Sweat had begun to pour down Stevonnie's arms, complicating their grip on the sword. This wasn't their sword, Rose's sword. This one was smaller, heavier. And it rubbed their hands all wrong. Blisters were coming.
This had been a rough session. Everything was a little off. The sword, their balance. They were starting to space out. Every breath, their reaction slowed a bit more. Stevonnie leaned on their back leg, panting, gritting their teeth against a headache that had long threatened to take hold. They couldn't stop now. Pearl was in a state of flow. It was dangerous to lose focus. And here she came, with the wind behind her.
That was some wind, actually. It drew a dampness to their eyes. The arena was some distance in the air, and the weather came quick here. Connie didn't know how this gem architecture worked. It wouldn't do much good to ask, either. Pearl would chalk it up to magic. Amethyst wouldn't know. Garnet... would be Garnet. She knew Steven wouldn't think to ask. But what was that, Clarke's law? Just because they called it magic...
Stevonnie's foot slid out from under them, just as Pearl's sword shone above their head. "Watch out!" they heard themself shout, as a clear pink shield spun into form on their outstretched arm. The saucer would stop the oncoming blade, but nothing would stop their arm below. They had no time to brace before their wrist met their jaw and their tailbone met the rough, wet floor. Before their skull met a divot in the rock.
The next seconds were an eternity. There was a thud, but no pain as yet. There was the taste of metal. The sound of wind and steel was replaced by a high-pitched whine, and somewhere in the distance the muffled panic of a lost, defective pearl. Stevonnie tried to suck in air, but it wouldn't happen. They tried to move their legs, but they might as well have been Pearl's. As darkness ate at the edge of their vision, Stevonnie found a gulping breath. And then they found pain. It was hard to know what to notice first. Their face, their back, their head, their arm. Surely something was broken?
Pearl's storm of words had begun to take on meaning. It was the tone Stevonnie heard before the sounds themselves. She was sorry, she was concerned. No, she was terrified. Mostly about her own failure, but also about their well-being. "Stevonnie," Pearl said. She used their name. That was nice. They were an actual person now. Now she said it again. Maybe it was time to figure out what was happening.
With a groan, Stevonnie turned their head. "Man, ha, ha." Wow, the pain was unbearable. This was something else. "Pearl, can we stop now?"
"Yes! Yes, Stevonnie, training is over. We're done." The panic had begun to drain from Pearl's voice, replaced by something like concern. She reached down to Stevonnie; wrapped an arm beneath their shoulders. "I'm so sorry," she said. "If only Garnet were here. I had no idea this storm was coming."
That had been quick. The arena was now a rink of mud and moss. Twice Stevonnie tried to stand, and twice their foot skidded in the muck. A shiver ran through their frame. "No, Pearl." Stevonnie had to pull away from their teacher's aid. This wasn't working. "It's not your fault. This is just... it's an off day." Oof. Roll over onto hands and knees. Nothing broken, that they could tell. Slowly, slowly push up. Their legs wobbled, but they worked. "I'm sorry I lost my focus. We'll just, we'll try again later." Ow, this really wasn't good. "It's fine."
Pearl drooped like a neglected house plant. "Oh, well. All right then. If you're sure you're all right. Let's get you back to the Temple."
Yes, that was fine by Stevonnie. It was... fine. It was all fine. There would be days like this. It wasn't Pearl. It wasn't them. It wasn't anybody. It was just being... human. Mostly. With a burst of light, they were back in Steven's house. It was warm there, always so cozy. Maybe because it was so small. It was almost a cabin, really, built into the bedrock. Just the one split-level room, plus the bathroom. With plumbing. Hot water. Probably iodine. Steven didn't know. Connie had no clue what she'd find in there, but she knew what to look for. They were both too tired to be of help. Stevonnie had nothing to go on but instinct.
"Wow, Stevonnie! Looking sharp!" Amethyst's voice crackled from the kitchen. "Some people pay a fortune for a mud bath. But I've got my own tricks." A flash of light, and a small violet pig began to circle the room. "Wee, wee!" Amethyst shouted. "I'mma ham it up in here! Hey, Pearl! Bring me back out there! I'm bacon you! Haw, haw!"
