“My Steven? You need to get up.”
Steven stirred in his bed. He felt a gentle hand on his shoulder. He opened his eyes and saw Pearl leaning over him, her eyes peaking just past her blue bangs. She smiled softly at him. “Good evening, my Steven.”
“Evening, Pearl,” Steven smiled sleepily as he stretched, shaking the remnants of sleep off of him. He sat up and Pearl stood up, giving him his space.
“You need to get ready quickly, my Steven,” Pearl said. “The person at the motel office has already come by once to try and force us to leave.”
Steven threw the covers off of him as he hopped off the bed, straightening his sleep shirt. “Why didn’t you wake me? We could have left before now.”
“You still needed more sleep. Your growing human body requires eight hours of sleep.”
Steven rubbed his eyes. After the day they had, he couldn’t really argue that he appreciated the sleep. Still, Pearl’s tendency to disregard other people had gotten them in trouble before.
“I've already laid out your clothes in the bathroom, my Steven,” Pearl said. “Hurry and dress so we may be off.”
“Okay, but are you going wear your dress?” Steven asked.
Pearl pursed her lips. “I’m not sure, my Steven. I don’t really like the feeling of clothes…”
“Pleeease, Pearl?” Steven pleaded, clasping his hands together and putting on his sweetest possible face. “Dad and I picked that dress out especially for you. And you look so pretty in it!”
Pearl sighed before smiling again. “Very well, my Steven. For you.”
Steven cheered, “Yes!”
“But you need to get dressed as well.”
“Right. I am, Pearl.” Steven quickly trotted off to the bathroom, closing the door behind him.
First thing first, he got onto the toilet and relieved his near-full bladder. That done, he began undressing, folding his sleep clothes and putting them into his cheeseburger backpack, which hung on a hook on the back to the door. After, he took the clothes Pearl had laid by the sink, a pair of jeans, a simple black shirt emblazoned with a bright yellow star, and his dark blue hoodie. Steven dressed, then grabbed a pair of socks out of his backpack and put them on, followed by his sturdy pair of walking shoes.
“One last thing,” Steven said to himself as he walked over to the sink and looked at himself in the mirror. He smiled at his reflection, who smiled back, and pulled down the neck of his shirt, revealing his blue, diamond shaped gem. He breathed onto the sleeve of his jacket and rubbed it, giving it a slight sheen.
“My Steven? Are you ready?”
“Yeah, I’m ready, Pearl.” Steven straightened his shirt and exited the bathroom. He grinned broadly at Pearl, delighted that she was wearing the faded blue sundress that Steven and his dad had gotten her. “See? You look great.”
Pearl smiled and nodded, “If you say so, my Steven. Let’s get going.” She opened the motel room’s door and Steven walked out. “If your pack gets too heavy for you, let me know and I can carry it.”
“Alright, Pearl. But I think I got it.”
Pearl closed the door behind them. The sun was already hanging low in the sky. They’d have to hurry if they wanted to make it to the last bus to town for the night. Sparing only a glance at the window into the front office (with the person on the other side sparing a long look back), Pearl put a hand on Steven’s back and led him towards the sidewalk and bus stop.
The sun had gone all the way down by the time they reached town. Pearl and Steven walked through the deserted streets, thankfully not running into anyone. Pearl did her best to keep her gaze leveled at the carwash ahead of them, rather than on the giant cliffside, on which the other side she tried her best not to think about.
The carwash was dark, but the beat up van out front was not. Its back doors were open and Pearl could see the bulky silhouette of a human sitting in the back.
“Dad!” Steven exclaimed as he burst into a run towards the van.
“Steven-” Pearl called after him, but he was already gone. She sped up after him.
Greg was indeed sitting in the back of the van, strumming on his guitar and waving at them as they approached.
“Hey, Shtoo-b-” Greg was cut off as Steven lept at him, knocking him onto his back and securing him tightly in a hug.
“Hey, Dad!” Steven greeted, squeezing a little tighter.
“Oof! Easy there, Steven,” Greg coughed and laughed at the same time. “You don’t want to break anything.”
“Oh! I’m sorry, Dad.” Steven climbed off his father and sat down next to him. Greg carefully got back up, setting his guitar aside. “I didn’t hurt you, did I?” Steven asked.
