Steven dug his heel into the steep slant of the Earth. His exposed skin prickled with the sharp, wet blades of grass. He only leaned forward, drove onward, and swung the picnic basket in front of him as a counter balance. A cool wind met him face-on, a smell rich with mulchy decay and brine. It rustled his hair and tickled his nose; it sent fresh, excited chills down his spine.
Peridot trailed behind him. She held the rolled-up checkered blanket clamped to her chest. Its frayed edges moved with the wind, but Peridot’s steps were much surer than Steven’s. She kept pace with him patiently. The gooey clots of mud slid clean off her boots without the slightest trace.
“Aaaaaand here!” Steven declared. He spread his arms wide and dropped the basket for emphasis. It plopped down into the damp earth, muddy where the grass had been ripped away from a few visits too many. Steven didn’t pay any mind to the ground though; he watched only the skyline—rich with the pinks of reds of an early sunset. The crashing waves were like ripples in a pond. The seagulls mere ants. He’d traveled all over the globe with the Gems, but the top of the Temple still felt like the top of the world.
Peridot moved up beside him. She bent to one knee and spread the picnic blanket with a single flick of her detached fingers. They spread out over an entire side, allowing the fabric to unroll over itself into a perfect square sheet. It took on divots and contours as it rolled over loose stones and ruts in the ground. Steven picked up the basket and shifted it to the blanket. He then gestured for Peridot to sit, and she did.
“This is what a ‘picnic’ is. It combines the two best things—snacks and adventures. But this adventure isn’t dangerous or anything. Unless you’re Amethyst. One time she came up here and fell off and her gem cracked. That’s how I learned about the healing fountain. But if you’re careful then it’s not dangerous up here.” Steven seated himself with an ungraceful fwump onto the blanket. He spread his feet wide and leaned forward to snatch the basket. He flicked the top open and produced two seran-wrapped peanutbutter and jelly sandwiches, one of which he handed off to Peridot. She took it.
“First you gotta unwrap it,” Steven instructed. He peeled back the wrapping like the skin of a fruit. Peridot followed suit. “It keeps dirt out. Pearl tells me it’s good hygienic practice, but it probably doesn’t matter for you. You can’t get sick like humans can.”
Peridot watched him, sandwich clamped tight in her fingers. Steven looked down at his own. He considered taking a bite, then thought better of it.
“So…I’ve been meaning to ask…” He picked off a bit of bread from the sandwich. It pulled away soggy, one side slick with jelly. He flicked it away and dug his fingers back in. “How…how are you? And Homeworld? What’s it like? Are you still…ya know…there? Are you–are you okay?”
Peridot met him with a few slow blinks. She turned her head then, contemplating the sunset. “You Crystal Clods… Why do you keep destroying my stuff? … I’m already dead anyway.”
“That’s not a good answer,” Steven muttered back. He lowered the sandwich onto his lap, legs now pressed against each other. He prodded its soft, gooey surface with a single thumb.
“Sorry.” And the hurt in her tone felt like a spike through him.
Steven watched the beach. He noticed the harsh dip in the shoreline where Cinnabar’s ship had crashed. It sucked in swirling gulps of water, trapping them in an artificial bay. He wondered if fish had gotten stuck inside; he wondered if they’d be stranded by low tide. “Peridot…I want you to tell me you’re alright.”
Peridot followed his eyes. She watched the shoreline with him. “I’m alright, Steven.”
Steven felt his cheeks heat up. “No…no you wouldn’t say it like that! You’d be like…kind of angry about it!”
“I am alright, Steven, you clod.”
Steven didn’t answer. His right hand fell to his side, just past the blanket. He skimmed the damp grass with it. It was cool against his fingertips, and muddy. He lifted his hand to the sky, clenched and unclenched it. It was his arm again, a whole right arm shoulder to fingertips. It felt almost unbalanced on his body.
“…Are you though?” he whispered. She didn’t answer. When he turned to Peridot, she only stared at him, mutely. She raised her right hand in the air and flexed her glowing fingers.
A new feeling washed through him; anger, this time. Steven gritted his teeth, he clenched his hands in the picnic blanket and felt his cheeks burn hot. He stared at Peridot. “Do you know anything about what happened!?”
