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.”
The couch had been stripped bare.
Its three cushions lay scattered on the floor, built into a semi-circle. The one nearest the kitchen housed a purple gem. It had been doused in water and rubbed clean, but still bore slight nicks and scratches. In the cushion center of the three was a pale oval gem. Steven had given it extra attention to get it clean. Connie too, who’d rubbed it down with her eyeglass rag. It felt right, for her gem.
On the last cushion sat two gems: blue and red. Steven had touched their edges together; he imagined it was a scary and lonely process regenerating without each other. He hoped they could sense how close the other was.
The semicircle connected in on itself, forming a complete loop, by a medium sized wire dog crate. It was bolted shut. Inside sat the bundled couch blanket, sacrificed by Connie for the night. It was wound around the green gem, making for a snuggly nest. It would have looked comfortable, if not for the wire grating surrounding it.
“You sure I should just leave you here like this, kiddo?” Greg paced around the display. He prodded an uneasy sandal against the dog crate. It was mesh wiring: hard, cold, and gray. Its edges were bound by twirled strands of thicker, darker metal. “…Should I be asking you who she is?”
Steven sat cross-legged in the center of the display. His sandal edges scuffed against the flooring, tracking streaks of mud that had crusted on his feet. He pulled Amethyst’s cushion to flood it with a patch of sunlight. “That’s Peridot, Dad.”
Greg’s face slipped to a paler white. He lowered himself onto his haunches beside Steven. “The…the Gem with the huge space ship who tried to take you away?That Peridot?” Greg manually turned Steven, both hands set to his son’s shoulders. “Steven, I love and trust you, but this is…I don’t–I don’t think I can have you looking after something that tried to kill you.”
Steven shrugged his dad’s hands off his shoulder, slipping them into his own. “Dad, Peridot doesn’t have the ship anymore. We crashed that. And it was Jasper who wanted to take us away. She’s not here. It’s just Peridot. And she’s got no weapons. And she’s hurt.” Steven motioned outward. “And now she’s in the crate!”
“When you asked for a crate…I-I thought maybe you’d found a possum or a raccoon or—“ Greg cut himself off, anxious eyes back to the strange display of blanket and gem and dog cage. “How can you be sure that’s gonna hold her?”
“Well…Amethyst was messed up pretty bad when her gem cracked. And it looks like Peridot’s is worse. I don’t think she’ll be trying to fight anything when she reforms.” Steven twisted his fingers together, glancing back at the cracked gem. “…if she reforms.”
Steven and Greg looked up. Connie stood by the door, bag hoisted over her shoulder, a sunhat and her nightgown on. She watched them with apologetic eyes.
“I know this is really important, what you and Steven are talking about. But my parents are starting to get annoyed, a-and if my mom gets annoyed she might say I can’t ever come back over. She already thinks I do dangerous stuff here. If I get home late she might—“
“Oh, that’s right! I’m supposed to be taking you home, aren’t I?” Greg answered. He stood, hand to his neck. He glanced at Connie, then back down at Steven. His jaw worked itself in worried circles. “Can’t you just…maybe take the ride back with us?”
Steven shook his head. “I’m a Crystal Gem. I need to stay here and look after everybody.”
Steven crossed his arms and huffed. “Including Peridot.”
Greg tried for a smile. He reached a hand down for Steven to take. “Just so you’d know, I’d trust my life to Garnet, Amethyst, and Pearl in a heartbeat. But this…whatever this is—it took them out, Steven. Peridot did this to them. And Peridot almost took you away from me. You gotta understand why I don’t like the idea of…any of this.”
Steven stared at his father’s hand, contemplating, and took it in his grasp. Instead of standing though, he pulled Greg lower. Greg gave a quick tug of resistance before bending at the waist. He silently focused on Steven’s other hand, which pointed into Peridot’s cage.
