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It goes a little like this-

He is run through with a weapon that is nothing special. The Gem who does it is a quartz, but she never believed in the place she was born.

Her weapon is really just a pointy stick, but she catches him off guard. He’s trying to help her. He wants her to know how beautiful Earth can be.

He doesn’t bleed when he poofs.

His gem falls onto the sand and his murderer sprints away, suddenly terrified. She is going to contact Homeworld and tell them that the infamous Rose Quartz has been beaten by a lowly topaz.

She doesn’t shatter him, and she will always think that she should have.

Garnet finds him. She saw it coming, knew that it would happen, but she splits anyways. Ruby runs off to get the others, and Sapphire sits as the tide comes in around her. She turns the boy she loves so dearly over and over in thin, gloved hands.

Pearl fusses with him, fixes his favorite Cookie Cat blanket in a basket like he did for her, so long ago. Amethyst carts him around places, and nobody says anything when she shows up to Funland, the Big Donut, the arcade, with a boy in a basket. No one says anything.

Peridot and Lapis stay at the temple because they want to be there when he regenerates because he’s got to regenerate, right? He’s a Gem, he’s a Gem. Gems regenerate. Connie visits every day and Greg sleeps on the couch and they’re all such a terrific mess.

When the gem does lift, it happens slowly and the glow is faint but they’re all crying, honestly. There is not a single person in the room that isn’t crying. Even Lapis is crying, and she’s not even pretending she’s not.

Pearl realizes first that the form is so much bigger than Steven was, and she has a quiet panic attack and has to go sit under her fountains.

No. No. This isn’t happening.

When Rose regenerates, her hair is everywhere. She comes into the world again laughing, arms spread wide. She looks the exact same.

“Hello!” she says.

Connie runs outside. She doesn’t mean to, but this is so awkward because it’s Steven’s mom and they’ve never even met and does this mean that Steven isn’t ever coming back, he has to come back, he has to!

Peridot and Lapis join her. They run on the beach and none of them talk. It’s sort of okay, except Connie has the feeling that nothing will ever be okay again.

It’s two hours of that before Garnet comes out. It’s almost dusk and Garnet’s hands shake, like she’s barely keeping it together.

“Connie. Lapis. Peridot,” she says. “There- there has been a change of plans.”

This is a nightmare. Garnet’s voice never shakes. Garnet never stutters.

“You can go home if you’d like,” she says. “Connie, Pearl can drive you.”

Pearl. How is she reacting? How is she doing? How are the Crystal Gems? How’s Greg? They loved Steven, but they loved Rose, too.

Which is past tense, now?

Connie swallows her anxiety. “I’d like to meet her,” she says. “Rose Quartz, I mean.”

Garnet looks at her for a long time. “Okay,” she says.

Lapis and Peridot go home. They cut through the house to use the warp pad and it’s so awkward. Rose isn’t laughing anymore. She stands like she doesn’t belong in the house she doesn’t recognize. She hunches her shoulders as if to compact herself, even though she can easily fit under the wide, slanted ceilings.

“Hi, ma’am,” Connie says. Everyone’s still crying. “I’m- I’m Connie.”

“Connie,” Rose says and Connie wants to scream because her voice is so different, so soft. “I know who you are.”

“Oh,” Connie says, feeling tremendously out of place. “I- I’m sorry. I don’t really know what’s going on.”

“None of us do,” Amethyst says. Her voice is thick. She’s spread-eagle on the couch, hair fallen in front of both eyes. “It’s okay, dude.”

Rose crouches to see Connie eye-to-eye. “You and my son were friends,” she says, like she’s placing a name that she just couldn’t recognize until now.

Were. Were. Were. “Yes, ma’am.”

“You don’t have to call me that,” Rose says. “I’m just Rose.”

Connie really thinks she’ll feel better if she calls Steven’s mom ma’am. She calls Pearl ma’am, and Garnet too. Not Amethyst, but her relationship with Amethyst is kind of different. “Okay,” she says. Her lips stick together.

“Connie,” Pearl says. Her voice is very quiet. “Let me take you home.”

Connie looks at Rose. She’s so big, so intimidating. “All right,” she says. “Let me, um, get my stuff.”

She packs the last Unfamiliar Familiar book and a DVD of Dogcopter Four and some other stuff that she wanted to show Steven, when he regenerated. It had never occurred to her that he might not regenerate as himself, although it must have occurred to the Gems. Rose Quartz was an abstract concept to Connie, someone who had theoretically existed once and no longer did. Now, that abstract concept is standing in Steven’s living room.

