Almost instantly, his breathing began to hasten as his chest tightened. Hitched breaths soon turned to sobs. Sweat began to seep from his pores. Helplessly, the gem sank to the soft floor – hugging his knees and crying into his lap. He jolted as he felt something lightly grab his arm.
"Hey," a squeaky voice replied softly, "I-it's alright… I'm not gonna hurt you."
Steven's breathing was less labored now. He knew that voice…
It kept going.
"Are you okay?"
The human-gem hybrid blinked away remaining tears. His stare was averted from the figure. He almost didn't want to look up. A lump was caught in his throat.
"Yeah… Yeah, I'm alright…"
Slowly, Steven picked up his head. Though his eyes were puffy, he could perfectly recognize the figure. A small smile slid across the brim of his mouth.
"It's just… been a while."
The figure quirked an eyebrow.
"You… know me?"
The teen nodded affirmatively.
"I sure do, Steven."
The small boy gasped. He grabbed his round, chubby face in disbelief.
"You… know my name?!"
Steven chuckled, extending his hand to the younger gem.
"It's kinda hard to forget. Hi… I'm Steven."
Again, the boy gasped dramatically. He took the teen's hand.
"Wait a minute! You… you're me, aren'tcha?!"
His cheeks glowing crimson, Steven nodded. His impish counterpart grinned from ear to ear.
"Ohmygosh, ohmygosh, ohmygosh!"
With his red, golden-starred shirt flapping in the wind, young Steven zoomed in circles gleefully. His cheers rang out to new decibels – his curly hair swishing in all direction. As he zipped past his older counterpart for the fifth time, he grabbed the young adult's hand – forcing him to join in the celebration. Once he got the energy out of his system, little Steven clung to the older gem's waist in a tight embrace.
"It is so amazing to meet you!" he exclaimed, looking up with glistening pupils, "Look how handsome you are! Wait, is that conceited 'cause it's me? Ah, who cares?! Look at my neck! I've got a neck! Gah, this is wonderful! I-It's like chapter eight of the second Unfamiliar Familiar when—"
"Lisa travels ten years in the future and meets her older self?"
While the older teen adjusted his collar coolly, stars in little Steven's eyes engorged to its fullest extent.
"You really are me!"
The younger gem released Steven from his grip. Shyly, the small boy rubbed the back of his neck.
"Y'know I've got, like, a million questions, right?"
Older Steven nodded.
"I'm sure y'do," he chuckled in reply, "But… I was wondering… Could I talk to you about some stuff, too?"
The young human-gem hybrid cocked his head confusedly.
"But… Don't you already know, like, everything about me?"
Steven crossed his arms, wishing he had his pink jacket with him.
"I used to."
Affirmatively, young Steven nodded.
"Well… Okay! Wh-where should we go to chat?"
The older gem shrugged.
"Take your pick."
"Hmmm," the young boy inquired, "Anywhere works! Except, maybe not Flower Meadows? Allergies, you know."
Steven was slightly taken aback. He hadn't had to worry about allergies for years now! He'd forgotten he even had them…
"Well," he encouraged, wrapping his arm around the small teen, "Have I got good news for you!"
The two began their stroll as they talked about the benefits of not having allergies anymore. Pink clouds rolled in and out through the atmosphere. A light breeze tousled their curls, each enjoying being in such familiar company. The older gem squinted into the distance.
"Woah, it can't be… Do you see that?"
Looking outward, young Steven could make out the location.
"Mhhm. Welp, this works for me. How 'bout you?"
Beyond the salmon landscape, dark grey beach rocks shot up through the ground. A sandy shoreline sprouted a path which lead to a level of wooden steps – which, in turn, lead to the ranch-style beach house. Clearly, this was before any remodeling: before the conservatory and greenhouse were installed. It was in its original, modest-sized dwelling – clutched, of course, by the rock sculpture of Obsidian. Steven's heart panged at the sight. He looked down, nodding to his young counterpart.
"Yeah. Works for me."
Both Stevens sat pretzel-style in the sand. They faced the ocean, looking out into the rippling, steel blue breakers. A few seagulls skidded along the skyline – soaring through a mix of orange and purple against the setting sun. Their screeches faded as they flew out of existence. The sight was breathtaking.
So, why didn't he feel anything? His concentration was broken as his younger self spoke.
"You remember sitting on the beach with Dad?"
The older gem smiled.
"Yeah," he replied, "Skipping rocks, swimming for a bit, playin' the uke'."
"Do we still do that in the future?!"
"S-sometimes," the young adult lied, "We both get pretty busy."
"Yeah, I'll bet," young Steven replied, digging his feet into the sand, "Connie too, right?"
'Not now!' he thought to himself, trying to keep his pigmentation the same.
"Uh huh," the little gem replied, "She's gotta be, like, running for President soon, isn't she?"