“You see that really big crack down her gem? That’s what Gems look like when they’re really really hurt. And I think it was the Destabilizer that Peridot used to poof Garnet, Amethyst, and Pearl. They’re not cracked like she is. And the Destabilizer doesn’t work on me, Dad. That’s how we escaped the ship the first time. I broke it when Connie and me found it in the Kindergarten.” Steven looked up at his dad, a small smile on his face “…I don’t know if she’ll even come out of her gem ever again, but she can’t hurt me.”
Greg gave himself a few seconds. He stood up straight again, and knotted his other hand around Steven’s, sandwiching his son’s hand between his. Fingers tense, he pulled Steven up with him. Steven went without a struggle.
“…Sorry, your old dad gets worried when he’s tired.” His eyes crinkled with a smile. “I was up until 5 this morning trying to fix the van’s engine. Poor thing gave out in the middle of the night… Probably should stop running the heater full-blast once it gets chilly. I ought to invest in sweaters.”
“The engine’s broken?” Connie asked with an edge to her voice. She hopped back and forth on her feet, eyes darting between Greg and Steven.
“No it’s fixed! That’s what I was up until 5 doing.” Greg released Steven’s hand. He plunged his own into his pocket, fishing for the car keys. “…Well I think so at least. It got me over here!”
Steven laughed. “Yeah, that’s when me and Connie went to bed too. The rest of the time we were sitting here watching the Gems. Even Lion came to keep watch… Except he stepped on Amethyst’s cushion and now it’s got a big lion paw print on it.”
The three of them jumped at the shrill ring from Connie’s bag. Connie tensed, blushed, and fumbled for her phone. She hastily clicked it open, cupping her mouth over the receiver as she spoke in clipped tones. She nodded twice and snapped it shut.
“I’m really sorry, Steven, but I have to go right now. My mom’s—“ She looked between Steven and Greg, eyes falling steadily to the circle of gems. “…I know this is really important. And I really wish I could stay and help and–!” She fumbled for words, hands twisting. “It’s just my parents might not let me come back if they think I’m breaking rules here… But I’m gonna ask them if I can come over again tonight and help! I’m gonna convince them! I’ll be here I promise!”
Steven nodded and dismissed her with a wave. “Don’t you worry. I’ll probably be stuck like this for a while anyway. Pearl takes a long time to regenerate, and so does Amethyst when she tries hard.” He lowered a hand to the floor, easing himself down. Steven crossed his legs beneath him. “It’ll just be like they’re sleeping for a while. First I got a sleepover with you, and now I’ve got a sleepover with the Gems!”
Connie nodded eagerly, apprehension still burning in her eyes. “Alright. But call me if anything happens!”
“And call me!” Greg interjected. “I will turn the van right around and be here. …Sorry Connie.”
“No, same!” she insisted. Her hands worried at the faint specks of mud they’d been unable to remove from her nightgown. “Seriously, Steven! Let us know.”
He raised a hand to her, brandishing a thumbs up. “Will do!”
“And if it gets too dangerous, just grab the Gems and run out of the house. Trust your gut. Garnet used to tell me how your mom won because she knew when to retreat from a battle.” The advice would have sounded wiser if not for the crack in Greg’s voice.
Steven crossed his arms over his chest and huffed. “Amethyst, do you think Dad and Connie should stop worrying about me and get going?” He leaned over to Amethyst’s pillow, taking her gem in hand and wiggling it up and down. He lowered his voice and spoke into the gem. “Yeah man, Steven’s totally got this.”He swung around to Pearl’s pillow. “Indeed. Now get going before Connie is late. Lateness and messiness are the worst possible thing.”
Greg gave a light chuckle. His tight mouth eased. “Alright alright, Gems. We’re going. Don’t go summoning your weapons on us.”
Steven rolled onto his stomach and lifted Ruby and Sapphire. “Good, we thought so.”
Steven waved them off without turning around as they bid goodbye. He didn’t turn when he heard the screen door close, or the van start. He only shifted to his side once the van’s huffs and bumbles receded into the distance, too far away to hear.
