1. The Days.
“I live in the shade created by the sunrise I am waiting for”
― Isbelle Razors
As is often the case with enormously devastating events, it was over remarkably fast.
With a sleep-fueled reluctance, Connie at length opened her eyes to find herself on the beach. Lazy waves rolled in to caress the sandy shore not far from her, the sky awash in brilliant blues and whites above it while the high sun bore its warmth down upon on her like a heavy blanket.
She frowned despite the day’s inherent beauty and lifted her head up from the coarse sand, unable to understand. Why was she lying on her side in the sand on such a day? Falling asleep in the sun was dangerous, even for those of darker complexion like herself. She knew that.
She struggled to remember what she’d been doing prior to this, but her attempt came up blank. Why did she feel like she should be - she couldn’t recall - somewhere else?
Had she really been asleep?
She certainly felt like she had, mouth dry and head disoriented as they were, but she couldn’t imagine why she’d fall ever asleep on the beach in the middle of the day. Much less could she remember doing so.
Nearby her, a groan. Her head snapped around in a vague panic as she realized she wasn’t alone.
She recognized him by his pink skin and hair instantly as he pushed his upper body up into a sitting position.
Lars was only a handful of yards away from her. From there, he stared out over the ocean in confusion. She saw how he shifted the weight of his torso onto one arm and lifted the other to scratch at the back of his neck as he stared out over the ocean, and it struck her that perhaps he had no idea what he was doing there, either.
She drew a breath.
“Lars!” she called over, voice dry and hoarse, causing the guy to jump violently like a startled cat.
“Aah!” He twisted around to regard her. “Jeeze, don’t do that,” he complained. But he looked visibly relieved to see that it was just her.
Then, he did something odd. She watched as his line of vision abruptly cut past her, and upward. She turned to follow his gaze, pushing herself up into more of a sitting position as she did.
She found herself staring up at a sheer cliff face. It was where Steven's house should have been, of that she was certain, but there was no house, no temple, no warp pad or even so much as a hint of the statue of Obsidian. The lighthouse that crowned the top of the cliffside was also completely missing - replaced by trees instead.
The entire cliff was blank of artificial design - swept clean, as if none of it had ever been there before.
“What in the-” Connie began, rising to her feet. Blinking and rubbing her eyes didn’t help - upon opening them again, she found the situation hadn’t changed.
“This is-” Lars made as if to say another syllable, but no sound came out. After an extra moment of squinting up at the bare cliff face he tried again. “Weird day, right?”
They soon found that they were where they thought they were - the familiar beach, they were sure of it. But it struck them more and more as they wandered around the hill towards the city together that everything - rocks, landforms, the distance between the water and the sloping hill - was all wrong. Not only was it as though the buildings they were used to were never built, but it also seemed that someone had hit the reset button on natural erosion as well.
Their expressions fell further as they rounded the receding hill. When they got close enough, Lars stumbled forward.
“The Big Donut should be right here,” his voice was raised in alarm as he stood roughly where he guessed it should have been, given the utter lack of other manmade structures around. “Not to mention everything else!” he added after a moment of glancing over at where the boardwalk and the rest of the beachside tourist district should have been.
And beyond, in fact. Instead of the township they were so eager to spy any sign of, they found instead an untamed wilderness. Trees and bush growing wild around ancient weathered rocks and no obvious sign of human habitation. Connie furrowed her brow in confusion as it became apparent that this was no longer a place that they could recognize.
A silence passed between them, punctuated by birdsong from some kind of creature neither of them had ever heard before. It was pretty, though.
“Are we in the past?” Connie asked finally.
The expression on Lars’ face told her that he didn’t quite believe it impossible so she folded her arms in front of her, attempting to think.
“What were we doing before we woke on the beach?”
Lars shut his eyes and massaged the bridge of his nose. A moment later, he opened them again. “I-I don’t remember. Wait-”
He shoved his hands into the pockets of his brown jacket first, then slapped at the pockets of his jeans - front first, then back. “The heck’s my phone!?”
“Yeah, I don’t have mine, either. It feels obvious that this is a gem-related problem though, right?” she was grasping. “Were we... clowning around with gem stuff? Maybe?” Connie asked. “If so, Steven had to have been there with us-”
“Okayokayokay,” he breathed, scratching the shaved sides of his head with both hands before shooting them both in front of him to indicate her. “Connie. Stop panicking!”
