Steven rested his chin on one of the couch pillows, shoeless feet kicking in agitation. He hugged the cushion closer as he glanced up at the clock. It was dim and featureless in the darkness. He squinted to make out the time: a couple minutes past midnight.
Steven let his head sink until his mouth was buried in the pillow, body flat against the floor. “I’m getting worried.”
There was a shift in the couch’s pile of blankets, a hesitant moment of silence in the air. “Me too,” Connie echoed. “What happens if my mom finds out I’m staying here without supervision?”
“No, I mean the Gems are usually back by now.” Steven rolled onto his side. He stared blindly at the warp pad. “They don’t like going on missions at night.”
“Well, where did they go?” Connie sat upright. Her messy hair puffed around her head, a black cloud silhouette. “Is it far?”
“The Kindergarten. And I don’t think so.” Steven sat up, legs crossed. He hugged the pillow in his lap. “We went last week and found Peridot there. Peridot got away and said she was done with the Kindergarten, but the Gems think she might have been lying so they went to check. And that was this morning.”
“…And do you think something happened?”
Steven shrugged in the darkness. “Maybe they’re just being careful and checking everywhere. Or maybe they found more clusters? Even if a mission goes long Garnet or Pearl usually warps back to put me to bed.”
Steven heard a shuffle of sheets as Connie got up from the couch. She crouched by her bag, breaking the silence with the harsh unzippering of its side pocket. Her hand surfaced with something thin and long, tapered and one end and beveled at the other. She clicked it on. A large bright circle bloomed on the far wall.
“I brought this in case we wanted to do shadow puppets. But it’ll be helpful if we want to get around in the dark.”
Steven threw back the last of his sheets and pawed about for his shoes. “You wanna go after them?”
“That’s what you were suggesting, wasn’t it?” Connie shined the light on Steven, watching him nod once.
“Maybe…maybe we can make shadow puppets against the injectors while we’re there. That way your flashlight will be extra useful.”
He snagged his shoes and slipped them on to both feet. “Yeah injectors. They’re these huge creepy things with sharp legs, and they’re all over the Kindergarten, and they plant Gems in the earth. They’re not on though.”
“Oh…cool.” She slipped into her boots, toes scrunching on the inside. She smoothed down the bunches in her nightgown. It didn’t seem worth changing out of pajamas for a search and rescue mission.
Steven was ahead of Connie, but he moved cautiously away from the warp pad. His squinted eyes were focused on the screen door. “Lion!” Steven called. He waited, listened, and cupped his hands around his mouth. “Liiionnn!”
“Are we bringing Lion?” Connie carefully stepped her way to the light switch. She flipped it, and was met with a brief shutter of brightness before the lights completely caught. Steven was already moving to the front door, which gated something large and pink beneath the porch light.
“Nah. Lion kind of decides for himself what missions he comes on.” Steven unlatched the thumb lock. Lion bounded in as Steven eased the door open, circling and sniffing the boy. Steven laughed in response. “But I keep stuff in him.”
Connie watched as Steven hopped into Lion’s mane, disappearing entirely for four or five seconds. She’d taken a hesitant step forward when he popped back out, gasping somewhat, and hauling a large pink scabbard behind him.
“This is my mom’s sword. It’s bigger than the one Pearl had you training with, but it’s also magical so it’s probably way better.” Steven rested the scabbard on his knee and slowly unsheathed the sword. “She won an entire war with it.”
Connie lighted down to Steven. She eased it out of his grip and weighed it. She gave it a few swings and thrusts in the open air. The blade was bathed in slatted light from the porch, the blinds stratifying it into silver slits. It gave off a constant faint glow, a constant faint hum. “This is fine. It actually almost feels lighter.” She reached for the scabbard, which Steven happily turned over.
“Good!” Steven said with a smile. “We’ve got both Mom’s shield and sword then, and Peridot doesn’t have any of that! I’ll bet we can take her.” He faltered, thinking. “I-if we need to.”
“Yeah.” Connie nodded, hair messy and pajamas loose on her body. She held out her free hand to Steven, who hi-fived it in return. She raised the scabbard’s strap over her head, wiggling it down until it rested comfortably on her hip. Her lips curled into a smile as she noticed Steven staring.
Until he broke into giggles.
“What?” Connie demanded. She spun on him, hands to her hips.
“It’s just funny. You’ve got this awesome sword and awesome scabbard, but you’re still just standing here in pajamas.” He stuck a finger out. “You’ve got fluffy sheep all over you.”
Connie blushed and pushed him off. He beamed up in the slatted light. “It’s a distraction technique! First, I distract them with my sheep. Then I slice them!”
“And this is a sleepover. Are we doing to go save the Gems or what?”
Steven nodded eagerly, before snapping his fingers. “Oh! Almost forgot.” Steven plunged back into Lion’s mane. Connie watched him go with a jolt. He reemerged with a crinkling, vacuum sealed bag in his hand. “Chips,” he announced, flaunting the bag, “in case we get hungry.”
The warp pad brought a brushing of light to the dense valleys of the Kindergarten. It faded instantaneously, and the surroundings bled back to thick black monoliths. The air was cold, the wind fluid.