The smile on his face fell away.
He laid on the grimy floor, the edges of his sandals scuffing the ground. He held his breath and didn’t move. It was his hope he’d see some slight wiggle, some tiny glimmer from the lifeless gems. Seconds ticked away, and they didn’t budge.
“Hey Amethyst, if you regenerate now, I’ll make us both lunch!” Steven hopped up, arms thrown wide to the gem. “It’ll be great! A huge sandwich for both of us! And I’ll make it with everything in the fridge. Hotdogs, mac and cheese, nachos, ice cream…I’ll get some donuts from the Big Donut and put those on too.” His hands dropped, teeth pressed anxiously together. “I’ll…I’ll even put motor oil on it. Pearl says I shouldn’t eat that but it’ll be my treat!”
He froze, waited, and stepped closer to Amethyst’s gem.
“O-okay. Take your time.” He spun. “Pearl! Pearl, look at this mess Connie and me made making breakfast.” He twisted to the kitchen, arms wide in presentation.
Most surfaces were coated in a fine white powder. Spatulas were stacked like linkin’ logs. Drips of batter peppered the floor, and four enormous floury paw prints circled the table. Three mixing bowls towered high on the counter, each half-filled with a yellowed slurry. Half a carton of eggs had been ditched in the sink, all cracked or leaking goo. It had been a joint effort between Steven accidentally spilling a quart of water and Connie slipping on it while carrying the egg carton.
A plate of a dozen waffles sat almost untouched on the table. After the distracted frenzy of prepping enough breakfast for four, neither Connie nor Steven found themselves very hungry after all. They’d laid out the maple syrup and butter (now gently melting) on the table set for no one.
“I’ll help you clean it up, Pearl. You can tell me where all the bowls go, a-and tell me why it’s bad to make messes in the first place.” He raised a hand to his neck. “Honestly I don’t remember where we got the spatulas from. You like cleaning up spatulas!”
The silent stone caught only a glimmer of sunlight in return.
“Garnet?” Steven twisted back and forth between the filthy kitchen and the gem circle. “I…uh… You should just come back anyway. You don’t like being split up, right? So just…come back already.”
He collapsed on the floor and scratched away a dirt stain from his pants. Only the sound of his breathing filled his ears. “…I don’t like waiting.”
Still slumped, he spared a small glance to the crate. “Peridot…?”
It didn’t answer him.
“If you were here, I’d talk to you. And I’d tell you all about all the cool and awesome things on earth. I bet no one ever told you about them.” He wrung his hands. “My dad and Connie just left. I think you’d like them. I like them. They’re really great.”
With a huff, Steven propelled himself to his feet. He stalked over to Amethyst’s cushion and hoisted her gem in the air. “Yo, Steven, you don’t need to be talking to losers when you have us. Let’s go make a huge mess because trash is awesoommme.”
He lowered her gently and snagged Pearl. “You most certainly will not. Amethyst and Steven, go clean up all the messes everywhere.”
Steven shined her quickly on his shirt before placing her back down. He lifted up Garnet’s cushion entirely. “Focus, Gems. We can’t be arguing about pointless things right now. We need to focus on the mission. And that’s…” He faltered. His arms gave way, lowering the cushion back onto the dusty floor. Steven turned on his heels, dog crate in view. “…hurting Peridot, I guess…”
He touched a gentle hand to the crate’s corner, floating in the silence. He rubbed his hand down the side. “…I wonder why they did this to you.”
Steven jolted awake by the shrill ring of his phone. His heavy hand pawed about on the floor, until it slapped down on the cell. It vibrated in weak protest.
“H-hello?” Steven asked, suppressing a yawn. He glanced to the clock: 10:30. He’d lost 45 minutes to his unplanned slumber.
“Steven?!” Greg’s voice pierced from the other end. “Steven, are you there?”
“…Yeah. What’s up?” He looked up, eyes focusing on the gem circle with a spark of anxiety. …Nothing had changed.