Peridot turned forward again. She reached a hand out to the basket and used her fingers to caress the wicker handle. “This is a picnic basket.”
Steven followed her motion, stricken. He only stared at the basket with horrified eyes, before they went dim with defeat. He curled his legs up.
“Yeah…it is,” Steven answered. He leaned toward her then, weight supported on his left arm. “Goodbye, Peridot.” He brought his right arm around and swung his hand through her. It passed without interference. In its wake, it left a wash of pink cotton clouds. Her half formed face looked to him with something like surprise, before the remaining bits of her body bled out to pink.
And then the beach followed, and the shore, and the mucky grass—dissolving like hot wax under only formless pink cotton remained. The picnic blanket wavered in existence for a few moments longer before poofing away. Steven was left sitting alone, eyes cast to the wide empty expanse of his mother’s room. It reminded him a lot of the mind space inside Tourmaline.
Not entirely, though. Not without Peridot.
Howlite stood, poised, outside the door to Cinnabar’s office. She clasped a tiny projector in one palm—an opaque grayish thing with three beveled edges. It cast projections of screens and document templates into the air with a saturated green light. These things encompassed Howlite completely—35-some-odd documents that wrapped around in a perfect circle. They spun like a lazy susan when Howlite swiped her hand in either direction. When she reached her palm out, however, it was to connect the door’s scanner to the ID tag in her wrist.
The door bleeped in passive acceptance, and the door dissolved backwards toward its hinges. Howlite paused to examine the doorframe: a high-arcing yellow thing that rose eight feet high before tapering to a point at the center. Its top formed a diamond of sorts, and gold leaf decorated the frame with thinly-etched designs. Howlite couldn’t make any of them out; she was too short to quite see the top of Cinnabar’s door frame.
Howlite didn’t enter immediately. She pretended to busy herself in the documents, rotating them without much purpose as her mousy eyes moved in flickers to the inside of the office. She even glanced down either side of the hallway, finding only stark golden undecorated walls and rigid corners where the hallway turned. This wing was secluded, impersonal. The air was cold too, and stagnant, even if the suns outside were hot. Howlite spread her feet out on the metal floor and looked inside the room she had opened.
Cinnabar sat behind her desk, which had been transformed into an entire board of ghostly forms and documents. It stretched about seven feet wide, two and a half feet across. Its normal glossy red surface had been completely buried beneath summoned documents. Cinnabar was hunched over them; she sat at the edge of her chair and moved one busy hand along the screen—blank form after blank form. She gave no acknowledgment of Howlite’s presence.
Howlite swallowed then, smoothed a hand over her curl, and set a foot over Cinnabar’s doorframe. She spun her ring of documents again to refind the one she’d been focusing on. “Good news, Ma’am. Turns out the Damage Report Form is to be filled out by the docking crew in the event that the damaged ship lacks its own technician. Which uh—that’s us—I mean since our last, uh, downgrade.” Howlite looked up to Cinnabar. Her superior hadn’t budged, so Howlite moved in closer. Her small boots clacked on the floor, a lustrous solid surface of glinting yellow.
Howlite glanced over the document again. Then her eyes shot to the walls, which seemed closer than she remembered, blank as well. “The downside of course is um…we uh, we don’t get to pick and choose what to report. I mean maybe that’s good! Means nothing will get overlooked—safety first, right? But we can’t…you know…s-sugar coat anything. In our report. About the damages.” Howlite slowed her pace, but still approached the desk with soft, tentative steps. She spared a moment to glance at Cinnabar’s desk; it was too cluttered to make out any individual piece—120 different pages littered the surface, if Howlite had to guess. They buzzed with a crackling green static. “So are we…I mean are we gonna be (you know) honest? In our report? We could always say space meteor. Space meteors aren’t anyone’s fault, Ma’am.”
There came a sharp push against Cinnabar’s chair. It caught on the floor and toppled over backwards, clattering against the ground with a sharp thwack. Cinnabar had shoved herself upward and slammed one hand down on the desk. The documents rippled under her violent touch. Cinnabar’s other hand shot out to Howlite, who had time to let out a terrified eep and nothing more before Cinnabar grabbed her
By the right wrist.
