The day started out fairly normally for the Crystal Gems- with them chasing after an wild gem monster across the otherwise peaceful landscape outside of Beach City. The monster in question resembled a ferret, if ferrets were larger than horses, had legs like gazelles and were faster than cheetahs. Much faster.
The Crystal Gems had been trying to catch this particular creature for nearly forty minutes now, and it was begin to get on their nerves. The first twenty minutes of the chase had actually been pretty entertaining. The creature had acted almost playful, scampering up and down the beach by the Temple, gleefully dodging every attack thrown at, goading it's opponents on. Then it had apparently tired of the game, and losing interest, charged off down the coast, forcing the Gems into a high-speed pursuit. No matter what the Gems did, it always managed to keep a few steps ahead, eluding all attempts to capture it.
Steven was feeling...pretty useless. These days he felt like a proper member of the team, at least for the most part. Not as powerful as the rest, of course, but still able to contribute in his own way. Right now, not so much. The older Gems were only just able to keep up with the ferret monster, but Steven was painfully slow in comparison. As it was, the Gems had resorted to taking turns carrying the boy under arm. He wasn't completely sure why they were bothering. He was usually able to help out in the form of shields and bubbles, but the ferret had zero interest in attacking, so there was nothing for Steven to defend against.
He had had the idea of jumping onto the ferret-monster's back, hoping that he could activate his bubble once he landed, trapping them both inside. But Pearl had seen just as Amethyst had been about to throw him, freaked out, and put a stop to that particular plan. (A small part of Steven conceded that this was probably for the best- he'd never created a bubble that large before). He'd been handed over to Garnet, since Pearl trusted that she wouldn't start flinging him towards random enemies at the slightest provocation.
The speed of the chase was exhilarating- at first. Then the novelty wore off a bit, taking on the air of a long-distance car trip. The endless running had become monotonous, and the thrill of the battle had subsided as his friends failed to do anything more than graze the monster with their attacks. Steven was trying his best to keep his teammates amped up, but he could tell that his shouts of “good try” and “you'll get it next time!” were becoming annoying as opposed to encouraging.
In fact, it seemed as though Steven had finally pushed the Gems' patience too far when Garnet suddenly said, “Be quiet.”
But before Steven could start feeling too bad, Garnet, still running, had turned around to the other two Gems and pressed a finger to her lip. It wasn't just an order directed at him; she was sushing them all.
Garnet didn't lose speed, but when the ferret's path began to head back down the latest hill's slop, towards the water, she didn't follow, instead sticking to the high-ground. Considering how fast the creature was, this could easily have given it the chance to escape them; but Amethyst and Pearl trusted the fusion's judgement, and didn't hesitate to follow. They continued to take Garnet's lead, even as this new path took them through tall, thick grasses which made movement difficult and slowed them down considerably. Those grasses scratched at Steven's face, but he didn't complain, instead just keeping his eyes closed until he felt them draw to a stop.
Garnet crouched, and placed the child gently onto the ground besides her. From behind them came the crackle of snapping grass, and after a moment the other two caught up. They find themselves standing on the edge of a cliff, overlooking a beach below. From this angle, they have an excellent view, and are able to see the Gem monster, which is already a full twenty more feet along. But instead of racing ahead, widening the gap ever further, the creature was actually slowing down. More than slowing down, in fact; after looking cautiously around, and failing to see the Gems in pursuit anymore, it actually stopped and sat down.
Garnet pointed directly downwards; when the Gems leaned over, they could just see a dark recess in the wall of the craggy cliff. In a hushed voice Garnet said, “This is where the creature appears to have made a den of sorts.”
“Are you proposing an ambush?” Pearl asked.
Garnet nodded. “We wait until it lets it's guard down, then we take it out before it can gain any speed.”
“Sounds good to me,” muttered Amethyst, digging her hands into the dirt out of anticipation. Usually she finds ambushes boring, but at this point she was so sick of the endless running that she was willing to try anything different.
Steven scanned the beach. It was more like a thin strip of sand than anything, bordered by high cliffs and curving gently into the distance. There wasn't really not a lot of move to manoeuvre, which was good for them. Furthermore, at least one of the monster's possible escape routes is at least partially blocked...by a van, parked yet another sixty-or-so feet down the beach. Though, honestly, a single van wasn't going to do a lot to discourage a rampaging Gem monster. And where there was a vehicle, there were human civilians, which posed it's own set of problems.