“The engine’s smoking again. I-I’m in some town about 12 miles from Beach City. I will walk back if I need to.” Greg’s voice shorted, then came back farther away, more distorted. “Ah ah geez no. I just replaced—no no I don’t need you to look at the brakes! I need you to look at the engine. The part that is making all that black smoke- yes the smoke!” The voice readjusted, more clearly now. “Steven, has anything happened there?!”
Steven covered another yawn. “Nah. Everything’s the same. It could be a really long time.”
“…O-okay. I’m doing everything I can right now! Just…just if something happens, remember what I said about getting out of there. It’s not cowardly, it’s smart.”
“I remember, Dad. Don’t worry.” Steven switched hands. He walked into the kitchen and ran his fingers along the countertop. They dragged gritty flour with them. “I’m probably just gonna clean up breakfast here. You can have waffles when you get back!”
“Yeah…yeah that sounds good. Be safe, Steven. If Peridot does anything funny.”
“She’s still just a rock right now…” Steven angled his head back to the living room. “I don’t even know if she’ll wake up, Dad.”
“Oh…y-yeah. Yeah I hope not. I mean…uh,” He shouted something in the distance, something about a muffler as far as Steven could tell. “Stay safe.”
“I will. Fix your van, Dad.”
“On it, kiddo. See you in a bit. Love you.”
“Love you too.” Steven dragged the call to end and placed the phone upside down on the floury counter. His wide eyes turned back to the Gems. “I wish one of you would come back so Dad can stop worrying.”
As if in response, a sharp shing broke the air. A clatter. A bang. A spark of light. Steven slipped on the soggy floor as he scrambled for the living room, just catching himself on the counter.
“Garnet?!” he called. Steven ran out of his sandals, leaving them forgotten as he rounded the counter. “Amethyst?! Pearl?!”
He hopped over the dog crate, falling to his knees in the center of the circle. One by one, he twisted between the gems. None had budged. Not Amethyst, not Pearl, not Ruby or Sapphire.
Steven felt the beginnings of tears prick behind his eyes. “I…I thought I heard—“
SSSsschhink. A noise like grating metal split the air. And Steven spun instantly as he pegged the source of the noise.
The crate glowed with a hazy green light. Thick shapes of light had burst from Peridot’s stone, smothered against the low ceiling of the crate. Steven only watched in awe as the thing sputtered dark in a few seconds. He felt his blood run cold. The lifeless stone dropped back to its blanket.
And immediately exploded with a burst of light.
“Peridot?” Steven whispered. He shut his eyes to the onslaught of brightness. A harsh ringing broke in his ears, growing louder and higher in pitch. Steven rolled over and cupped his hands to his ears.
Until it stopped. Steven eased the seal over his ears, met with only a strangled and shocked gasp for air. His eyes sprung open, and he found himself face-to-face with Peridot’s wide eyes.
Or at least…
most of them.
Steven let out a startled shout and pinwheeled his arms backwards. His scuttling collided with Pearl’s cushion, and he swung it around between him and his prisoner. He grasped it close for protection.
His captive stared back, blinked (mostly), but did not speak. Steven’s eyes roved over her, taking in what looked back at him.
An enormous crack split Peridot’s visor horizontally. The scared eyes behind it had deep gouges taken out of them. Steven watched her blink in agitation, as if trying to fix the missing patches of her vision. Half of her helm had disappeared entirely, leaving her head unbalanced and vulnerable.
Thick cracks spider-webbed out from her forehead, dousing her whole face in rivets and slits. They crawled down her neck and bloomed across her torso, down to her stomach. Her uniform had appeared half-remembered, darker fabric blending seamlessly with light patches of her skin.
Steven was reminded of the museum his dad had taken him to visit last year. Tall, Greek statues chipped down only to their core. He remembered pieces with missing limbs and carved out bodies, cracked crowns and chipped shoulders. He saw all of that now, but plastered onto the living, and definitely terrified, thing in his cage just then.