Stevonnie took the deflection, and trudged toward the bathroom mirror. The face that looked back—it was still so unfamiliar, under its half-lowered eyes, its smears of grime and... was that blood? It was them, but they were still unsure what that meant. Stevonnie was becoming more of their own person. They weren't just Steven and they weren't just Connie. Often as not, those two weren't around, not really. Not consciously. Like now. They became sort of... abstract. Like they fell asleep, or faded. And Stevonnie was Stevonnie. Whoever that was. It was hard to think about now. Priority one: check for injury. Priority two: get cleaned up. Priority three: get some rest. They were ready for this day to be over.
The next few minutes were on auto-pilot. Washing their face and hands. Checking for scrapes, for bruises. Nothing clearly broken. They've done all this before, if not to this extent. The skin was right off their knees, and the back of their head had grown less of a goose egg than the ovum of a mythical Gem beast. How did that work, anyway? That was the Connie part of them thinking, Stevonnie guessed. If Gems didn't reproduce, why did all of these Gem monsters have eggs, or babies? And where did these memories come from? Was this Connie's reasoning and Steven's experiences? Ouch, their spine.
Their mind wandered as their hands searched behind the mirror. No Mercurochrome. No iodine. No peroxide. What kind of a medicine cabinet was this, anyway? They knew gems didn't get injured like that, but what about Steven? Then they remembered—Connie's eyes. Steven had fixed her eyes. And they were part Steven. Stevonnie blinked at the bruise on their forearm, where they'd held Rose's shield. It was large, and purple. By tomorrow it would be angry enough to keep them from holding a pen, let alone a sword. What would their mother say?
Stevonnie licked their opposite thumb, and rubbed it on the bruise. Where they rubbed, the skin glistened and the discoloration swept away like so much chalk on a blackboard. It was really as easy as that. Just like a mother kissing a scrape. Except theirs, theirs always knew the right thing to do. The reasonable Dr. Maheswaran. Never catch her rubbing her spit into a patient's wound. Not like other mothers. Not like her. Not like... their other mother. Probably.
Mom. Not like... Mom.
Rose-Mom. Not, er, Priyanka-Mom. Doctor Mom. It made sense, really. Probably.
With a sigh, Stevonnie eased out of their torn training gear and into the shower. What would they even do about all of that? Steven could sew. Probably. They knew Dad taught him, and they thought they could still remember. It's just the knots they weren't sure about. The water was tepid, but felt like a volcano. They hadn't realized how much of a chill they'd caught out there. They leaned their forehead against the porcelain tile and let out a long, low groan, as the lukewarm spray threatened to scald their shoulders.
Dirt, mud, drizzled into the drain, leaving flecks, like coffee grounds. Like a sketch of charcoal on art paper. They'd have to scrub this bathroom down when they were done. Steven had never once done that, but for Connie it was second nature. They figured he'd learn, if just by osmosis. Eventually. Once they were done with this water. Done with this groaning. All of that pressure, bottled up. Let it out, with their voice. That's right. That's better. They could lick their wounds, but they couldn't lick the inside of their brain. Ugh. Ugh to all of this. It was worth it, though, right? Today was terrible. But. They were learning. They could do this. They knew Connie was good. They were so proud of her. And they were Connie too.
Who was paying for this water? For this heat? Actually, how did the Gems pay for anything? How did Steven always have a full kitchen? There are so many questions they knew he never asked, and it was beginning to annoy them. This was pretty basic stuff. They sighed. What would he do without them, huh? Yeah, they supposed they were right. Maybe between the two of themself they could actually get some answers. That would be a nice change.
Ugh. Maybe the hot water was running out. Maybe they were just warming up. Time to crank it further into the red. Then... just sit here for a minute. Let the heat sink in. Absorb it all. Soak it into their soul, just a little longer. Then they could stop... procrastinating. Is that what they were doing? Ugh. No, it's not procrastinating if you have to say ugh. Then it's something else. Yeah, you're probably right. Ha, ha. Well, whatever. I guess it's time for us to get...