She glanced over at him, completely deadpan. “Listen, this is weird, but there’s bound to be an explanation. And a fix!” She attempted a smile. “There always is-”
She cut herself off and glanced up uncertainly as she heard a sudden noise - but it was merely squirrels darting through the foliage, tiny hands laden with berries. They were a cute distraction, sure - but there were far more pressing matters at hand.
Connie glanced back at Lars, who was staring up at those same strange tree boughs, arms folded, sinews tense.
She sucked her tongue briefly, attempting to drum up some saliva. “Ugh. I’m really dry. Wanna help me find fresh water?”
“Hm?” he glanced back down at her, “Oh yeah, of course. But I... I think the nearest river is like, between here and Ocean Town. I don’t see any cars. I dunno how long it’ll take to walk there-”
She raised an eyebrow at him, unable to gauge how serious he was being. “Luckily you, uh, have portal powers. Right?” came her prompting.
“Oh.” He blinked. “Oh yeah. Right.”
Moments later and miles away, Lars stood by as Connie dropped to her knees at the edge of the river. The water looked clear and sparkling as it rushed past - she dipped her hands into it, cool and fresh. But despite how good it all looked, she was extremely hesitant.
And Lars wasn’t helping.
“You’re going to get dysentery,” he warned gently as he watched from a few yards back, judging her. Then he shifted uncomfortably as he cast a glance up and down the river. “Also, the only part of this river I know is the bit the highway goes over, sooo... uh, there kinda should be a highway here, right?”
But like Beach City to the south of here, there was nothing but forest and wilderness surrounding them. Certainly nothing to suggest there had ever been a road or a bridge cutting through this place.
He glanced down at her to find that she was glaring up at him.
“Anyway, you should boil the water first,” he continued.
“Go on then - mansplain to me how to survive in the wilderness. How do you propose I do that, anyway?” she asked, voice heavy with attitude. “You got a kettle? Just... lying around in your head or something?”
She was onto something! “Uh, actually-!” He stuck out his tongue and lit up his eyes.
She perked up. “You do!?”
After a moment, he blinked and his eyes went back to normal. “Hm, no. Sorry. Thought I did,” he shrugged apologetically.
Connie frowned down at the water once again, struggling within herself. “I mean, this river looks way better than it normally does. And there’s treatment available for dysentery. It’s clear enough to see to the bottom... so, maybe it’s okay?”
But despite all the pros she was listing, she was still deeply conflicted. She knew all too well that viruses and bacteria were invisible to the naked eye, even in otherwise beautifully clear water, and this was a serious con. “I’m so thirsty!” she groaned at the water running below her - so near yet so far.
Lars shrugged, rubbing the back of an arm nervously as he glanced around the strange woods surrounding them. “Dude, just go for it. And, once we’ve figured this out, I’ll totally rush you to a hospital. Promise.”
She glanced back up at him suddenly. “Hey. Even though you don’t need to eat or drink, you still can, right!?”
He narrowed his eyes. “Right...”
She smiled widely. “You’re magic! You can test it for me.”
He gaped down at her and spread his arms wide. “I can still get food poisoning!”
“Yeah, but you’re way more resilient than everyday people. You’ll be fine!”
He looked uncertain, but she persisted. “C’mon, Lars. I could get very sick.”
He groaned and made a show of slouching his shoulders and arching his torso backward as though physically being bent out of shape over it. “Aaah, fine. I guess you can’t be the brains behind us figuring all this out if you’re too busy projectile vomiting the whole time.”
Connie smiled appreciatively as he dropped to his knees beside her. Cupping his hands, he pushed them into the water harder than he would have needed to if he’d still possessed the ability of water displacement.
But it worked. Enough of the moving water trickled into his hands to pass for a mouthful at least, and soon he was tentatively sipping a little of it. “Hm. Not bad,” he said, before sipping down the rest. “I mean, still no idea if it’s diseased or whatever, but it actually tastes really good.”
Connie smiled. “Good enough, I guess!” she said as she plunged her hands into the running water.
He was about to say something but it died on his lips as he noticed a figure some distance upstream. Definitely shaped like a human. And, it was definitely watching them.
“Connie,” he whispered urgently, and she straightened mid-gulp as she followed his gaze.
The remaining water Connie had cupped in her hands splashed back down into the river as she staggered up to her feet, eyes wide.
The person staring back at them was barefoot with wild hair. They wore a kind of tribal-style garb that was strange to them. A loincloth, namely.
And they appeared to be holding a spear.
Connie sucked air in through her teeth, alarmed by the apparition. “Ah, that’s... weird, right?” she asked him in a breathy whisper.
“Y-you wanna go?” he asked right back as he braced himself to make another portal.