His eyes dropped from shoulder to left arm, forced to stop at the elbow. Steven raised his hands to his mouth as he watched Peridot wave the stump—bare from elbow to hand. Curiosity clicked his gaze over to her right arm. Steven found only a shoulder, which Peridot braced against the cage wall for support. She scrambled to right herself with only half an arm left to support her.
A ripple of electricity broke over her gem, and another few gravelly bits of shattered stone fell with it.
The silent stand-off lasted all of five seconds. Peridot’s harried breaths made the only sound. Steven hardly felt himself breathe, swamped in the shattered body of his enemy.
“…You’re hurt,” Steven whispered. He didn’t notice the tears eking from the corners of his eyes. He leaned forward, dropping to all fours, and crawling closer to her cage. He reached a soft hand out.
“Don’t!” Peridot shouted. She heaved another few panicked breathes, round eyes focused on Steven’s hand as she pushed herself to the back of the cage.
“Oh…sorry,” Steven answered, dropping both his hand and his eyes to the ground. “You’re scared. I’ll leave you alone if you want.”
Another few seconds of only panicked breaths. Peridot’s eyes shot over him, as if only just registering what sat in front of her. Her panicked huffs receded, and her wide eyes slowly dimmed, then hardened. She slumped against her cage, grit her teeth.
“You…” She stared down at the cage floor, before slamming her only remaining arm stump against the cage wall. “Of course it’s you. When isn’t it?!” She let out a small, strangled noise.
“I don’t want to hurt you, Peridot!” Steven insisted. He raised his shaking hands in a show of good faith.
She only let out a bitter laugh, slumped, and turned until she faced the back of the cage. “…Uh huh. Well forgive me if I’m not inclined to believe you.”
Steven didn’t have an answer. He only nodded numbly, staggered to his feet, and took off for the front porch, slamming the screen door behind him.
“Ya know, as much as I love all these fun little field trips back home,” Amethyst snagged her whip from her gem, swung it at the leg of the Injector to her left, and ripped it from its perch in the ground. It creaked first with an unsteady waver, then crashed. “I’m kinda starting to wonder if we’re ever just gonna leave Kindergarten alone.”
“If you don’t want to be here, Amethyst, you can go look after Steven.” Garnet kept forward. Her words bounced against the canyon walls and shot back from different directions. Hollow echoes smothered out the silence. Garnet paused and glanced up at the sheer edge of the cliff she faced.
“But I’m the worst at that!” Amethyst slapped her whip into the dirt. “And that’s stupid anyway! If I wasn’t here I’d go and do something important. What about Lapis and Jasper, huh? What’re we gonna do when that thing they made shows up on shore and we’re not prepared?”
“Well, it would certainly make finding her easier,” Pearl said with a curl of her lip. She registered the glare from Amethyst and put her hands up. “That was meant as a joke. Steven would understand.”
“We’ve hit a dead end with that, Amethyst. We don’t know where Malachite is, and we don’t know how to reach her. It’s not worth our time right now.” She pressed a hand to the cold stone wall. “We can at least find Peridot.”
“But for what?” Amethyst dropped her whip in emphasis. It disintegrated in a wave of shimmering dust, which settled among the dark chalky minerals in the ground. “She’s not even a threat!”
“Yes she is.”
“Okay…how? Do you think she’s gonna poke our eyes out with her spooky fingers?” Amethyst raised her arms and wiggled her fingers.
“We need to silence her, Amethyst.”
Amethyst gave a humorless laugh. She crossed her arms, wary eyes to the monolithic granite columns. “Yeah, her voice is super annoying.”
Pearl stuck a hesitant finger up. “Amethyst, I don’t think that’s what G—“
“I know what Garnet meant!” Amethyst spun on Pearl, arms thrown wide. “It’s a joke, Pearl.”
Pearl returned her stare with a level gaze. After a moment, her face broke into a smile. “Oh! A joke. Oh very good, Amethyst.”