“Nah, you’re fine,” Greg said. “To be honest, I appreciate the enthusiasm. Not looking forward to when you’re less excited to see your old man.”
“That’ll never happen, Dad,” Steven said. “It’s always great seeing you.”
Greg chuckled and tousled Steven’s hair. “Hehe , well that’s reassuring.” By now Pearl had joined them. Greg waved a greeting at her, “Hey, Pearl.”
“Hello, Greg.” Pearl bowed slightly at him. “It’s good to see you again.”
“Yeah, same.” He clapped his hands together. “So. How have you two been doing?”
“Great!” Steven answered. “Pearl’s teaching me all about different places in the world! Like last week we learned about China!”
“Oh, that sounds interesting.”
“Yeah! And yesterday, Pearl and I went down to the town at the bottom of the mountain. They were having some sort of fair and I tried this food called- um, what was it called?”
“Hweori Gamja, my Steven,” Pearl replied.
“It was really good,” Steven said. “It was like a potato chip, only thicker and it was lots of them on a stick.”
“Man, that does sound good,” Greg said. “I really need to get back there. For the food, if nothing else.”
“Then we can spend all day together!” Steven said. “I can show you around town! And all my favorite places on the mountain.”
“We’re definitely going to do that, Steven,” Greg said, putting an arm around Steven’s shoulder. “Just, once the time's right.”
“ Ahh ,” Steven moaned. “The time’s never right.”
Greg glanced up at Pearl, though it was hard to tell if she was looking back through her long bangs. “It will be soon, Shtoo-ball.”
“Yeah. I promise.”
Steven sighed. “Okay, Dad. Here.” He swung his backpack around to his front. “Let me show you some of my new drawings. Oh, and this one part in the geography text book Pearl’s been using.” He was digging through his backpack, pulling out books, folders, loose papers, and even a board game.
“I’m sorry, Greg. I asked him to pack more conservatively,” Pearl explained as she grabbed several sheets of paper that were in danger of blowing away in the breeze.
“It’s alright,” Greg said as he did his part to move the contents of Steven’s backpack further into the van and thus safe from the wind. “I’m just grateful for the visits.” He smiled softly down at his son.
“Okay,” Steven said as he flipped through the text book, looking for just the right page. “So, first thing’s first…”
Steven stopped only when his own body did. He had fallen asleep, resting his head in Greg’s lap, who rested a gentle hand on the child’s head.
Pearl had busied herself for a while packing the contents of Steven’s backpack up and securing said pack on her shoulders.
After a bit of silence, Greg asked, “So, have things been quiet on your end?”
“Yes,” Pearl nodded. “We’ve had no trouble. And as far as I can tell, the nearest warp pads haven’t been used by anyone but us.”
Greg sighed and sagged with relief. “Well, that’s good.”
“And… have you…?” Pearl trailed off.
Greg sighed again, this one heavier and much more weary. “Not really. Though, when I’m talking to Rose, it’s sometimes hard to tell what’s useful and what’s not. I try to ask questions, but I don’t want to seem suspicious. Plus, it’s especially hard when I have the other Pearl drilling holes in the back of my head.”
“Yes. I imagine not.” Pearl tipped her head in Greg’s direction, expression unreadable. “I thank you for your help, Greg.” She grabbed on of the straps of the backpack and squeezed it. “Were she still around, I’m sure my Diamond would be grateful as well.”
“Yeah. She would,” Greg said wistfully. He closed his eyes, leaning back, though not enough to disturb Steven. “I miss her, Pearl. I…” He sighed. “I wish she were here now.”
“I do as well,” Pearl replied. “But we have her request. And Steven.” She looked down at the young boy, still asleep in his father’s lap, a thin trail of drool trailing from his mouth. Pearl resisted the urge to wipe it off. She’d need to wake Steven soon so they could go. The sunrise would be here soon.
As if in response to Pearl’s wonderings, Steven stirred and yawned, stretching as he sleepily sat up.
“Good morning, my Steven,” Pearl said.
“Morning, Pearl. Mornin’, Dad.”
“Morning, Steven. You have a good nap?”
He nodded, before turning to Pearl. “I guess we need to leave now?”