Howlite stood motionless, save for the wave of trembling that had rocked through her body at Cinnabar’s sudden motion. Cinnabar was looking up now. Her body was hunched over the desk to reach Howlite, her neck angled up to stare straight forward. Her shoulder blades grew into sharp contours along her back. The face that looked up was almost predatory. She pulled Howlite’s arm close. Her grip grew tighter when she twisted Howlite’s wrist, until Howlite’s gem was directly to her eyes. Howlite took to a few wordless squeaks, though she buckled inward at the force of her superior’s grip.
Cinnabar’s face was taut, alive with a fire she kept buried beneath the surface. There was aimless rage in her eyes, lighting them up with a cloudy, unfocused misdirection. Her arm shook under its own tension. Howlite could sense it, but didn’t dare move. She waited out the silence.
“…M-m-ma’am?” Howlite finally voiced. The noise was hardly audible, asked mostly with the movement of her lips.
And at that moment, Cinnabar released her. Howlite pulled her wrist back to her body, rubbing it close, and watched as Cinnabar collapsed back into her seat. Cinnabar hadn’t righted her chair; she simply sat on the upturned edge of it, put her elbows on the desk, and buried her face in her palms.
“If I—I mean—if I should come back. I could. I mean—“ Howlite motioned over her shoulder. Her wide eyes flickered over Cinnabar’s unmoving form. Her wrist buzzed with the ghost of Cinnabar’s grip. “Yaknow, I bet Jade has those store room reports ready. The uh—the things we need to replace? Yeah. I should ask—“
“Stay, Howlite,” Cinnabar answered. Her voice startled Howlite, not with authority or anger like usual, but with a breathless, dead weakness. It was a small noise; and it came as a shock to Howlite that her commander was capable of making small noises.
“I—excellent decision, Ma’am. Jade’s got that under control. I should really work on the draft of the trip log. Good thinking Ma’am. Do you have that document up on your screen? If so, you could transfer it to me in a flash. Sooner the better. Efficiency is key!”
Cinnabar glanced up now. There was a glassy nothing in her eyes, which scared Howlite more than the rage which had been buried there moments ago. Her eyes were half-closed, her mouth parted just a fraction, a thinness about her sharp cheeks. She raised a hand to her desk and swept it in a full arc to the right. The 100+ documents on the screen spilled off the surface into oblivion—deleted.
“Oh, um. Well. Those will be preserved in memory. Should be able to salvage…” Howlite trailed off. She stopped staring at the desk, and finally let herself stare Cinnabar in the eyes. New pangs of worry thrummed through her body. “…Ma’am?”
“…I don’t…care how you did it, Howlite,” Cinnabar said. She got up then, turned and grabbed the chair by its edges. It was a decorated thing, flashy beyond reason, glittering along its rim. She set it down properly and fell back into it. “I don’t care how you healed your gem, and I’m not going to ask. Drop it. Just drop…whatever you’re trying to do to change the topic.”
Howlite let out a sharp guffaw. She swung her head to the right and took to frantically scratching behind her ear. “Cracked? Oh Ma’am no. No I was never—aha! No you see I only went to the Refinery to escort Peridot! If I was cracked, then how am I healed? Do you think I found some magic gem-healing…thing? That doesn’t exist! If it did don’t you thi—“
Howlite fell silent as Cinnabar pressed a single finger down on the desk. The reports were swept clean, leaving behind the clearances and data files of Cinnabar’s crew. A voice sprung out of the desk at that moment, grainy and half-distorted.
“Ma’am… Ma’am, I have a favor to ask you.” A warbling wind filled the silence. “Ma’am, as I’m sure you’re aware, Homeworld Standards of Conduct require that all cracked Gems be reported…and, and that…they–…I have the Refinery Request form filled out for Peridot; I’ve taken the liberty of filling out a second one for…uh…f-for me…and it just requires your signature if you…could…”
Cinnabar shut it off with another jam of her finger. “Everyone is audio-monitored, Howlite. Everyone. You know that.”
Howlite cocked a salute… She wasn’t entirely sure why. “Yes’m! But see I forgot about that. At first. I remembered that afte—what I mean is this is very out of context. See what I was saying was—“
“I told you already I don’t care, Howlite. Just stop it. You’re not cracked, so whocares why…”
“I-It’s because of your excellent leadership, Ma’am.”