The breath caught in Stevonnie's throat. Hang on. What was... oh, dear. "Heh, heh." They forced out a laugh. "Yeah, I guess it's time for us to... wash, now. Uh."
"Yeah, so, uh, how do we do this?"
"I'm not... do you, um, want to take lead? We can just not... look, maybe?"
Stevonnie straightened their fingers and sucked air into their diaphragm. "Just breathe, Stevonnie. It's just a thought. Let's power through this. We can talk about it later. It's just a shower. We know how to shower, right? Right. We're just... me. We'll just be Stevonnie. For now. I've got this." In through the nose, out through the lips. Three. Four. Five. "Yeah. Okay. Whee. Ha, ha, ha." Automatically they found a new washcloth, they found the soap, they scrubbed, they rinsed, they internalized as little as possible. Parts that shouldn't be so familiar somehow were familiar enough to gloss over. And then they were dry, and wearing a... towel. Two towels. Because... that's all there was.
They didn't plan this very well, did they. Come to think of it, Stevonnie didn't even have any clothes of their own. How did they never think of this? Steven had spares, plenty of them, but it was hard enough just to strip the tatters of his and Connie's training clothes off of their larger frame. The thought of squeezing into a kid's blue jeans sent them into an uncontrollable cackle. It was just... the mental image.
Oh man, what a day. This is just the kicker. What on Earth were they to do here? The Gems didn't wear... clothes, as such. Well, Pearl had that tux, and there's no telling what junk Amethyst had in her room, but. Come to think of it, she did have all of Dad's, Mr., uh, Greg's, Greg-Dad's, Mr. Universe's, storage locker in there. There's no telling what he held onto.
Or maybe there was. That old sweatshirt he gave to Steven. The one from that roller coaster Empire State kept threatening to tear down. They doubted it was... clean, exactly, but it was adult-sized. And big enough, long enough, it could do as a nightshirt. Maybe.
"Look at that," they said aloud. "It's almost like a real plan. Yeah," they laughed in relief. "I make a pretty good team." They sucked in their breath. "With... me. Right."
They turned the knob, and all the warmth streamed from the bathroom door. Compared to the shower, the main house wasn't quite so snug anymore. But, it was just a short jog to the upper level. And there was that too-big sweatshirt, right where they guessed it was. And it fit exactly as it had to. As they pulled it over their head, Stevonnie stared at the glow over the water. After the sun set in the West, it took forever for the sky in the East to settle down into night. Light was a funny thing. It moved so far, so fast. It was a thing you could touch, like the Gems, and it was also energy. And it had such simple laws, yet was so hard to predict. It was so much like life itself. Maybe we were all light in the end.
It was quiet. If the Gems were here, they were in the Temple. Quiet, and dark.
"I guess I'm staying over, huh? Yeah. Does y-, does, um, does Mom... no, I guess I, we, should ca-, um, text her?"
Stevonnie sighed. "We really need to work out some shorthand, huh."
Their fingers picked at a flake of loose skin on their toe. "How do we do this? How, how do we make this work?" They swallowed. "I don't know. I think... nobody's ever asked the things we need to ask. But who do we ask?"
For a moment there was just the sound of waves, lapping, curling wetly on the sand below. "Nobody's got the answers, but that can't stop us asking. And maybe if we just keep asking, if... I keep asking, maybe I'll figure it out." Stevonnie's right hand found its way into their left, rubbing its fingers gently. "Together."
"Together," they replied.
"But... first we need to brush our teeth."
"Oh, I've got something for that! It's not mine, it's... new. I mean, it's... "
"It's ours. Mine. It's... Stevonnie's."
"Thank you, Stevonnie."
"Always thinking of you, Stevonnie."
"That's why I love you."
"Er, I mean..."
"Yeah. I know. Ha, ha. Um..."
"Well, we'll figure it out, right?"
"How can we not? We're the best!"
"The best! We'll beat any cavity that comes our way!"
Stevonnie brushed their hair away from their eyes, and shoved to their feet. One more task before bed.
"Maybe there's a song in that."
"Maybe. What do you think rhymes with 'dentifrice'?"
"I don't know. Rent... a prince?"
"I think we can work with that."