Connie clicked on her flashlight. The circle of light formed on the far canyon wall. It contoured the granite, but left it black and dim at such a distance. Connie lowered the beam to their feet as they stepped onto the packed, damp dirt.
“Garnet! Amethyst! Pearl! You guys out here?” Steven called. His words echoed off the far canyon walls. Only the wind howled back at him.
He glanced around. Dark pillars overtook the sky, which was overcast in dim purple clouds. The canopy had retained some of the day’s light. The cloud cover shed down a sprinkling of cold rain. It offered only the faintest illumination of the gem shaped holes in the rock, packed in by the thousand.
“It’s creepy here,” Connie whispered. She swung the flashlight around, which beveled shadows and caught on glimmering mineral deposits. “…and cold. Would Garnet, Amethyst, and Pearl really be scouting here at night?”
Steven thought about this. “Well, Pearl has a flashlight thingy on her head. We should look for that.” He scaled his way down the clump of earth housing the warp pad. “Pearl? Amethyst? If you guys are lost the warp pad is over here!” He stepped in the direction of the cluster experiments. Only the thick warble of the wind answered him. “…Ruby? Sapphire? Is anybody out here?”
“Would they have gone somewhere else? Would they have gone far?” Connie spun with the flashlight. She paused at the distant creaking of metal limbs. Steven turned with her, finding the flashlight beam frozen on the tall dark corpse of a Gem Injector. Its spider-like limbs dug into the granite wall. Its head glinted in the harsh light.
“I don’t know where else they’d go…” Steven answered, mouth open and head angled up to the Injector. He opened his hand, palm up-turned, and focused instead on that. He clenched his teeth and tensed his wrist, letting out a single proud laugh when a pink bubble burst to life above his palm. It scattered a thin pink glimmer on the ground. “Look, I’ve got a flashlight too!”
“You can’t really see much with it…” Connie gave another few futile swings of the flashlight. Her patched-up vision was useless in the dark. “Maybe we should come back in a few hours when it’s light. Sunrise is at 8:38 tomorrow morning. My mom keeps track—“
“Wait, stop!” Steven stuck up the hand clenching the chips, pointing out into the inky blackness with his bubbled one. “Swing the flashlight back over there again! I saw something.”
“Saw…what?” Connie asked hesitantly as she adjusted the beam.
“Something glittery.” Steven took off in the direction of the beam, Connie bounding behind with thick slaps of her boots on the sodden ground. She tensed as she saw the flashlight return a flicker of brightness.
Steven collapsed onto his knees and hastily wiped away the wet grime that had flowed down the canyon side in the rain. He pulled a faceted, hand-sized object out of the ground. It sparkled lavender in the flashlight’s beam.
“Amethyst…” Steven said.
“That’s Amethyst?” Connie asked. She ran the flashlight around the surrounding area.
Steven flipped the gem over and ran his fingers along the surface. “I-I don’t feel any cracks. I think she’s okay.”
“But where’s the rest of her?!” Connie asked, voice cracking.
“Oh.” Steven turned up the hem of his shirt. He placed Amethyst’s gem in the make-shift pouch. “I guess you’ve never seen—when a Gem gets hurt really bad, they can poof back inside their gem and heal. I think she’s okay as long as the gem isn’t damaged.” He abandoned the chips in the mud and used that hand to hold his shirt pouch shut.
Steven stood. He pulled his shirt hem closer and stuck his bubbled hand out. The pink bubble expanded its radius, and swamped the two of them in a pale rosey light. It lit up the gentle sheets of rain falling from the sky, which dashed at sharp angles with the wind.
“Pearl and Garnet wouldn’t have left Amethyst behind like this. They’ve got to be around here somewhere.”
“…Do you think the same thing happened to them?” Connie asked quietly. “Do you think whatever did it is still here?”
“I dunno.” Steven swept his hand over the ground. “We need to listen and be careful. But we’ve got the sword and the shield!” He thumped his pink-bubbled hand against his stomach. “So whatever it is, I bet we can take ‘em.”
“Wait! I saw something.” Connie pulled up the hem of her nightgown, bounding off in slapping boots. She crouched on her haunches, hand brushing away the damp earth. Her wet bangs fell over his eyes. “It’s a blue gem!”
“That’s Sapphire!” Steven called back. “And that’s gotta mean—“ Steven ran to her side. His feet churned up mud, which slowly coated the back of his legs. He let out a happy noise at the glimmer of saturated red that responded to his pink light. “I found her! I found Ruby!”
Steven scooped up the small red gem, running has hand over it in search of cracks. He breathed a sigh of relief when he found none. Steven dropped it into his make-shift pouch with Amethyst.
“Connie, are there any cracks on Sapphire?”
“I….uh, no! None that I can feel.”
Steven opened his mouth to answer, shutting it as a shiver of excitement went through his body. Another glimmering stone lay in the mud about ten feet off. Steven’s sandals slapped against his feet as he ran to it. It grew larger and brighter, oval in shape. Steven knelt and ran his hands over Pearl’s gem. No cracks.
“Steven! I found Pearl!” Connie called.
Steven turned back to Connie. He could see only the bounding flashlight beam. Connie was lost to the blackness.
“No, I just found Pearl,” Steven answered. He dropped Pearl into his pouch and stood. Something definitely glinted in Connie’s beam. “She’s over here.”
“…Then what’s this? It looks like Pearl’s color and shape.”
Steven saw Connie’s hand enter the cone of light, thin and dark. It wrapped around the glimmering thing in the dirt. Her fingers started to worm underneath the stone before she pulled her whole hand away in haste.
“Ouch!” she hissed. Her flashlight beam shot back with her body.
“Connie?” Steven ran to her side, feet slapping. He hugged his shirt close for fear of dropping the gems.
“I think I cut my finger.” She shifted the flashlight to illuminate her right hand. A thin gash cut into her index finger. A stream of red slipped from the opening.
“I…I don’t think I still have my healing abilities, Connie,” Steven admitted in a whisper. He grabbed her hand and pulled it close. “We’ve got bandaids back at the house! We should get back and–”
“No, that’s not important.” Connie pulled her hand back and adjusted her beam. “This is. If you have Pearl, then what’s—“ She lit up the stone again. It lay in a puddle, bathed in a slurry of grime and muck. It sat just shy of the canyon wall, snug and hidden under the broad shadow of an Injector high above.
Steven knelt by it, fingers finding edges along its side. Muddy soup slipped through his fingers as he lifted one corner from the icy puddle.
“It’s got edges, Connie. And I’ve got Pearl already. This can’t be Pearl.”
“…Well it’s a Gem, right?” Connie hovered over him. She aimed the flashlight at him. His thick curls were damped by the rain. His skin was ghostly white, his clothes mottled with dirt. She shifted the beam to catch another glimmer of the gem. “What is it, then? Who is it?”
He pushed off more of the mud, freeing it from its flooding tomb. A dull smooth stone, tapered at three edges. “Connie…you found Peridot,” Steven whispered.
“Oh…Oh my gosh.” Connie answered. She took a step back. Her free hand dropped to the handle of her sword. Steven didn’t move away. He only dug further, fingers turning wrinkly and numb. Connie watched with apprehension as he dipped his hand into the muck. “Careful, Steven. I cut my hand on something in the dirt here.”
Steven nodded. He grabbed the gem by its three corners as he pulled it up. The sucking mud fought him for control, and he rocked backwards with the whiplash as he finally freed it. It sat firmly in the bubble’s light, its green turning to a pale gray. He let go of his shirt hem to run that hand over the gem’s face.
“Is that safe, Steven? She’s the Gem who tried to abduct you.” Connie wrapped her hand around the sword’s hilt, but she could feel her fingers going numb with the cold. “And we don’t have Garnet or Amethyst or Pearl right now in case something happens.”
“It’s safe,” Steven answered. He sat on his haunches, hand roving on the gem’s surface. “And I know why you cut yourself.”
Steven pushed himself to his feet. His left hand was back to holding the shirt hem closed, but he cradled the gem on his right palm. His fingers curled around it like a starfish, and he presented it—now upside down–to Connie.
She leaned inward, flashlight beam roving over its surface. “…Oh,” Connie answered quietly.
The back face was speckled with mud, duller in the light than the other gems had been. And right down the center ran a long, deep, irregular gouge. It cracked almost straight through, and the visible inside of the gem was filled with jagged splinters.
“Her gem’s been cracked.” Steven lowered it into Connie’s hands and took to pawing about in the dirt for shards.
“That’s…that’s good though, isn’t it?” Connie prompted. She stared down at the shattered thing in her hand. “She’s been trying to hurt you guys. She tried to kill you guys. She’s the reason the Gems were so worried.” Her mouth twisted with uncertainty. A rock, just a broken rock in her hands. “…It means the Crystal Gems were winning, doesn’t it?”
Steven still sifted in the dirt for pieces. His hand froze as it connected with something. He rubbed away the dirt burying it, revealing a glimmering thing much too large to be a gem shard. He lifted a dented Gem Destabilizer from the muck. Its bronze prongs were bent at odd angles. A shiver of electricity ran down its spine.
Garnet, split in two… Steven remembered with a shudder.
“Should we…should we…” Connie lost her voice, eyes to Steven’s back.
Steven stood, dropped the Destabilizer, and broke it under his foot. He turned back to Connie, and eased open the top of his pouch. The gems inside clinked against one another. The noise reverberated in the dense canyon network.
He approached Connie, who shivered violently in her thin nightdress.
“Connie, give me Sapphire please.”
“Oh…okay.” She shifted the flashlight to the crook of her elbow to free the gem smothered in her grip. She angled her body toward Steven and dropped it into his open palm. He lowered the blue gem into his pouch with the others.
Connie looked to the pale green gem still clenched in her left hand. “…and her? What should we do with her?”
Gently, Steven took her hand and eased the cracked gem from her grasp.
“She’s hurt, Connie. She’s hurt, and she’s all alone, and she’s probably really scared.” Steven’s hand vanished inside his pouch, depositing the half-destroyed gem with the others he cradled. “So we’re gonna help her.”