Howlite eeped into silence when Cinnabar’s fist came down on her desk. She didn’t move it, only clenching it tightly in on itself, before letting it go slack. “And stop…saying that. Everything that happened happened because I ordered it. This is on me. I know that. I’m not a moron, Howlite.”
“I-I-I should say you’re not, Ma’am! Quite possibly the most intelligent Gem I’ve ever had the pleasure of mee—“
“I said stop.”
“Yes’m! Stopping right away! It’s what’m doing!” Howlite glanced up at her hand still cocked at attention and let it drop. It fell in uncertain, shaky intervals as Howlite watched Cinnabar’s face for any cues. It betrayed nothing. Howlite’s attention shifted then to the ring of documents fanning out from her body. “So uh…should I get back to these reports…anyway? You know, time is of the essence if we want to impress! Time’s of the…impressence!”
Cinnabar leaned back in her chair. Her eyes flickered over Howlite’s ring of reports with disinterest. She took a deep breath and allowed her shoulders to go slack. “I’m tired, Howlite.”
“Entirely understandable, Ma’am! I can take over—“
“No,” Cinnabar answered, and it was an order. “Sit. Get off your feet for once.”
“Yellow Diamond waited 5,000 years to revisit Earth. She can wait one more day to hear how miserably we screwed that up. I’m ordering you to sit in the chair.”
“I-if it’s an order, Ma’am…” Howlite clamped her hand over the projector in her palm. The documents coalesced into a single point before retracting into the silver device. Howlite stashed it in her pocket and swung around in search of a chair. She found one, sitting ignored in the front right corner of Cinnabar’s office.
Howlite climbed into it—actually climbed—since it was designed for Gems two or three feet taller than her. This chair was well-padded and firm in its upholstery. It bore the same golden luster as Cinnabar’s, but without the decorative framing. It was a much simpler chair, but a comfortable one.
Howlite wiggled into place—sitting first, then lying down. She could fit so long as she kept her legs tucked in. So she did, wrapping her arms around her knees and resting her face in them. She didn’t have much experience with “lying down” or “resting,” but this at least felt right.
She let her eyes slip shut, and wondered for the moment why Homeworld didn’t build everything out of soft, plush upholstery.
Steven watched his feet as he stepped out of Rose’s Room. The door slid itself shut behind him, and the mud had slipped clean off his sandals. He scrunched his toes, entirely his own.
“Sooo, what’d you see? What do you think?”
Steven glanced up, almost startled. A moment passed before he recognized Connie, splayed out on the ground with her dad’s old laptop and a pad of paper. Her blue sundress pooled around her body, and she flicked a pencil against her lips.
“Oh uh…Rachel looks nice in a wedding dress. And uh, so does Angela.”
Connie scrunched her lips at Steven’s answer. She moved the pencil to the pad of paper and started sketching. “Okaaay… I mean that scene won’t come up for quite some time. We need to establish their relationship first, and then weave it in with canon. We might end with a wedding scene—i-if you want. But it’s good to plan ahead. What did the dresses look like?”
Steven shrugged and went back to staring at his feet. “White?”
“Um, alright.” Connie immersed herself in more scribbling. “But I mean stylistically. I feel like Rachel’s would have more sharp points and cut offs—maybe a slit down her left leg. And Angela would have something with softer edges, lace maybe.”
“Yeah,” Steven answered. He moved forward and seated himself across from Connie. “That’s cool.”
Connie’s pencil froze. She lowered it slowly, then raised her eyes to Steven. He pretended to busy himself in a splotch on the wall.
“Steven… If you don’t wanna do this right now.” Her eyes shifted behind him. “Maybe the Room wasn’t the best idea for this. We can envision stuff on our own without it.”
“Wait wait wait, Room?” There came a thunk from overhead. A scrambling of limbs. Greg peaked his head over the loft, the faint thrum of sports reports drifting from Steven’s tv. “What are you kids doing down there?”
Connie went red then. She swung herself around into a sitting position and twisted her back to face Greg. “We’re trying to establish designs for the fanfic Steven and I are writing. I’m sorry—should we not—I mean the Room?”