“There are people down there,” Steven pointed out. And not just any people, he realized. The car below was recognizable as the Fish Stew Pizza van, and the distant figures moving around it turned out to be Jenny Pizza, Buck Dewey and Sour Cream, out on one of their usual excursions.
The others saw them too. “We won't let them get hurt,” Garnet assured him.
Steven nodded. It wasn't that he didn't believe her- he knew that the Gems have had a lot of practice with keeping people (if not their property) safe. It was just hard not to be concerned for his friends, especially since it was mostly his fault for nearly getting them vaporized by Peridot's escape pod during their last encounter with Gem-stuff.
The boy forced himself to focus on the present. No point thinking about what could have happened, right?
That turned out to be easier said than done, however. It turned out that ambushes involved a lot of waiting, with very little in the way of distractions, leaving Steven alone with his thoughts. They couldn't talk, in case the creature below heard them and was spooked. For a long while, Steven entertained himself by watching the Gem monster lounging on the beach. It was actually rather pretty, Steven thought. It's long, slender body was elegant, and was covered in a glossy red fur which almost looked like fire when it caught the sunlight just right. He sorta wished that they didn't have to bubble it, but of course that isn't an option. It was the one which had showed up at the Temple. It was the one which snapped up the gem belonging to another recently-pooed monster from right under their noses. It started this, not them.
Watching the creature got boring pretty quickly; it didn't do anything more interesting than occasionally shift position or preen it's fur. Steven turned his attention to the cool kids for a while- watched Jenny snapping photos with her phone, Sour Cream splashing in the shallows once it became clear that the monster was ignoring them. He couldn't help but wish he could join them. They were a little too far away away though, and watching them for too long made his eyes ache. He started up a silent game of tic-tak-toe with Amethyst, scratching crosses and circles in the dirt with their fingers. Amethyst kept trying to cheat, but he didn't mind- he was used to her antics.
Eventually the creature stood back up, stretched, and retreated into the rocky alcove, out of the sunlight. Steven nearly fell off the cliff as he inched forward to try and keep it in his line of sight (Pearl caught him by the back of his shirt). The Crystal Gems watched as the creature settled back down- but into a rather odd position, with it's stomach still exposed. It brought one of it's forelegs to it's belly, then dug into the pouch it had there. It then withdrew the sparkling silver gemstone- the one which had set off this whole chase in the first place.
That Gem had belonged to a creature in it's own right; a giant hummingbird which had been drawn to the power of the Temple. It had not been a particularly difficult monster to defeat, but before any of them had been able to pick up and bubble it's remains, out of nowhere the ferret had rushed in, plucked the gemstone up, then rushed off. It was clear now that the silver stone was the newest addition to an already sizable collection. Using long, finger-like claws, the ferret began to draw out a number of other sparkling objects from it's pouch.
“How many has it got?” Amethyst whispered after the creature had laid out over ten objects.
“It's not just Gems,” Garnet pointed out in an equally quiet voice. Steven, still being held out over the cliff's edge, looked closer, and saw that she was right. While a couple of the ferret's other objects did appear to be genuine gems (one pale purple in colour, the other a dull green), the other things it had pulled out weren't. There was what looked like disused hub-cap, a tangled up set of wind-chimes, a sparkly sea-shell, an old Sprite can.
“It's confused. It can't recognize true Gems,” Pearl speculated, a thoughtful expression on her face. “It's just collecting anything that's shiny.”
“Like a magpie,” said Steven.
“It's still managed to steal some actual Gems,” reminded Garnet. “We can't let it escape with them- especially not if those Gems regenerate.”
The rest of the team nodded in agreement. They discussed their plan in low voices, and once the monster seemed to be sufficiently distracted as it inspected it's collection, they moved out. They scaled down the cliff, Steven riding on Pearl's back like a baby koala. They spread out across the cliff-face, Garnet moving right, Pearl and Steven going left, and Amethyst positioning herself directly above the monster's lair. The ferret remained blissfully unaware of their approach- but the teenagers hanging out down the beach did notice them. They began waving and pointing, and were close enough now that their shouts could clearly be heard, if not understood. Steven felt Pearl's body tense as the humans screened. On the cliff, all the Gems froze, afraid that the teenagers' calls might have alerted the creature below. Thankfully, the corrupted Gem must have decided that the humans were unimportant, and paid their sudden excitement no mind. The Crystal Gems still had the element of surprise.
They weren't going to waste it.
Amethyst reached the top of the alcove's mouth an clung there like a bat, ready to drop down at any moment. The others reached the ground not long after. Pearl deposited Steven on the sand, then motioned for him to follow her lead. She pressed herself the craggy wall and began moving stealthily and silently towards the beast's lair, the boy right behind her. On the other side of the cave's mouth, Garnet did the same. In less than a minute they had converged, and they were ready.
A silent signal passed between them, and they struck.
Garnet and Pearl darted out in front of the cave, drawing in their weapons, the latter releasing an ear-splitting war-cry. The ferret screamed too, in surprise and terror, rearing up on it's hind legs. Garnet surged forward, and the creature just barely managed to dodge the strike, the fusion's gauntlet just brushing the beast's side. With one forepaw it reached for it's scattered collection, desperately trying to scoop everything back into it's belly pouch. This distracted it long enough that Pearl was able to land a solid blow, spear embedding itself in the monster's shoulder. The ferret yowled in pain. The moment it's collection was secured, it sprung, hoping to run out of the cave and take off for freedom.
That's when Amethyst dropped. She landed right in the middle of it's shoulder blades. The creature bucked, trying to throw her off; Amethyst let out a wild “YE-HAW!”. She wrapped one arm around the monster's neck, and grabbed Pearl's spear with the other hand, refusing to be dislodged.
It appeared that the ferret was still intending to run off, unwanted passenger or not. So Steven rushed in, jumping at the creature and grabbing onto it's tail. It hissed, and tried to shake him off as well; he held on desperately, determined to do his duty as a dead-weight, no matter what.
As a tactic, it wasn't that effective- but it did give Garnet enough time to flank the ferret's side, cutting off it's escape and landing a devastating punch. With the force of the impact, the ferret went flying...
...with the side-effect that Steven went flying as well. Though Amethyst miraculously still managed to cling to the creature's back, the half-human was thrown a good fifteen feet down the beach, half-burying himself in the sand. He grunted in pain and did his best to climb back to his feet.
“Steven!” three voices cried out in unison. The cool kids, who until then had been keeping a wary distance from the fight, had rushed over to make sure their young friend was okay.
“I'm fine, I'm fine,” he said hurriedly as Buck helped him back to his feet. And he was- he'd taken much harder falls before. “But I've got to get back- we can't let that thing get away-”
“It's fast,” reflected Sour Cream, watching the battle which was still raging. This was an understatement. Even now, despite it's injuries, the monster was still moving swiftly, dodging the majority of it's enemies' attacks. The only once managing to get any significant damage in was Amethyst, who was still doggedly clinging to it's back like a champion bull-rider, and beating relentlessly at it. The only reason the ferret hadn't already tore off down the beach was that it didn't have enough room to gain sufficient speed.
The three teenagers between the battle, to the boy rushing off to join, and themselves- then took off after him.
“What are you doing?” Steven cried once he noticed. “It's not safe!”
“For us, or for you?” asked Buck.
“Yeah, dude,” said Sour Cream, jogging at his side. “No offence, but you're like, ten.”
“But I'm half-Gem! I have super-powers!”
“That doesn't mean you couldn't use some help,” insisted Sour Cream.
“And as long as your moms don't try and punch me again, I'm down,” said Jenny. “We can be distractions.”
Steven knew when he was beaten. “Okay!” he said, picking up speed once more. “Just run around in circles and distract it! And be careful!”
And honestly, as far as distractions went, the cool kids were pretty good. The ferret-monster was surprised by the sudden appearance of three new opponents, providing the Crystal Gems extra opportunity to attack. And this particular Gem monster wasn't particularly aggressive anyway- the humans just had to stay out of it's range, and it was pretty easy for them to dodge the few counter attacks it did try to make. The teenagers were clever, shouting and screaming at just the right moments to divide it's attention, doing their best to overwhelm it's senses. When they saw Steven grabbing fistfuls of sand and throwing it at the ferret's face, hoping to blind it, they caught on quickly and started doing the same thing. Soon it could barely see anything.
The ferret had withstood being hit with fists, and whips, and spears, but sand was the last straw. It knew it had to escape, and quickly. It put all it's remaining energy into a final desperate escape attempt. It rushed directly at the cliff-face, breaking to the side at the last moment, and scraping alongside it- Amethyst screamed, and was finally dislodged. Garnet was preparing to leap in and take her place, but the ferret tossed her aside with a swipe of it's whip-like tail. Then it began to charge, gaining speed, rushing blindly past the three teenagers, leaping over Pearl's head and coming directly at Steven...
“Oh no you don't,” Pearl hissed fiercely. The Gem warrior had her spear in hand; instead of throwing it, she aimed it directly upwards at the creature leaping above her head. She released a bright bolt of energy, and hit it directly in the stomach.