“I believe so. It will be dawn soon. And we best not linger here during the day.”
“Right,” Steven sighed. “Okay.” He hugged his father. “Bye, Dad. We’ll see you later.”
“Yep. I’ll see you too,” Greg said, returning the hug. “Stay safe, be good for Pearl, keep up with your studies, three square meals a day, all that good stuff.”
Steven hopped down from the van. “Okay, Dad. I will.” He grabbed Pearl’s hand as the two started to walk off. He turned and waved, “I’ll see you soon, Dad. I promise!”
Greg smiled and waved back. “Yeah,” he said, probably too quiet for Steven to hear.
“I promise too, Steven.”
The bus ride back to the warp pad was… boring.
Bus rides pretty much always were. Nothing but sitting there, sitting, sitting, for hours . There wasn’t a lot of talking, because Pearl wasn’t very talkative in general, especially when around others. And she didn’t like him talking to strangers, especially this close to Beach City. He couldn’t read, because reading on buses made him feel sick, and he couldn’t draw for the same reasons. Normally he could listen to music, except that he hadn’t charged his phone properly last night, and now there was only thirty percent battery left, and he was supposed to save it for emergencies.
For a while, Steven let himself zone out to try and have Visions, but those were no good either. All he got was images of different people sitting on the same bus, just as silent and just as bored as the people in the present.
He sighed, and tried to think up synonyms for boring, because Pearl was probably going to give him a vocabulary test by the end of the week. Dull. Tedious. Monogamous. No, wait, that was something else. Monotonous. Lame. Banal. Insipid.
Heh. Insipid was a funny word.
He tried figuring out synonyms for other words too— first ‘funny’, then ‘scary’, then ‘purple’, just to try something different. He got tired of that, so he made up other games: counting the number of rivets and screws he could see, tracing the pattern of the seat cushion in front of him, noticing all the license plates on the cars that drove past, and revising the map of American states in his head…
It wasn’t super entertaining, but it did help the hour and a half ride pass quicker.
They got off at a bus station in the middle of the countryside. They stopped for a while at a diner, and Pearl let him eat anything he wanted, so Steven got the biggest veggie burger they had, with a big side of fries and coleslaw, and a yummy chocolate shake, and pumpkin pie for dessert! And Pearl even had a bite too! Steven helped her figure out the tip, while she complained under her breath about what a ridiculous system this country had about having an invisible extra price not listed anywhere.
After that, they had a half-hour wait for the next bus to take. They’d grabbed bread rolls from the diner for a snack, and Steven took one of them, crumbled it up and scattered it on the ground. It wasn’t long before a sparrow came to peck at it.
“Hello,” Steven said.
The sparrow chirped a greeting.
“Is it tasty?” he asked.
“Good food, good food,” the sparrow said, in between bites. “Eat, eat, spring is here, eat. ”
“Yeah, but you should pace yourself,” said Steven. “Once I ate a whole bibimbap by myself in like, five minutes, and then I threw it all up cuz that was too fast.”
The bird said nothing, just stuffed its face with all the crumbs, not even leaving any for anybody else who might come by. Then it flew off without another word. Steven sighed.
“What is wrong?” Pearl asked.
Steven shook his head. “Nothing. It just wasn’t very polite.”
Pearl gave him a wan smile. “A shame. But I suppose that no one could have taught it proper manners yet.”
“Yeah,” Steven said, smiling a little. He couldn’t really blame the sparrow. Animals had very different manners than either humans or Gems, and those manners varied from species to species, so it wasn’t their fault if they seemed mean or distant.
Still, he couldn’t wait to get home, where all the animals already knew him, and were sure to come and say hello.
“Oh Mr. Universe! You look tired!”
“Hey Rose.” Greg stifled a yawn. “I am pretty beat, yeah.”
Rose floated down to stand besides him, her dress fluttering in the wind, face creased in concern. “Why?”
“Eh. Just didn’t sleep well last night,” Greg said, rubbing his neck. Which wasn’t a lie, really. But he hadn’t even attempted to sleep last night, not with his son there.
“Why don’t you just sleep now?” said another voice from behind him.