“The Room’s safe, Dad!” Steven answered. “Just as long as I don’t—ya know—b-bring other people into it… Which I promise I’m not doing right now! It’s just Connie here, and she’s been sitting on the floor this whole time.”
“Let’s uh…let’s just google outfits, okay Steven?” Connie asked. She twisted forward, hunched at the waist, and buried her face in the laptop. “We don’t need magic for this.”
Greg swung his legs over the loft. It appeared almost comical, as he floated 6 feet above the couch. He rested his hands on his knees and leaned forward, squinting. The sweatstains down the sides of his tanktop stretched farther than usual. “Is that the uh…that fanfiction thing you kids are working on? Over the Blade?”
“Under the Knife, Mr. Universe. It’s that tv show Steven and I like.”
“Right right right, the…the doctor thing.” Greg drummed his hands on his knees. He swung his sandaled shoes in the air and took to picking at a stain on his shorts. “Maybe I uh—maybe I should start watching the show, yeah? Then I can help you edit it.”
A spark of excitement lit in Steven’s eyes. He rocked forward. “Yeah! Then you could help with ideas too.”
Greg moved a hand to the nape of his neck. “Well I’m not really a writer, I mean. But if you need someone to look really close for typos, I’m your man!” He jammed a thumb into his chest, deflating a bit. “How long did you say this show is? I gotta work it in around the car wash.”
Some of the vigor drained from Steven’s body then. He hunched in on himself. “Or uh, don’t worry about that. The car wash is more important—Connie and I got this.” His attention drifted to the front door, to the rest of Beach City. “…The car wash is closed today, isn’t it? Don’t you need that money?”
Greg stiffened, then waved off the concern with a flick of his wrist and an exaggerated raspberry. “Money’s optional, Steven. Taking care of you isn’t. Not gonna leave you here alone while the Gems are on-mission.”
“You usually do,” Steven answered. He pressed both hands into the floor and leaned forward. Greg responded with a small laugh.
“Okay correction, I’m not gonna leave you without supervision when you were almost dead two days ago. This doesn’t fall under the category of ‘usually.’” Greg swung his legs back over the loft. He grunted as he pushed himself standing, moving toward the stairs with heavy steps. He took the stairs two at a time, then circled around the pile of paper and laptop and children until he stood directly behind Steven. Greg sat and pulled Steven into his lap. “Besides, I wouldn’t wanna be working the car wash right now anyway. Too many people asking ‘Hey Greg, why did the town evacuate again?’ or ‘Hey Greg, I believe your kid and the magical ladies have something to do with my dropping approval ratings!’ …Not really the crowd I feel like dealing with right now.”
Steven ran his hands over Greg’s knees. He slumped back into his dad, and welcomed the embrace that followed. “You don’t wanna tell everyone how I blasted an alien ship out of the sky?”
“I don’t wanna tell everyone my son almost died like 8 times in a 24-hour span. …Might reflect poorly on my parenting.” Steven snickered.
“I wish I could tell people…” Connie added. She looked back down to the laptop, scrolling through wedding dress designs, Steven imagined. “…but I feel like my parents would forever ban me from hanging out with you if they ever knew.”
“We’ll work it into the story then.” Steven spread his hands out in front of him, showcasing. “Angela is secretly a half-alien who fused with Rachel and took down an entire alien ship!”
“No AUs, Steven.” Connie jammed her pencil out into the air. “That would require a lot of reworking canon. …Maybe we’ll do something like that later.”
Greg glanced between Steven and Connie, earning no clarification except for Steven sticking his tongue out. “I’m lost again,” Greg added flatly.
Connie opened her mouth to explain, but found herself cut off instantly by a high pitched wail. She startled away from her computer and slammed her hands over her ears, wild eyes looking around. “What is that?!” she asked.
Steven launched himself off Greg’s lap, beelining for the front door. He snatched a pillow along the way, gripping it beneath his right armpit as he ran. “The Wailing Stone!” he shouted as he snatched the front door open, though no one could hear him. His sandals clacked out against the deck in a burst of speed. He brushed past Lion, who had woken up agitated from a nap on the porch. Steven pounded down the stairs, and swung himself around on the railing when he reached the bottom step. He located the stone instantly, stashed beside Rose’s Laser Light Cannons beneath the desk. He twisted his foot, stepping on his left ankle as he ran. He didn’t stop though.