“Pearl, Amethyst, focus.” Garnet hadn’t budges from the wall. She dragged a single hand down the cold, gritty surface. Faint scuffs of shoes ascended the granite. “We need to take her by surprise, and we need to take her out fast.”
“But why? Amethyst insisted. Her lips curled out in a pout. “I know you’re the high and mighty team leader and all, Garnet. But I like to at least know why we’re doing the junk we’re doing.”
“It’s obvious.” Garnet glanced over her shoulder. She turned her whole body and chose an arbitrary path to follow along the cliffside. Pearl shuttled herself to one side to allow Garnet to pass. “Peridot doesn’t have any weapons left, we know that. But she has the technology. If she was able to establish contact with Earth from Homeworld, she’ll probably be able to make contact with Homeworld from Earth.”
“And if she has already?” Amethyst moved briskly until she walked right alongside Garnet. She took twice as many steps as Garnet to keep pace.
“Then there’s nothing we can do.” Garnet flicked her visor up for a brief second, then changed directions. Her footsteps rippled off the high stone walls. “But Peridot expected Earth to be deserted when she first came here, and Steven’s very existence took Jasper by surprise. The gems that have been sent here didn’t know about us. Which means Homeworld has left us alone all these years—“
“—Because they assumed we were dead…” Pearl watched the ground as she spoke. “It would make sense.”
Garnet gave a silent nod. “Homeworld has had 5,000 years to regrow their armies. They’ve got plenty of Injectors on plenty of other planets. We have to assume they could eliminate the three of us with ease.”
“Sooooo…you think we gotta off Peridot so she doesn’t tell her bosses that we’re still here bumming around on Earth?” Amethyst rubbed at her gem. “And you’re serious about the off-ing part, and that’s why we didn’t bring Steven, huh?”
Amethyst dropped her hand from her chest. She circled ahead of Garnet and stopped. Garnet stopped too, staring Amethyst down. “You know, speaking as the resident ‘bad gem’ of this team, you don’t always know why you’re doing stuff when you’re doing it. I’m all for bashing Peridot’s legs in after what happened with the spaceship, but what’s with us suddenly ditching the Team Quartz ‘bubble and rehab’ stuff?”
“Rose Quartz cracked many Gems during the war, Amethyst. You weren’t there to see it.”
“Yeah but that was war.” Amethyst countered. “This is one stupid robot-y Gem with a stupid voice. She doesn’t even fight! I bet if we just plucked off her fingers she’d be useless!”
“You shouldn’t be arguing with Garnet, Amethyst.” Pearl moved noiselessly to Amethyst’s side. She placed a light hand on Amethyst’s shoulder. “I know it’s perhaps a bit…sensitive talking about the war while we’re here, but remember that Garnet can see the best path forward.”
“Yeah but not always,” Amethyst shrugged Pearl off. “And what—does that mean I’m never allowed to think something different from Garnet? Garnet can’t see everything. She’s messed up before!”
“Yeah, but not as much as you.”
Amethyst opened her mouth to rebuff the comment, but Garnet had already stuck one finger up to silence her. Amethyst only gritted her teeth in annoyance.
“Peridot will be here soon,” Garnet resumed. She summoned her gauntlets with two quick flicks of her wrists. “I can see it.”
“Do you see us snuffing her too?” Amethyst stuck her hands behind her head, elbows out. Her tone was rigid. “Guess I’m glad you didn’t see yourself snuffing the last enemy Gem you snuck up on here in the Kindergarten.”
“Amethyst, this is not about you,” Garnet insisted in a whisper. Her words were sharp.
“Well it’s not about Peridot either!” Amethyst answered, voice lowered to match Garnet’s. She watched intently for a few silent seconds. “…Is this about the clusters?”
“Shhhh,” Garnet thrust her hand out to Amethyst, who had to recoil to avoid being hit. She only watched with irritation in her eyes as the topic dropped dead.
The conversation was quiet, contained, and didn’t travel the 30 foot distance between the Crystal Gems and the rusted, broken Injector to their left. This didn’t reassure Peridot in any way. She stood motionless behind the farthest leg, arms pulled up tight against her chest with her single Destabilizer clasped between her hands. She heard muted voices and muted steps approach.
Running was an option, but a bad one. Forward gave way only to a sheer cliffside with an overhang, which provided a patch of shade at the bottom. Scaling the wall meant running at more than a 90 degree angle, and it meant turning her back on Gems that summoned projectile weapons. Backwards wasn’t much better. Backwards meant running right through the thicket.
Peridot had the Destabilizer, salvaged from the dirt around her crashed escape pod, but her Destabilizer training had been 2,000 years ago. And Jasper (if she had been worth anything in the end) had shown her just how rusty she was in combat. These Gems were primitive, but they at least knew how to fight.
“…Look, I feel you on the clusters, Garnet. I got some screwed up memories with these hunks of rock here too—Woah, wait I saw something.”
Peridot stiffened. Her heels snapped together, and she pressed herself hard into the Injector leg. Cold, moaning winds moved past her ears. She gave the Destabilizer an experimental squeeze as she listened for…
…footsteps approaching. Dammit.
“Amethyst, do not get ahead of us!”
“Why? You think I can’t handle one nerdy tech Gem?” She raced to the cliff side in a flurry of disheveled hair and small legs. Peridot felt fear jolt through her whole body as the beast grazed her shoulder and ran past.
…and then stopped, and stared at the granite wall. “Huh… thought she mighta been up–”
“Huh?” Now the Gem turned. Her purple eyes had only a second to register their shock as Peridot thrust the Destabilizer out. It caught the Amethyst right below the shoulder. Her whole body shivered, cracked with light, and her mouth dropped open right as she exploded in a puff of smoke.
Peridot didn’t have time to react. She spun on her heels, and rammed her boot into the Injector’s leg. It groaned in protest, and she thrust her other foot on ahead. It found purchase on the steadily collapsing metal. Peridot scaled the side of the Injector as it toppled to the ground.
Whhiish. Wind shot past Peridot’s face as a glowing white spear missed her gem by inches. She shrieked, lost her footing, and tumbled head over heels down the broad side of the Injector. Peridot landed face-down in the muck.
“Face me, Peridot.” The cold, sharp tip of a spear pressed between Peridot’s shoulder blades. It threatened to sink deeper, to pierce her body and end its precarious existence. “Accept your fate as a soldier of Homeworld. Face me, Peridot, so I may shatter your gem.”
Peridot lay frozen, eyes pressed into the cold dirt. Aches pulsed through her limbs, her energy and vigor draining by the second.
“If not, I will pierce your body, and then I will crack your gem. Tell me, Peridot, do you want to die a coward?”
“…Fine. You got me…” Peridot answered into the ground. She braced her hands against the dirt, and pushed her upper body out of the muck. A thick, horizontal crack ran across her visor. She stared the Gem down with defiant eyes.
The thin, lanky one, nose sharp and spear sharper. She eased the spear off Peridot’s back, spun it, and redirected it to the gem housed in Peridot’s forehead. The Crystal Gem’s eyes strayed for a moment, looking down at Peridot’s fingerless hands braced in the dirt.
Shock registered across the Gem’s face, just as Peridot broke out into laughter. Hhhhhshunk. Peridot’s disembodied fingers drove the Destabilizer into the enemy Gem’s back. The Gem’s blue eyes went wide, then dull, her shoulders falling limp and her body cracking into a thousand light-leaking seams. She exploded in another puff of dust.
A cry registered in Peridot’s ears, and she had only a moment to turn before a thick, dark gauntlet was driven full-force into her face. The power sent Peridot spinning backwards. She heard a snap in her arm sometime before stopping. When she cracked her eyes open, body motionless, the world still seemed to be whirling.