Her intent had been to throw the ferret straight up into the air, breaking it's momentum, preventing it's escape. It was a solid plan, and it would have worked, too- if it hadn't been for the belly pouch. Pearl's shot hit it directly, and that blast of pure energy reacted violently with the collection of magical and mundane artifacts held within.
The explosion radiated outwards like a lotus, the light expanding like petals of purples and greens and silvers and whites. The light was blinding. The sound was deafening.
It happened so quickly- there was hardly any time to react. Pearl was just able to roll backwards and escape the brunt of the explosions. The others, humans and Gems alike, threw themselves to the ground. Steven's bubble appeared automatically around him- he was too far away to shield anyone else, even though he desperately wanted to-
The shock-wave hit moments later. The pink bubble was thrown backwards by the force of it. It was dizzying and chaotic; Steven couldn't see what happened. Once it was over, he found himself somewhere floating off the shore, still cocooned safely in his bubble. He shook his head, trying to dispel the ringing in his ears- it didn't help. He looked towards the shore, trying to get a glimpse of his friends. With a small pop his bubble vanished, and he fell into the water with a splash. He hadn't been thrown very far out, thankfully. It didn't take long for the boy to splash and scramble his way back to the shore.
There wasn't any smoke to make the search difficult. The air was just laced with a smell like ozone and lemons, and the only sign that there had been an explosion at all was the radiating pattern in the sand, the scattered remains of the now poofed ferret's collection, and the bodies.
They weren't dead bodies, Steven realized quickly, with a surge of relief. They weren't even unconscious. By the time he'd gotten back to the beach, his friends (humans and Gems alike) were already beginning to sit up, groaning with pain.
He waved towards his family, mostly to assure them that he was okay, and made a beeline to his human friends. He knew that the Crystal Gems would be fine- they hadn't been poofed or anything- but he was genuinely concerned for the teenagers, who didn't have the same supernatural hardiness. His concern appeared to be justified as he approached the prone Sour Cream, who's skin was covered in an alarming red. When he got closer, though, he realized that it wasn't blood or anything really scary like that, just a burn. Not a serious one either. It looked like an ordinary sunburn, more irritating than really painful.
“Are you alright?” he still asked, squatting besides the blonde teenager. He wanted to make sure, especially since Sour Cream hadn't even sat up yet.
Upon hearing the boy's voice, Sour Cream did pull himself into a sitting position, and blinked blearily at him. “Yes, I'm fine,” he said. “Just a little...er, sore. Don't worry.”
“...Okay,” Steven said. He wasn't completely convinced, since the DJ sounded kind of off, but he wanted to go and check on the others.
The other two were already standing up- or attempting to, in Jenny's case. She must have been pretty dizzy, because the effort merely caused to fall right back down onto her butt. On the bright side, neither she nor Buck seemed to be as burned as Sour Cream was- a combination of their darker skin tones, and being farther away from the blast, no doubt.
“I'm fine,” Buck assured him, before becoming distracted by something.
“My legs are being weird,” Jenny complained as she tried to get up once again.
By then Buck was frowning- and apparently not because of Sour Cream's burn or Jenny's continued difficulty standing. His concern seemed to be coming from something in the distance behind Steven, which was staring at intensely.The half-Gem was just beginning to turn in order to try and follow the teen's gaze, when an unexpected sound pierced the air.
“What. The. Fuck.” Garnet's voice said.
Steven spun, gaping. Garnet had just said a swear word. A really bad on, too. He could hardly believe it.
He expected Amethyst to start yelling in amazement, and Pearl to start yelling with anger, but neither of them reacted that way at all. The shorter Gem was just staring down at herself, a blank look of shock on her face. “Why...am I...purple?”
And Pearl, meanwhile, was staring over at Steven- or, more accurately, at the humans next to him. Eventually he just said, “Woah. Trippy.”
And that was when a horrible suspicion snuck up on Steven Universe.
He turned back towards the 'humans' behind him. 'Sour Cream' was still sitting in the sand, forehead held in his hand- not to clutch at it, like when somebody has a headache or anything. He was just running his hand over the forehead, feverishly feeling for contours that just weren't there. 'Jenny' had finally managed to stand on her tall legs, but had begun vaguely poking at the center of her chest. 'Buck', meanwhile, was staring at the open palms of his hands with scarcely disguised shock.
“Garnet...Amethyst...Pearl...Is that you?”
Garnet rose her now-human head and stared at the boy through sunglasses which were not her own, then said, “I'm afraid so.”