Steven jammed the pillow into its mouth. The wailing reduced itself to a lighter, muffled whine, quiet enough for Steven to hear Greg’s harried steps pounding behind him.
“That…that Stone…is it–?” Greg asked between winded huffs. He bent at the waist to catch his breath, eyes to the old Gem technology. “…This thing again?”
Steven hoisted it in the air (with difficulty, as it weighed almost as much as he did) and spun it around to Greg. Connie beat a path right behind. She lowered her hands from her ears tentatively as the stone came into sight.
“What is that?” Connie asked.
“It might be Peridot! Dad please! Hook it up to your music stuff!”
Greg, still gasping for air, only answered with a faint nod. His head dropped, and he decided on a thumbs-up instead. Connie on the other hand responded with mild surprise, her eyebrows arcing up.
“I uh…Steven I thought…” She surveyed the stone up and down, looking for some hidden meaning she was missing. “I thought Peridot was…ya know…”
Steven lowered his face to the ground at this. He hugged the humming stone closer. His toes dug into the gravel. “I uh…I might have snuck her…her gem shards and the tears onto the ship. I left a note. Maybe she—Maybe she got them? And she’s alive?…I-I didn’t want her to die. Please don’t tell the Gems. I-if they get mad at me again–”
“Oh the Gems already know,” Greg answered. He was standing up straight again, digging his pinky finger into his ear. He went stiff at the horrified look on Steven’s face. Greg stretched both his hands forward and waved them. “Oh no no no they’re not mad. But Steven—I mean Pearl noticed that the shards and the tears were missing when she was cleaning up. Stuff like that doesn’t just disappear—we figured you musta…”
Greg stepped forward. He hoisted the Wailing Stone out of Steven’s grip, and took large waddling steps out from under the deck. He set his sights on the van, Steven and Connie following in tow.
“Garnet scanned about a zillion futures after we realized what you uh…probably did. Took her hours—which is like forever in Garnet time—but she didn’t see a single future where Cinnabar decided to come back. Whatever you did, Steven, it didn’t put us in danger.”
Steven let out a long-held breath. He wiped away embarrassed tears from his eyes as he moved in his dad’s footsteps. Connie stretched her hand into his and held it.
Greg set the Stone down with a huff. He swung open the back of his van and took to removing equipment piece at a time. It was a fast process, as he stuck to only the pieces that worked the first time. Loose clothing and empty snack bags were tossed out onto the ground as Greg unearthed all the equipment he needed. He swapped out the pillow for the condenser, allowing one stray shriek to permeate the air. He dragged the television forward, plugged in the jack, and unfolded the sound board from its buried spot in the van. Its legs sunk down into the cooling earth, the sun low on the horizon.
“What’s it gonna do?” Connie asked in a whisper. She’d sat down next to Steven, who dropped into the grass on instinct. Her wary eyes flickered between him and Greg’s cross-wired set up.
“It’s a message. Dad’s trying to decode it.”
The Stone quieted at that instant. All the warbling sound had been sucked from it, and Greg went stiff at the apparent fault in the transmission. He dropped his eyes to the soundboard in search of anything that might have caused the break. His thumb worked dials in frantic arcs and his elbow jammed against stuck levers. Greg paused, his attention drawn away when the television flickered to life.
Steven hopped to his feet then. He moved closer, silent, breathless, as the static on screen coalesced into a wash of thin black. He stared at it, blinking back stars, as a neon green cursor appeared. It blipped in and out of existence for one second, two, three.
Then it shot across the screen, leaving text in its wake.
Steven pressed his hands to his mouth. The cursor hopped a line down, and in that moment nothing else existed to him. He took another numb step forward, pressing a single palm to the screen.
Greg had shifted away from the equipment. He sidled in beside Connie, placing a single hand on her shoulder. Both Connie and Greg had to lean around to see past Steven. The crackling static had vanished entirely. No sound seemed to break across the beach, not from the wind, not from the ocean, not from the humming television inside. The world had seemingly condensed itself to the single van, and its single screen.
Stars shimmered in Steven’s eyes, then unnoticed tears followed. He wasn’t breathing, and he didn’t care to try, as the cursor hesitated–then blinked its way through one final line of text: