenges but always there to protect each other too.
Conversation turned to dating, and Jin-Soo and Stevonnie bonded over being the only ones there who weren't dating anyone. "I've decided that I'm dating myself," Jin-Soo said proudly. "I see all my friends losing themselves in relationships and I don't want to do that. I want to be in a great relationship with me."
"I never thought of it that way," Stevonnie said. "I think you can be really close to someone, so close that you feel like you're parts of the same person, and also still be yourself. But being in a great relationship with you is important too. Because when you're that close with someone you don't become each other and you don't stop being you—you make something that's magical and new. And if you don't stay grounded in who you are, that can be really overwhelming."
Jin-Soo's eyes were sparkling. "You're amazing," they said. "Can I give you my number? I want to stay in touch."
Stevonnie pulled out their phone, saved Jin-Soo's number, and checked the time. "Wow," they said, "it's quarter to three. I hate to leave, but I've got to go meet Mr. Dad and the Gems." They stood up and stretched. "How do I get to the seventh-floor lounge from here?"
"It's just up the escalator," Debbie said. "I can show you."
"That's okay," Stevonnie said. Debbie had been paying a lot of attention to them and it was starting to make them feel a little uncomfortable. "I'm sure I can find it."
"It's fine, I'm going up there too." She jumped up. "My friend André said he'd meet me there after the non-violent communication workshop."
No. I need to go somewhere safe. The thought brought up Connie's memories of hiding in the school bathroom to get away from some mean older kids, and then Steven's memories of Peridot living in his bathroom. "I—I need to find a bathroom first," Stevonnie said.
"There's an all-gender bathroom on this floor," Shawn said. "It's all the way down by the elevator. Look for the paper sign."
"Great!" Debbie said. "We can powder our noses and then take the elevator up to seven."
Stevonnie grimaced. This is like the thing with Kevin all over again, they thought. But they stood up straighter, remembering what they'd learned about dealing with Kevin. "Debbie, you're really nice, but I want some time to myself," they said firmly. "I'm going to go upstairs on my own. Please don't come with me. I'm going now."
Debbie's eyes filled with tears. "Okay, Stevonnie, wow, I was just trying to be friendly," she whispered. She sat back down and put her face in her hands. Shawn sighed and patted her back. Jin-Soo rolled their eyes and gave Stevonnie a sympathetic look.
"It was nice to meet you all," Stevonnie said, doing their best to ignore Debbie's sniffling. "Thanks for being so welcoming. I'm sure I'll see you around the conference."
They hurried out of the room and breathed a sigh of relief as the door swung shut behind them. They really did need some time alone. In Beach City they might go months without seeing a stranger or hanging out with more than a handful of people. The conference was so crowded by comparison, and everything was new. It was a lot to take in.
They followed the signs for the elevator and found the all-gender bathroom nearby. Somewhere safe, they thought. They went into a stall, locked the door, and remembered how to breathe.
* * * * *
"I thought that went very well," Pearl said as they left the self-defense class.
"I thought so too," Garnet said.
"I'd never even heard of capoeira! A fighting style that uses dance—what a brilliant idea. Of course I've been doing that for five thousand years."
"We know," Amethyst said. "You said that at least three times."
"And Senhora Emiko was very patient with all those beginners."
Garnet smiled a little. She'd quite enjoyed her turn sparring with Senhora Emiko. It was really too bad that Steven was the only gem who was able to fuse with humans.
"But Garnet, I didn't sense anything dangerous at all in the room. It was just a bunch of humans who didn't even know how to fight. Why did you say you and Amethyst needed to come along?"
"I said it wouldn't be dangerous to you," Garnet said. "That's why I cut in line to make sure we'd be partners."
"I really thought that was unnecessary," Pearl huffed. "A human could have learned so much from sparring with me!"
"Ye-es," Garnet said. "Let's just say that wouldn't have worked out so well. Humans are surprisingly fragile."
"And why did Amethyst have to be there?"
Garnet shrugged. "I thought she'd have fun."
"And I did!" Amethyst turned a cartwheel for no particular reason. "And you did too, Pearl, so you can just admit that Garnet was right."
Pearl gave Garnet a sidelong glance. "Oh, all right. You were right, Garnet."
"Thank you," Garnet said. "Now let's go find Greg and Stevonnie."
* * * * *
Greg staggered out of the men's encounter group wanting something he didn't often want: a stiff drink. He hadn't expected to talk about Rose at all, but when another man started sharing his emotions over the death of his father, the feelings had just spilled out of him. He felt drained and exhausted and also somehow cleansed, like he'd been through his own car wash.
"Hey, Greg!" someone called from behind him. He turned and saw the guy who'd been talking about his father—what was his name? David, right. "I just wanted to say you did really good work in there. It looked like you needed that."
"I did, yeah. Thanks, man." Greg shook his head. "I didn't even know I needed to let that all out. But I don't ever really get to talk about Rose to people who didn't know her. All my friends were her friends, y'know? It felt really good to get some support from people who were there just... just for me."
"Did you ever see a therapist or a grief counselor or anything like that?"
Greg blinked. "No, I guess I was too busy taking care of Steven to think about it. And then... you know, now that you mention it, the last few years have been really rough." He decided not to go into detail. People got weird when you started talking about alien abductions and averting the destruction of the planet.
"My husband Fred is a therapist," David said. "Do you want his card?"
"I live down in Beach City," Greg said. "I don't think I can come all the way up here to see a therapist."
"Oh, gotcha." David dug in his pocket and pulled out a slightly bent business card and a pen. He wrote two email addresses on the back of the card and handed it to Greg. "Well, take this anyway. The first email is Fred's and the second is mine. Maybe he can help you find someone near where you are. I think that might do you some good."
"That's... wow." Greg wiped his eyes. "That's really nice of you. I've been so focused on taking care of my son. I don't remember the last time someone took care of me."
David gave him a big hug with only a little bit of manly back-slapping right at the end. "You deserve to be taken care of," he said. "Don't forget that."
"I won't," Greg said. "But I gotta go meet the rest of... of my family. You know, I don't even think of them that way most of the time. They're just my kid's other parents."
"Maybe you should talk to them more," David said. "They might be the family you need right now."
"Maybe I'll do that," Greg said. "Thanks again, David. It was really nice to meet you."
"Likewise," David said. "Keep in touch. Drop us a note the next time you're in Empire City and maybe we'll get dinner or something."
Greg was halfway to the escalators before he realized David might have been flirting with him. He stopped short and felt his face turn bright red. No one had flirted with him in fifteen years. He had no idea whether he even wanted to flirt back.
Well, if he decided he did, he had their card.
* * * * *
The lounge was enormous—it took up most of the seventh floor of the hotel—and full of people talking at top volume. There were three different bars and several sections of seating. Greg wandered around for a while and was just starting to feel a bit anxious and disoriented when he spotted Garnet's hair. She was sitting with Amethyst and Pearl in a grouping of several big soft armchairs. Pearl's posture was impeccable. Garnet was lounging comfortably. Amethyst had let herself sink into the cushions until she'd almost vanished from sight. A nearby table held a few empty glasses; Greg assumed Amethyst had found something nicer than blue cola to drink.
"Garnet! Pearl! Amethyst! I'm so glad I finally found—"
"Oh, who's this?" exclaimed a nearby woman. Greg hadn't even noticed her. She was leaning against a chair with her arm draped around the man who occupied it. They were both in their fifties, with permanent, leathery tans. Something about her flowered dress and his open-necked shirt felt oddly out of place in the flashy hotel.
"Hi Greg," Garnet said in her most deadpan voice. "You're just in time to meet our new friends, Margaret and Jason."
"What a lucky man you are, Greg," Jason said, winking, "to have all these lovely ladies for your harem."
"They're not my harem," Greg said indignantly. Pearl's shoulders quivered slightly and he realized she was holding back laughter. From the Amethyst-shaped dent in the chair cushions came a muffled snicker. Garnet somehow managed to remain impassive.
"We just wanted to invite you all to come up to our room this evening," Margaret said. "We're always happy to meet other swingers from down the coast."
"That's, um, very nice of you, but—"
"We'll have some hors d'oeuvres. A glass of wine." She leered. "Perhaps a... shrimp cocktail."
"But Pearl doesn't eat," Greg said. He only belatedly realized how weird that sounded.
"Oh, doing a juice cleanse?" Margaret eyed Pearl's waistline. "It's certainly working out well for you, dear."
"Oh yes!" Pearl said brightly. "I greatly enjoy cleansing juices."
"Mr. Dad!" Greg turned as Stevonnie joined them, breathing hard as though they'd been running. There were tears in their eyes.
"Hey, kiddo, are you okay?" He hugged them, a little startled to suddenly have a kid who was almost his height. "What's the matter?"
"I couldn't find you and I tried to text you but Connie's phone doesn't have your number and this place is all full of people and I'm just having a hard time!" They buried their face in his chest.
"Hey, hey." He patted them soothingly. "It's okay, you found us, and we've got a nice quiet corner here where you can take a breather. Do you want to go over to the other hotel and stay in the room for a bit?"
"N-no." They sniffled. Garnet passed them a cocktail napkin and they blew their nose. "I just need a minute."
"Come sit over here, Stevonnie," Garnet said. "We'll breathe together."
Jason and Margaret glanced at each other. "We'll leave you to enjoy your family time," Jason said. "We're in room 2116 if you want to come by at nine." They departed rather more gracefully than Greg would have expected; he had to give them credit for that. He still wasn't interested in their shrimp cocktail, though.
Amethyst poked her head out from the chair. "Oh good, they left," she said. "I thought I was going to crack my gem trying not to laugh too loudly."
"Who was that?" Stevonnie asked, settling into the chair Jason had vacated.
"Some very, very friendly people," Garnet said dryly. "Who really, really wanted to be friends with us."
"I met someone like that too." Stevonnie wrapped their arms around themself. "Some of the people at the youth meet-up were great but there was one girl who was just... it was like she needed something from me but I didn't know what but I didn't want to give it to her, whatever it was." Their face brightened. "But I met a really nice person named Jin-Soo and got their number! They're non-binary. Like me!"
"A human fusion?" Pearl exclaimed. "That's not possible!"
"Not two bodies fused together," Stevonnie said. "But they're not a boy or a girl, like I'm not a boy or a girl. It was so nice to make a friend who understands what that's like."
"I made a friend too," Greg said, smiling at them. "So it's not all bad, right, kiddo?"
"Definitely not," Stevonnie said, smiling back. "I think I was just expecting something different. I thought everyone here would be just like us." They looked around the crowded room. "But everyone's here for the same reason we are—because they're not like ordinary families. And there are so many ways to be not ordinary!" They sighed. "So I still feel out of place here the way I did at home. I thought I would feel just like everyone else, like I belonged, but I don't."
"I think your expectations might have been a little unrealistic," Greg said gently. "You were never going to meet someone with four alien parents."
"I don't know," Pearl said. "I didn't think you were going to meet another human fusion either, but apparently you did! Or as close as humans get."
"There's no one like you, Stevonnie," Garnet said. "You're special. Unique."
"And sometimes special and different means lonely," Amethyst said. Stevonnie thought of her half-height space in the kindergarten, and the way she'd dived into bonding with other Quartzes. They reached out and squeezed Amethyst's hand.
"But you've got us," Greg said. "Your weird, wacky, awesome, loving family."
"And now that I know just how many kinds of families there are," Stevonnie said, "I can say for sure that this is a pretty great one. Though now I miss my other parents."
"You mean the Maheswarans?" Greg said.
"Yeah. And..." Stevonnie ran into "mom" confusion again, and quivered.
"And Rose," Pearl said with a faraway look. "She should be here too. She would have loved this—all these people finding their own ways to love one another and make families happen."
"I don't think Connie's parents would have fun here," Stevonnie said. "But that just makes me want to go home and see them."
"Then let's go home," Garnet said. The others nodded. "I'm sure the Maheswarans miss you too. And I think we've had a good time and gotten what we wanted."
"The important thing," Greg said, grinning, "is family and friendship, honesty, values, and no one got arrested!"
Stevonnie jammed on an air guitar just as Greg did the same. He jumped. "How did you know I was going to do that?"
"Rose-Mom's room showed me that it's a thing you do sometimes."
"That's amazing!" Greg smiled fondly. "It's a thing I used to say to Rose after our wild escapades. I'd almost forgotten. I wonder why I remembered it now. It just seemed like the right thing to say."
Stevonnie touched their gem. "I guess she was here a little bit after all."
* * * * *
Family Day dawned bright and clear. Garnet hefted an umbrella big enough to shelter them all, Pearl carried the picnic basket, Amethyst had the volleyball, and Steven put himself in charge of slathering himself and Greg with sunscreen. He tried to leave Watermelon Frog at home, worrying that the sun would dry it out, but it insisted on hopping onto his shoulder, so he dug out a big broad-brimmed hat that would shade them both.
"It's from a tropical island," Garnet said. "I think it'll be fine."
"I just want to be sure," Steven said.
When they got to the beach, they immediately spotted Lapis and Peridot next to an enormous sand castle. Peridot had attached a plastic bucket to a robot arm; it scooped up turret-shaped chunks of sand and deposited them whole atop the structure. Lapis was directing a flow of water through the moat and around and over the sections of the castle. She waved absently as they went by, but she and Peridot were clearly engrossed in their meep morp, so the Gems left them to it.
They set up their umbrella next to the Maheswarans. Mr. Maheswaran was diligently waxing his surfboard. Dr. Maheswaran was shadebathing in a full-body cover-up. "Hello, Dr. and Mr. Maheswaran!" Steven said. "Where's Connie?"
"Over by the tide pools, I think," Dr. Maheswaran said. She tilted up her sunglasses. "I hope you're wearing sunscreen. Skin cancer can be very serious."
"Yes ma'am!" Steven pointed to the bottle. "SPF 4000. Pearl says that's good enough to wear on the moon."
"On the moon I'd be more concerned about cosmic rays than solar radiation," Dr. Maheswaran said. "I think NASA did some good research on that. I can look it up for you." She sighed. "I suppose you really do go to the moon, don't you."
"Not much anymore," Steven said.
"Well, don't take Connie up there, it's out of cell range." She put her sunglasses back on. "I think I'll take a nap. I've been reading some very worrying studies on the effects of sustained sleep deprivation."
Steven found Connie by the water's edge, looking for unbroken seashells. "Steven!" she exclaimed. "I'm really glad you came. I think it's going to be a good day."
"I think so too," Steven said. "What do you think, Watermelon Frog?" The frog snuggled up against his neck and stuck its tongue out. "See, Watermelon Frog agrees."
He felt someone tug his hand and looked over. "Oh hey Onion, how's it going? Are you burying people in the sand again?"
Onion held up a shovel and nodded.
"Well, that sounds like a good time, you go ahead and do that!"
Onion tugged his hand again.
"You want to bury me in the sand?"
Onion nodded, more emphatically.
"Well, I was going to help Connie look for—hey!"
Onion grabbed Watermelon Frog off Steven's shoulder. The frog wriggled and looked mildly concerned.
"Give it back!"
Onion held up the shovel.
"If I agree to let you bury me, you'll give back Watermelon Frog?"
"And you won't hurt it in any way? You know you can't bury the frog, that would be very bad for it."
Onion shook his head.
Steven looked helplessly at Connie. "I guess I've got to go get buried. Sorry, Connie."
She laughed. "That's okay. We can always look for seashells later."
Onion thrust the shovel into his pocket, took Steven's hand, and led him to where a long line of heads poked out of the sand. One of them was Mayor Dewey, who looked sweaty and uncomfortable and was already turning red. "Mayor Dewey, may I put some sunscreen on you?" Steven asked.
"That would be a great service to Beach City, young Universe," the mayor said.
"Is that okay?" Steven asked Onion. "I promise I'll let you bury me after that."
Onion nodded reluctantly. Steven ran to his family's blanket, got the sunscreen, and liberally coated the mayor's face with it. He sighed with obvious relief.
There was an open spot between Sadie, who was dozing with a music magazine over her face, and Mr. Smiley, who was wearing enormous sunglasses and his trademark enormous smile. Onion put Watermelon Frog on his own shoulder (where it looked confused), whipped out the shovel, and dug a shallow bed in the sand. Steven lay down and let Onion cover him up. When he was thoroughly buried, Onion carefully placed Watermelon Frog on the sand over his shoulder, where it was once again safe under the shade of his hat.
"Thanks, Onion," Steven said. "I appreciate you keeping your end of the bargain, even though you shouldn't have taken my frog in the first place." Onion saluted with the shovel and ran off to find another victim.
Being in the sand was surprisingly peaceful. Steven looked around at all the familiar faces up and down the beach. Among his buried fellows were Peedee and Ronaldo arguing, Jamie muttering poetry to himself, Kiki and her grandmother debating whether sliced or crumbled sausage was better on pizza, and Amethyst amusing herself by turning her head into different animal heads. Mr. Maheswaran ran past, his surfboard held high. Lapis saw him and, with a mischievous smile, made a big wave for him to surf on. Sour Cream cranked up his sound system and began to play dubstep remixes of the Beach Boys.
"Huh," Steven said, "I guess we all do have something in common."
Watermelon Frog nosed his ear inquisitively.
"We all like the beach!"
The frog seemed to agree. It scrabbled in the sand, making its own shallow bed to rest in.
"And we all like it in our own ways." Steven relaxed, feeling the sand hold him up. "We all get to be similar and different together. Like a great big Beach City family. Oh! Mr. Smiley, is that why it's called Family Day?"
"Well, of course," Mr. Smiley boomed. "What did you think it meant?"
"Keep it down," Sadie mumbled, "I'm trying to sleep."
. . * * ' . ' . . ' *