Greg nearly jumped in shock— but kept himself calm as Amethyst glided down in the form of a purple bird, only to turn into a person as she reached the ground. Her shape-shifting could be more than a little disorientating, and after two years, he still wasn’t completely used to it.
“It’s not that easy,” said Greg. “I just can’t sleep whenever I want.”
Amethyst cocked her head. “Why not? I do.”
“I’ve got a business to run,” Greg said, jerking his thumb in the direction of the car-wash.
“Uggggggghhh. Boring,” Amethyst moaned.
Greg grinned. “Is it? Then I guess I won’t be giving you any more of those used sponges for you to snack on…”
“What! No! C’mon, Greg!”
Rose and Greg laughed, while he wandered around the far-side of the van and pulled a bucket full of sudden water. He felt around in it for a few moments, then grabbed the sponge, tossing it at Amethyst, who snapped it out of the air with her mouth. She burped, bubbles floating up into the air.
“But she’s right,” Greg said. “You guys don’t want to hear about my dull ol’ day at the carwash. What’ve you been up to?”
They didn’t require much encouragement. The Crystal Gems had had a mission this past day, and Rose described in loving detail the place they’d gone to— a spire in the middle of the ocean, in an endless circular waterfall held out by magic, where fish could be see swimming and birds diving through the mist. She’d described the lovely statues, the art on the walls depicting Earth’s life, the elegant fountains, the viewing platform from the top where one could see all the stars in the night sky…
Amethyst, meanwhile, had been much more interested in describing how she’d single handedly defeated like, twenty crystal shrimp, and this thing Garnet had done where she’d punched a column to turn it into a bridge, and the light show when they’d returned the Sea Goddess Statue to its pedestal.
Greg listened, entranced. A single story like this could give him ideas for at least five full songs. But, of course, it was so much more important than just that.
‘Keep a watchful eye on the Crystal Gems.’ That had been one of Blue Diamond’s final wishes. So although it had been hard, when Steven had turned ten years old— big enough that he no longer needed his old man keeping a constant eye— Greg had set out to fulfil it. He’d left behind the home he’d made in Korea, returned to the US, and settled down in Beach City.
It had turned some heads— famous rock star Mr. Universe retires to peaceful boardwalk town! But the people here had been real friendly, accepting him with open arms, and not just because he brought in hundreds of fans every time he played at the annual Beach-a-Palooza. The folks who lived here were a friendly, comfortable sort. Greg had easily settled into day-to-day life. He’d picked up a job at the carwash, more for something to do than any real need for money. He’d struck up a friendship with some of the locals, like Barb, Harold, and Vidalia.
He had never expected to become friends with the Crystal Gems. The plan had been to keep his distance, casually bring them up in conversation with people, figure out what he could about them. Keep his head down, don’t attract their attention.
But the very first time he’d performed on the beach, Rose Quartz had been there. And when the show had ended, she’d come right up to him and started talking .
Rose Quartz. The traitorous Rose Quartz. Leader of the Rebel Army. The one who had shattered Pink Diamond. The one, Blue had warned him, would shatter their son, if given half a chance.
It had taken all of Greg’s willpower not to run away screaming.
But he’d somehow managed to keep his cool, and Rose Quartz had seemed to take his stuttering and shaking as endearing. He’d given her a free t-shirt and collector CD in the hope that it would satisfy her and get her to go away but it had just intrigued her more. She’d taken a shining to him. She’d thought his space gimmick was ‘cute’; that his music was ‘wonderful’; and that he himself was ‘adorable’.
It had been terrifying, and surprising, and more than a little overwhelming.
… It had also been really useful. After all, what better way to keep a watchful eye on the Crystal Gems than inviting their leader to come hang out at the carwash?
“— I think he fell asleep,” Amethyst said, poking him in the thigh.
Greg shook his head, pulling himself back into the moment. “Whoops. Sorry. Got lost in thought.”
Amethyst rolled her eyes, while Rose Quartz smiled magnanimously at him. “And what were you thinking about?”
“Uhhhhh,” Greg said. “That I really got to buy a new set of car wash brushes. The old ones are getting pretty ragged.”
The lie felt dull on his tongue, but what could Greg do? However nice and friendly the Crystal Gems acted, they were still the single biggest threat to his family.
He could never let himself forget that.