Pearl drives Greg’s van. Connie sits in the passenger’s seat and doesn’t say anything for a long time. She feels very small.

“I’m sorry,” Pearl says finally as they turn up Connie’s street. Her voice cracks. “I’m so, so sorry.”

“What for?” Connie asks, and Pearl doesn’t answer.

“You’re always welcome at the temple, Connie,” she says when she finally does speak. “Sword training or a mission or anything. Just to . . . hang out.”

The words sound weird in Pearl’s voice. “I will,” Connie says although she can’t imagine going to a temple where Steven isn’t there.

Pearl doesn’t look at her as she climbs out of the car. She stares past the windshield, right through the stars.

-

“Would it work?” Rose traces swirling, blossoming patterns in the sand with her toes. Something is very, very different. Greg isn’t looking at her. He’s hunkered down, like he’s trying to deflect a blow.

“I don’t know,” he says. “I don’t- I don’t think we should try it.”

“We have to,” Rose says. It’s as simple as that, really. “It didn’t work the first time.”

Greg coughs. The silence is horrible, suffocating. Rose feels like she did something wrong just by existing. Is this how Steven felt?

“I think it worked okay,” Greg says. “Let us have this, please.”

Let them have this. Let them have her.

Rose twists around. Greg looks happier, she thinks. Less like he would leave Earth if he could. Steven did so many wonderful things for all of them.

“I’d like to hear your new songs, Mr. Universe,” she says. It’s supposed to sound coy and flirty.

Greg looks tired. He runs a hand through what’s left of his hair.

“It’s just Greg,” he says, and it is.

-

“That’s dumb,” Amethyst says. She is the first to speak. The tide sweeps in, swallowing them in cold. None of them make a move to get up. “What does she think is going to happen?”

Garnet dips a hand beneath her shades. She will support Rose, she reminds herself. She will always support Rose.

“She thinks Steven is the key,” she says. “She wants to try again.”

She dares a glance at Pearl, who is staring into her intertwined fingers.

“Can we do it again?” Amethyst asks. “Did she think of that, huh? Did she?”

“I don’t know.” Garnet is tired of not knowing. In general, she is very tired.

It wasn’t supposed to be like this. It was supposed to be like breathing again.

They are all holding their breaths.

“I’m going to Vidalia’s,” Amethyst says eventually, standing up. “Talk to her, will you? Please?”

“I’ll try,” Garnet says. She already knows that she will not try.

-

The water is light. It forms easy patterns beneath her blade.

She lifts her face towards the ceiling. She will dance until she gets it perfect.

Again and again and again.

-

Rose lives in a torrent. She is a whirlwind, and she will never calm.

She has nine months, she explains. She wants to be all caught up.

She tours the new buildings, meets the new civilians. She has a lovely time. Beach City has so much promise. She loves the humans.

They try not to look at her too much. She is not able to fill his space.

There is a whisper around the town that she knows this. It is never confirmed.

-

Priyanka watches, silent. Their backyard has been repurposed into an arena, and she’s still not entirely certain how it happened. She enjoys seeing her daughter train, loves the light that shines from Connie’s eyes as Pearl shows her moves in sweeping, elegant gestures.

Connie seems almost in high spirits once they’re done. It’s been a while since that happened. She sits in the kitchen and sips water, humming Coriolin Overture, Op. 62. Pearl’s gaze is watchful, sharp. Priyanka appreciates knowing that Connie is in good hands.

“Is the sky arena not working anymore?” she asks, trying to remember all that Connie has told her about training. “I heard it helped her get over her fear of heights.”

Pearl is quiet. Priyanka has met her only once or twice before. Both those times she seemed intimidating, bold, sweet.

“I thought you deserved to know your child- every part of your child.”

Priyanka thought it would come to this, in the end. She can’t imagine it, honestly. Connie filled her in through bits and pieces, soft grief.

She knows what happened to Steven.

“Perhaps you should come over more often,” she says.

Pearl looks fragile. She is a survivor, that Priyanka can be certain of. She will survive.

“Perhaps I should,” she says.

Connie looks up and smiles. Pearl smiles back, soft, and Priyanka considers.

-

Half of Beach City volunteered to babysit. Sadie goes first, holding Steven like she isn’t sure what to do with him. She sits in her room, trying to tempt him with the stuffed animals he loved.

He won’t stop crying, waving his little fists.

Sadie watches, weary all of a sudden.