"M-maybe in a few years," the older gem could feel droplets forming on his brow.
"Yeah, you're right, it's only been a couple years."
The young gem looked behind him, noticing how much bigger his counterpart's footprints were. He turned back to the young adult.
"How old would you say I am?"
"Thirteen," he replied without hesitation.
"Woooow!" the young gem winked with a chuckle, "I'm an old man!"
"Hey,we're still pretty young and hip!"
"Do you remember being my age, Grandpa?"
The older gem frowned.
"I sure do."
"Cool," he heard the young boy sigh wistfully, "Hey, look, a dolphin! Isn't that somethin'?"
The older gem looked down at little Steven.
The imp was visibly captivated: his eyes were stuck on the scene. Curiosity burned through his corneas. He almost didn't want to break him from his focus.
"Hey," the older gem turned to the child, "Can I ask you something?"
"… How're you doing?"
"Yeah, but… but really."
"Whaddya mean, 'really'?" the young gem giggled, "I'm great!"
"Of course, you are," the older gem said sternly, "Steven – there's some stuff we gotta talk about."
"Oh, um, okay… Are you alright?"
"Honestly… No. Not really."
The young gem furrowed his brow. He placed his hand on the older teen's shoulder.
"I figured. Is that why you were crying when you came?"
The young gem hesitated.
"Does… Something happen to us?"
Tears began to stream from the seventeen-year-old's eyes.
"No… But something did happen to us. Actually, it was a lot of things."
"Oh, I get it," younger Steven replied softly, "Is this about Mom?"
"Oh… Is it… about the Diamonds?"
"No, Steven," his tone began to rise impatiently.
The small boy was puzzled.
"Could it be that one time—"
"Steven, don't you get it?!" the older human-gem hybrid hollered. His nose and eyes streamed as his face contorted into a grimace.
"It wasn't just one time!"
With aggravation, the older teen punched the sand. The young gem blocked the grainy explosion with his forearm. He looked on with a façade of concern. Noticing this, the older gem took a deep breath.
"Steven. You don't know it yet, but you're in real trouble."
He knelt back down in the sand, his head hanging low.
"I'm in real trouble."
"I-I don't understand," he heard the young counterpart remark, "Y-you seem okay."
Almost as if on-cue, the older gem's pigmentation shifted to a luminous pink. He looked up tiredly.
"How about now?"
With an audible gasp, the tiny teen clasped his mouth with his hands. Tears formed in the corner of his eyes.
"Who… did this to you?" he asked, his voice trembling.
Steven shrugged nonchalantly.
"Mom… The Diamonds… Even the Gems were-"
"The Gems?!" the young boy looked horrified.
"They didn't mean it," his equivalent assured, "But… Yeah. Them, too."
The small gem reached out, and quickly recoiled his hand.
"Does it hurt?"
"You don't even realize it, really… while it's happening."
Abruptly, the small gem hugged Steven's shoulder. His little nose ran on the shoulder of the young adult's pajama shirt.
"Oh, Steven… I'm sorry. I wish I could've at least gone through it with you."
"You were with me," he stated with a smile, "The whole time. And… I want to thank you for that."
"What for? What makes me so special here? I didn't help you," the young gem's eyebrows shot up, "In fact, I… think you might be worse because of me. I—"
The small teen could barely finish his sentence. His older counterpart embraced him so tightly, his train of thought was derailed. Soft sobs overtook the larger boy's frame.
"Y-you listen to me," he insisted, sniveling, "The best part of who I am… is who you are."
He looked up, smiling through sniffles as he studied his younger self. It was like looking in a time-bent mirror. The same face, of course: just more youthful. It was smaller, rounder, and less sullied. Above his left eye was a tiny scar from the time Jasper knocked him unconscious with her helmet. From this eye, Steven wiped a tear.
"Steven Quartz," he began, "You are a lover of your family, Cookie Cat, pizza, fry bits, video games, and all life. You are strong, in the real way. You roll with the punches… Sometimes literally. But despite everything, even if it's hard… you've gotta take care of you. You... don't have to solve all your problems in one night. You've gotta be the truest you you can be. You've gotta ask for help when you need it. But most importantly… You've gotta love you. Think you can do that?"
Young Steven squeezed his future self.
"Only if you do."
The two hugged for a long time. Small, squishy arms cradled a lean abdomen. Both gems began to glow from their abdomens. The two looked at each other.
"Guess it's time, huh?" the younger gem hummed.
"Guess so," older Steven replied.
The glow grew brighter as they embraced once more.
"I love you, Steven."
"I love you too, Steven."
In a burst of light, the red shirt and denim jeans faded out of existence. Rising from his knelt position, Steven wiped his tear-stained face with his forearm. Behind him, the door had reappeared from the ether. He grabbed the knob tightly. Looking back one more time, he gazed at the house, the beach, and the sunset as they faded. The door shut tight as he left the little world behind.