They jumped violently and spun, Lars falling back onto his butt in the dirt as Connie stepped backward. Another person - a tall, lithe man clothed similarly to the other one stood directly behind where they’d been sitting.
The stranger pointed a spear at them. “Girl - come away from that gem.”
Suddenly, they found that they were surrounded on both this and the other side of the river; at least a dozen tribal-looking people with spears and knives, and grim looks. On the ground, eyes wide with fear, Lars found many of those weapons trained solely upon him and instinctively raised his hands above his head.
“Whaaat?” asked Connie as she stood awkwardly, her brain functions flatlining a little as she tried and failed to comprehend this encounter. “No, no - Why are you - don’t do that! Lars is my friend-”
“The gem is not your friend,” one of the men told her in no uncertain terms, through clenched teeth. “She’s just trying to... to steal you away!”
“What? No! He’s not a- Gems would never-” she began, flustered, but was cut off.
“Come with us,” said another, a concerned-looking female who had emerged from behind a nearby tree. Unarmed, she stepped forward and extended a hand to her. She blinked at Connie, presumably confused by her much darker complexion and unfamiliar features that made her stand out among these people as a non-local. But it didn’t seem to matter too much - the stranger still appeared to care for her wellbeing.
“Where are you from?” she asked. “We’ll help you find your people.”
The woman’s tone was pleading, her expression one of urgency. Connie ripped her eyes away from hers and glanced down to see the fear and complete lack of understanding printed on Lars’ features. The guy was sweating, still holding his palms up and outward to show that he was no threat. His eyes met hers briefly before moving again to fixate on the tip of the spear that was pointed closest to him. She abruptly turned back to the newcomers.
“No! Don’t hurt him - he and I both need to find our families,” she said carefully, gulping before she continued. “C-can you help us? We’re both very lost..”
“Help!? I’m already trying to help you get away from this gem,” the woman said, eying Lars suspiciously. She then addressed him. “What sort are you!?”
“Do I sound like a gem!?” Lars blurted out, his fear shrill on his voice.
“Answer me!” she shouted.
“I-I’m a human man! I have bones! And... ears!”
“Poof her,” said the woman, her patience expired.
Lars hunched backward as the spear wielder smiled. He took a deep, shaky breath. Connie could tell he had an inkling to use his concussive scream power on these people - throw them off, perhaps. To allow them time to escape.
Her eyes widened as her brain suddenly caught up with what was going on and what the consequences might be. Displaying such a power would most certainly make the case against Lars being a gem much, much harder to prove.
In this tense moment, Connie made her move.
Years of training paid off in an instant as she stepped to the side and grabbed his spear shaft in both hands, immediately dealing a swift kick to his abdomen. This sent him reeling backward. She yanked the weapon out of his hands as he fell.
A cry of alarm rose from a few of the others - two of them dashed to help the beaten guy as Connie rounded upon the others who also had a weapon trained on her friend. They all recoiled, surprised and unable to understand why someone they were trying to help would do this.
Lars had been watching all this with his jaw hanging open. He was even more surprised to see the entire crowd of people stand down from this ridiculously capable young woman.
“I told you to leave him alone!” Connie hissed through her teeth with an annoyed edge to her voice, holding her new spear at the ready.
The woman who had spoken earlier nodded briefly at her fellows, and they all took a step back.
“We tried to help you,” she said simply as they receded. “Remember that, when you never see your home or your people again.”
Not a one of them turned their back on the two as they departed, disappearing into the dense forest from which they emerged.
At last, the silence of the forest re-established itself but Connie and Lars stayed, unmoving, waiting and watching for a long moment afterward.
When it finally seemed like they were truly gone, Lars groaned loudly, exhaling deeply as he collapsed onto his back out of relief. But Connie gripped the spear handle tightly as she continued scanning the foliage around her. She wanted to ensure they were really alone, but couldn’t convince herself of it.
“Connie - thank you,” he said, his voice approaching a relieved sob.
“Stop it,” came her no-nonsense rebuttal in lowered tones. “I am not going to let some strangers just kill you, Lars.”
She held a finger up to dissuade him from making noise again. She wanted to be absolutely certain...
Finally, Connie pried her eyes away from the bushes and trees and looked down at him. “Listen. If you’re getting up, just stay close to me. They might still try to quote-unquote poof you.”
“Yeah, okay,” he said miserably as he picked himself up to do just that.
Social graces cast aside, feeling the need to act quickly, she plunged her face into the river and downed all she could. Seconds later, they jumped into a portal.
They portalled to various spots around the Delmarva area and beyond, limited of course only to the places where Lars himself had previously been (unless he could visibly see the location he wanted to go), but what they saw was enough to reinforce their anxiety.
What they should have seen were towns, cities, highways. A motel parking lot, a stadium up in Jersey he’d been to for a Sadie Killer concert - but there was no sign of human habitation anywhere they went. Like the case back in Beach City, it was as if it had all been replaced or taken over by untamed wilderness. At one point they thought they could see smoke rising up above the canopy into the sky, as if from a bonfire or a chimney.
As they began making their way through the undergrowth toward it, they happened upon a bear.
A bear! They staggered backward abruptly, tripping over themselves to keep their distance.
The animal had been minding its own business but noticed them immediately. Although they were now armed with the spear Connie had grabbed from one of the men who had threatened them earlier in the day, there was no reason to fight an innocent bear - or be mauled to death by one - all for the sake of some plume of smoke of mysterious origin.
Lars opened yet another portal and they jumped through without hesitation.
As twilight consumed the untamed East Coast wilderness they now found themselves in, they decided to portal back to Beach City - more specifically, the spot where the lighthouse should have been overlooking the sea on the top of the cliff, under which the Crystal Gem’s temple should have been.
High over the ocean, the sky gradually became awash in dark blues, purples, reds. The first stars of the evening became visible. They seemed slightly wrong, in some minute but unsettling way neither of them could put into words.
Presently they built up a small pile of sticks in the middle of a circle of stones with the idea of setting it alight with a lighter Lars knew he had in hammerspace, but found himself unable to pull for some reason.
Connie was trying to be helpful. “Are you sure you even have-”
“Yes! I have one on me at all times, for emergencies... Barbecues...” He paused briefly before adding, “Emergency barbecues.”
“Well, try something else-” came Connie’s suggestion, which was cut short by an irate Lars.
“You don’t think I tried to pull anything else? I been trying. It’s a no.”
She reached over to grab the spear and studied the arrowhead tied to it. “This might be some kind of flint.” She glanced back over at the gangly kid sitting opposite the could-be campfire to her. “You have anything made of steel on you?”
He frowned for a moment before raising his hands to an earlobe. “Surgical stainless steel any good?” he asked as he removed a tunnel from one of his stretched lobes. Connie gasped in joy! But when Lars looked down at the tunnel in his hand, he frowned again. “Oh. No, these are bioplast. Sorry.”
“Hnn,” Connie leaned forward, closing her eyes and resting her chin on her hand, forehead wrinkled in thought. “It’s okay. It’s warm enough. A fire might only just alert more weirdos to our whereabouts.”
“I guess I’m on lookout duty,” Lars offered. “Since I don’t need sleep or anything..”
“Right - the plan is, if you see or hear any strangers coming up the hill, you grab me and jump us both off this cliff and into a portal to.. wherever!”
It was a simple plan based on a kind of commonsense found only in bizarre situations like the predicament in which they currently found themselves, but Connie was proud of it and Lars nodded in wholehearted agreement.
“It’s just too bad it’s a little late to make a shelter,” she muttered.
“Eh, we’ll do it tomorrow,” Lars shrugged as he deftly popped the tunnel back in his ear. “Unless of course - perfect world - everything is magically just normal again in the morning.”
She smiled across at him - an uncertain smile.
Hours later, Connie hadn’t had much luck with sleep. Although not ideal, Lars appreciated the company. He was sitting, cross-legged, fingertips pent against the sides of his head as he attempted to picket the universe for something normal to happen, for once.
“Steven will pop through my head... now!” he prompted.
Connie rolled her eyes from where she was lying on her back, hands behind her head, opposite the failed campfire from him, but Lars wasn’t done and she could tell he was getting more and more frustrated.
“So he’s perfectly happy to somersault out of my frickin’ head with that goofy smile plastered all over his face when I’m in the shower or at work, or doin’... stuff with Sadie, but not at a time like this!?”
“It’s weird that Steven hasn’t shown up yet,” Connie cut in, “But... why do you think you can’t summon anything?”
He exhaled slowly. “I told you,” he said as he tensed his fingers. “I dunno.”
She rolled herself up into a sitting position and passed him a rock she picked up off the ground below her. “Try this?”
He understood, and was able to stuff it into his forehead easily enough. He was even able to summon it again and handed it back to her just moments later.
“Still works, just.. all the stuff I had in there is gone for some reason. Which sucks because my phone was probably in there, after all that!” he sulked.