“Yeah,” she says. “Me too.”

-

Many, many people have loved Rose Quartz in her eternal, unfurling existence. She left a mark on people, the mark of a goddess, someone who should never have deigned to love you back, but did, somehow.

Greg and Pearl sit in the back of a broken van.

Steven left marks all over, grubby smeared fingerprints. He loved in a different way.

Sometimes, when the baby smiles, he looks like himself.

He doesn’t smile much.

-

Many people have loved Rose Quartz. Many people gave her everything they had to give.

Amethyst finds dusty DVDs of Lil’ Butler in a box somewhere in her room. She gives them to Garnet to throw in the lava room.

Many people loved her in an ethereal, eternal way.

Garnet sits very, very still.

Loving Rose Quartz is the hardest thing one can do.

-

“What’s wrong with him?” Lapis asks for the fourth time, and Peridot tries to explain.

“Nothing’s wrong.” She read all about human infants, their needs and patterns. Garnet said that Steven is special.

This is not like the utter disaster of a fourteenth birthday party not so long ago. It’s more permanent. It’s not about shapeshifting anymore.

Peridot was going to help with his fifteenth party, now that she understands what birthdays are. And parties.

“Is he trapped?” Lapis asks. It is always her first question.

“Maybe,” Peridot says. “Garnet said we have to wait.”

“I waited over five thousand years,” Lapis says. “He’s a good person.”

“He’ll be okay,” Peridot says. She’s not sure, though.

She’s not at all sure.

-

The previous Steven had to grow in the shadow of Rose Quartz. This Steven has to grow in the shadow of Rose Quartz and the first Steven.

It’ll take a heavy toll on him, undoubtedly.

He dies before he finds out, playing on the road. It’s a very human thing to kill the boy who is not like anything ever before, except he is.

Nobody is there when Rose comes back, frazzled and still crying with the ringing remnants of a foreign pain.

-

Greg says no this time. He begs her to reconsider, begs her to leave it be and live out her years here like she was meant to.

“I want to know my girlfriend,” he says. “Please, Rose.”

“He’ll save us all,” she says. “You’ll see.”

She goes to a sperm bank. This Steven will not know his biological father, but biology never meant much to Gems.

He’ll save them all.

They don’t see yet, but they will.

-

Connie goes to boarding school in Keystone. Pearl visits on days when lives blur together, brief as human things, and Greg will lend her his van.

They don’t spar much anymore, but this is not something Pearl can relinquish. Humans die. It is nasty and shocking and sudden.

Steven never learned rapier fighting. Perhaps someday she can teach him, but she does not hold out hope.

Connie teaches her how to video-chat. In the weeks that follow, she smiles at a Steven that is not her Steven.

-

He goes to school this time because Pearl thinks he would like it. They hold his hands as he walks into kindergarten. He whimpers and clutches Garnet’s thigh, and she thinks that this is what is best for him.

She hopes he doesn’t make friends. Friends are difficult.

-

“Steven, look!” Peridot swishes her hand, sending a small rock flying through the air. “Whooosh! Bam annnnd . . . gotcha!”

Steven giggles, delighted, and claps his hands.

Peridot smiles, proud to have gained Steven’s appreciation again. “Do you remember when I found out I could do this?” she says. “It was a good day.”

“He doesn’t remember,” Lapis says. “Do you, Steven?”

Steven shakes his head, smiling wide. “Tell me!” he says, and Peridot obliges, launching into a slightly exaggerated rendition of “a semi-ordinary day at Funland!”

Lapis puts down her magazine and goes back inside the barn.

She can’t ever hate him, but God, sometimes she wants to.

Is this how the Crystal Gems felt? That the boy they loved was just someone else they loved in a different vessel, never quite able to live up to expectations?

The thought makes her sick.

Peridot said once that Steven isn’t trapped, but maybe the rest of them are.

-

Everything feels like a sick replay of a life they have lived before. Steven grows as quickly as he wants to. He learns ukulele and goes on missions. It should feel okay, but it feels so far from okay.

He is not the boy who led them through life by a sticky hand.

He will never be that boy.

-

“We’re not being fair to him,” Garnet says. They’re folding laundry, speaking in quiet voices. He has more than just star shirts now because he likes green better than pink. “We need to treat him like the first one.”

Amethyst crumples a shirt in one hand. “The first Steven,” she repeats. “He’s not, though.”

They are reminded of this often, too often. They’re trying, can’t Rose see that?

There are only so many times you can watch your son die.

“I know,” Garnet says, slow and patient. Pearl leans over and rescues the shirt from Amethyst, smoothing it out on her lap. “We need to act like it, though.”

“Will we ever tell him?” Pearl refolds the shirt with shaky hands. The creases are uneven and she looks at them for a long time, trying to decide whether it’s worth doing over.

Garnet stares at her hands, her Gems. “Someday, he will find out,” she says. It is not a prediction; it is a fact that they can’t ignore. “He’ll hate us.”

“Maybe he’ll understand,” Amethyst says. “He can’t grow up like this. It’s messed up.”

Garnet doesn’t say anything. Maybe tomorrow she will introduce him to Ruby and Sapphire.

-

Greg strums his guitar on the beach. Steven plucks dissonant, cheerful chords on his ukulele.

They aren’t quite in tune with each other, and Greg tries not to read much into that.

“I wrote a song, Dad,” Steven says. “I’m going to play it for the Crystal Gems.”

Greg’s fingers hover, callused and weary. He’s getting old. Mortality is something all humans eventually come to terms with, but it’s harder when you spend all your time around immortal aliens.

“Play it for me,” he says.

Steven smiles. He’s a good kid. He will always be a good kid.

“If you’re evil and you’re on the rise . . .”

-

Garnet sees it. It unfolds before her, sweeping and looming, imminent.

Every path ends the same way. Steven will die today.

She has not told anybody yet.

When the shadows grow long, she is hopeful, but then the Gem monster comes.

Steven runs out, eager to help, adorned with the cheeseburger backpack he found buried deep, deep in the closet.

Amethyst digs it from the sand later. She fills it with rocks and sets it afloat in the ocean.

Pearl watches, and says nothing.

-

Garnet keeps pace with Opal without much difficulty. Opal’s strides are longer, but slow and deliberate.

They stop in front of the temple and Garnet waits for the split. Opal lingers, hesitant.

“Where’s Steven?” she asks, and Garnet’s gut twists.

“He’s not here,” she says and Opal’s eyes cloud with understanding.

“Ah,” she says. “I see.” She looks away, up into the clouds, and starts to hum.

It’s only later that Garnet identifies the song as “Giant Woman.”

-

Rose is haggard and quiet. She apologizes once for the nine months in which they have no Steven, and Garnet wants to say something but doesn’t.

During that conversation, Rose uses the phrase “gestation” and it occurs to Garnet that, in trying to save them from Homeworld, Rose is becoming more alien than perhaps she ever was.

“Will it ever work?” Rose asks when she is six months along. Garnet knows that she isn’t asking for an opinion.

She closes her eyes. The rivers split and wind with deceiving tranquility.

In many of the futures, Steven does save them eventually, but only after so many attempts.

There are only so many times you can watch your child die.

“Maybe,” she says. She wants to say no, no, stay with us. Stay this time.

Rose does not stay. Rose will never stay.

“Maybe” is enough for Rose.

She always did what she wanted.
-

Stevens blur together. They have stopped reminiscing fond moments with him, because it’s more than likely that he won’t remember, that it didn’t happen in his lifetime.

He never makes it past fourteen, never grows a day older than the first Steven. Some of them encounter Homeworld gems, when they’re young and scared and inexperienced.

It doesn’t feel like he’s saving them.

They start giving him different names in the hope that it will help them differentiate. They call him James and Adam and Matthew. After Greg dies, seventy-two and raising a thousand variants of his son, a thousand boys that accept without question that he is their father, the next five Stevens are Gregs instead.

They always end up accidentally calling him Steven, and some of them accept it and some of them don’t and isn’t it all the same, in the end?

They go back to Steven after a while. It seems wrong to call him anything else, when there are heavier names that drip, poison, from their tongues.

Incidentally, the last one is called Steven.

At the time, not even Garnet knows it.

-

Connie comes back. She’s in her mid-forties and it feels horribly, horribly wrong. She starts a small independent bookstore and seems relatively happy. Pearl visits often, faking an interest in current literary trends for a chance to talk to her student again.

Steven loves her like she hangs the moon, and isn’t it just so fitting?

Connie’s very good with him, despite everything. She introduces him to the Unfamiliar Familiar series for the second time, and things are almost normal.

One day, she tells him to wait as she gets a surprise from the back.

She doesn’t know what to say when she gives it to him. She bought it on a whim and then it hurt to look at. He should have it. It should be his. He turns it over in his hands and looks up to smile at her, seven sunny years old, sunburned and gaptoothed.

“Thanks, Miss Maheswaren!” he says, and her chest hurts so much she has to sit down.

“It’s just Connie,” she says, and it is.

-

Later, Amethyst sees the red glow bracelet on Steven’s wrist and doesn’t comment.

-

Steven learns how to fight corrupted gems. More than that, he works to save them.

Maybe Rose is right. Maybe he is the key, but isn’t it just so unfair to all of them?

Immortal beings tend to stagnate before long.

Nobody moves forward anymore.

-

“Ste-man!” Amethyst swings over the table, smile slow and wild. “Guess what!”

“What?” Steven’s thirteen and excited. He has marker smudges on both cheeks and a town of people who love him and will always love him, always always.

Amethyst waves an eager hand to Garnet, who dramatically opens the freezer. “Come see,” she says.

Steven rises onto tiptoes. “Whoa! What are these?”

They take it in stride. “Cookie Cats,” Pearl says. “They’re feline-shaped ice cream treats. They just came back into stock. Isn’t it exciting?”

“Try one,” Garnet says. She’s trying not to get too excited, but it’s hard.

Steven tears off the wrapper with his teeth. He does not know the jingle. He has never seen a single Cookie Cat commercial on TV. He takes a bite.

The Crystal Gems hush, anxiously waiting for his verdict.

“Pretty good!” he says. “I like Lion Lickers better, though.”

-

When the Homeworld Gems come, the sky is pewter and the sand is hot and Steven isn’t ready.

He has to be. He has to be ready.

It’s not a hand this time, nor is it a foot or any other body part, despite Amethyst’s half-hearted jokes. It’s a spherical pod, and it lands on the beach just like it always did, and Steven clings to Garnet’s leg.

She doesn’t fight this time, because she’s sure they’ll shatter her. They’ll take precautions to make sure that Steven can’t break anyone out this time. It will be different, and Garnet doesn’t know how, no matter how hard she looks.

They don’t separate the Gems this time. They lift off the ground immediately, soaring through space. Steven watches, wide-eyed and anxious, a spectator.

Sometimes, he’ll get this look in his eye, and Garnet is sure that he remembers, but then it’ll be gone again before she can really see.

It takes two nights of worry and soft plans that will fail and fail and fail before Steven whispers, voice heavy in the suffocating stillness, “How many others were there?”

Pearl chokes on a sob. Amethyst puts her head in her hands.

“I’m sorry, Steven,” Garnet says.

I’m sorry, Rose, she thinks.

Steven swallows. His hands curl into shaky fists. “How many?”

“Many,” Garnet says quietly.

“Why do you think I can do it?” Steven says. “Whatever they couldn’t.”

Pearl reaches out, cups his warm cheeks with one hand. “You’re something extraordinary,” she says. “Your job isn’t to save us.”

They all know it’s a lie.

“We didn’t want it to be this way,” Amethyst says hoarsely.

Something dawns in Steven’s eyes, the understanding that his guardians are not infallible.

Garnet reaches out and pulls him in. He doesn’t resist.

“I’m scared,” he says into her chest. Halfway through, his voice breaks. “I know I’m not supposed to be but I’m really, really scared.”

“Be scared all you want,” Garnet says and she thinks that they never really understood what it means to be a child. “We’re scared, too.”

None of them will ever ask how he found out, but they will always wonder.

-

It goes a little like this-

The Gem facing off against him is desperate. She does not know how to move forward, how to rise in the ranks. Her moves are riddled with mistakes.

Steven wants to help her, but he doesn’t think he can.

It goes a little like this-

Her weapon is a spear and it moves as if on its own. He looks at her face and not her spear, and it is the last thing he will ever see.

His Gem makes an awful clinking noise. If he were there, he would see her hesitate. He would reach out, try to convince her to come with him.

He’s not there.

Determination marks her features. She raises her weapon and smashes it hard against the Gem of the fearless Quartz who lived a thousand times.

It goes a little like this-

He shatters with no one to see his beautiful, frightened shards hit the floor.
-

Gem history is not a linear thing. It blossoms into circles, unbreakable circles that begin and end in a tireless cycle as eternal as the beings perpetrating it.

Gems do not rise. Gems do not feel. Gems do not cling to faded remnants of something long gone.

On the beach, the shadows are long as the world bids a soft farewell to a boy who, surely, would have saved them all, to a soldier-turned-queen who, surely, understood that.

Sometimes, Gems need a Diamond.

Sometimes, Gems need a Steven.

Sometimes, Gems save themselves.