Connie frowned as something occurred to her. She wasn’t sure it was possible, but was willing to try. “Let me see?”
“Uh?” he asked, eloquently stating his confusion as she smiled slightly.
“Okay - this is going to sound weird, but hear me out.”
This led to a highly awkward moment where Lars was hunched forward as Connie’s head was pushed into his glowing forehead. After a moment or two of this, they yanked themselves violently away from each other.
Lars sat back and rubbed his now non-glowing forehead unhappily. “That was gross, Connie. That can’t happen ever again.”
Connie nodded in agreement as she caught her breath, but the expression on her face was one of a deep discomfort, and Lars couldn’t help himself.
“So? What did you...” he asked as his awkwardness faded.
“Nothing,” said Connie in a hollow tone, her expression underscoring the intense confusion she felt. “It was dark.”
Lars shrugged. “Well, it’s night time-”
“It’s never been night in there before!” she exclaimed, spreading her arms wide. “The grass is still there, but.. even the breeze was gone.” She hesitated. “It was cold, and it just seemed... empty.”
She knew what his next question was going to be, and she pre-empted it. “I couldn’t see the trees. I don’t think they were there.”
Lars sucked air in through his teeth, allowing this to sink in. He soon spoke back up. “So, is it like, what? I’m not even connected to Lion anymore?”
“That seems not only possible but likely,” came Connie’s response as she rubbed her chin in thought.
A brief silence passed between them as they tested out the weight of this development. Like everything else, the Pink Dimension was also wrong, somehow. It wasn’t good.
“Lars. I-” She hesitated. “I hate to say it, but I think we’re on our own.”
The next day brought more of the same. Disappointed but not completely surprised, they picked themselves up at the rising of the sun and after a bit of a discussion, decided to scout a little further afield - forgoing portals for their own legs this time.
“We could be missing so much,” Connie had explained earlier that morning in between mouthfuls of the most familiar berries she’d been able to find. “We could be skipping over anything by just taking portals everywhere!”
Lars had to agree. So, except for the odd quick visit to the river again for fresh water, that’s what they did.
Days passed without any sign of the strange tribal humans which, they decided, was a good thing. Neither had been a huge fan of how their last run-in with them went, but during their travels they’d found no signs of normal civilization either, which admittedly was very disturbing.
Her white blouse was now less white and slightly more tattered, and Lars had long since let her have his jacket - his general resilience and the immunity to temperature that came with being pink placed her physical needs a little higher than his.
In the dark of every passing night, returning to the cliff where the lighthouse once stood, they invented new theories.
“Maybe.. something ‘rejuvenated’ the Earth?” suggested Connie one night as Lars prodded their simple fire with the spear as they crowded around it. A small fish from the river that they'd managed to spear was sizzling away on top of a rock placed in the center of the fire, along with some mixed vegetables they'd come across.
In truth, they’d been lucky with the weather - there had been no rain in the handful of days they’d been in this strange, wild version of the Beach City they once knew. This night was still, with barely a breeze. They knew their voices could carry quite far in these conditions, so they spoke together in low tones.
“Then where is everyone we know?” Lars asked in response, voice flat, taking up the role of the contrarian. “And, if they’re gone, why are we still here?”
She had no answer for that. How could she. After a silence passed in the air between them, she spoke up again.
“We could be-” She swallowed nervously. “Listen, I'm pretty sure we're in the past.”
Lars sucked on his teeth. “Wait. Steven told me about the Human Zoo out in space, where that Aquamarine wanted to take us all.” He frowned. “How gems stole people to put in there, ages ago. Maybe this is like that, but miles bigger? More immersive?”
When she looked doubtful, he frowned.
“Well, we know pretty well that gems were trying to kidnap humans as late as two years ago,” he said, backing up his thought, indicating the both of them with a flick of his hand.
Connie shook her head after a moment’s consideration. “No. There’s intergalactic peace, now. The Diamonds have their flaws, but I really don’t think they’d want to risk losing Steven by doing something like that again. I just can’t see them capturing a couple of his best friends, anyway - not after everything that’s happened.”
“Hnn.” Lars narrowed his eyes and hunched forward, poking the sizzling fish gently with the tip of the spear. “Fine. But just so you know, being stuck in some zoo sounds a little easier to deal with than being hurled backward to some unknown point in time.”
Connie sighed deeply as she massaged her forehead, scrunching up her face a little. The reminder of the theory they’d keep coming back to over the course of the day wasn’t a pleasant one.
“Yeah, yeah,” she said, shoulders sinking. “I know.”