The fusion was in her face instantly. She grabbed Peridot by the shoulder and lifted her out of the dust. Raw fear shot like lightning through Peridot’s chest. She squirmed and shook and yanked, but the fusion only held her tighter. Peridot glanced around for an escape, but her focus moved wholly, unbreakably, to the other Gem when she felt the firm pressure of a gauntlet-ed thumb press into her gem.
“I’m sorry! I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m sorry! Let me go.” Peridot didn’t dare blink. She only flailed uselessly as the fused Gem held her, unmoving, impassive. The weight on Peridot’s gem doubled, and she shrieked in fear.
“What does Homeworld want with the clusters, Peridot?”
“I dunno!” Peridot shut her eyes, focused her efforts on locating her fingers. They had the Destabilizer. Somewhere. Somewhere… She left out a tiny, pitiful moan. Her body was going numb, and she couldn’t feel them anywhere.
“What is Homeworld doing with the clusters?!”
“I don’t know! Why would I know that?! I’m a Peridot if you haven’t noticed. Let me go let me go.” Peridot opened her eyes again. The Gem in front of her was split in two along the crack in her visor. The top half shot at a jagged angle away from the bottom half in the distorted glass. “I’m sorry come on I don’t know let me go please!”
The fusion twitched her thumb. Stars exploded across Peridot’s vision as she heard a sharp crack from inside of herself. A wave of disorientation rocked through her body.
“What have you told Homeworld since we last met?”
“What have I—nothing!” Peridot kicked her feet aimlessly in the air. “You crashed the ship how’m I supposed to contact Homeworld when I don’t have it are you crazy I’d be home by now!”
The fusion twitched her thumb, and a second ground-shaking crack rippled through Peridot’s body. Her core buzzed with static. A deep-weighted exhaustion pressed on her mind. Fuzzy. Fading…
There was…another question. Or another demand. Peridot blinked through bleary eyes in a distant attempt to focus. Something cold and heavy crashed to the ground. She felt lighter, freer. The pulsing ache in her body rolled like waves of the ocean, rocking her gently…out…
The fusion shouted. She shook Peridot with ferocity, snapping Peridot back to her senses for all of a moment. A deep, thick buzz filled her ears. She stared out of foggy eyes, through her visor, at the Gem that held her suspended in the air. Split along the crack in her visor. Like looking at something half-underwater.
Split in two.
Peridot’s eyes widened at the sight of a glinting bit of gold half-buried in the ground behind the fusion. She made out the small, blurry shapes of her fingers scattered around its grip. Mentally, she reached for them, fought for them, harder, more desperately.
One twitched. Another. Three fingers coiled shakily around the Destabilizer’s hilt, and a small spark of electricity arced across its prongs. Peridot lifted it in a precarious, telekinetic, three-fingered grip. It faltered twice and dipped back to the Earth. On the third try, she got it floating.
Sensation rippled through Peridot’s gem again. The pressure was…gone. For a moment, she looked away from the precariously floating Destabilizer, focusing back at her captor instead. The fusion had released her thumb from Peridot’s gem. Her fist was instead coiled backwards, and Peridot had only enough time to shout before the fusion drove her gauntlet into her gem.
Peridot responded in turn with a mental thrust of the Destabilizer.
Her world exploded in a flash of light and stars. A crack loud enough to sweep away her hearing. Splintering, shattering, as if parts of herself had been torn from her core. She felt her body hit the ground—at least, it felt like it had. All sense of self, of being, fled from her in the almighty shattering of her gem. She collapsed, senseless and unknowing, into the mealy earth below.
In front of her, a red and a blue gem sunk deep into the muck. Between them fell the Destabilizer.
And only silence remained. Hollow winds coiled through the canyons. The ancient groans of settling machinery peppered the air in occasional, echoing bursts. The sun rolled by overhead, hot and impassive.
In its wake came clouds. Crackling, curious things, dense with water. They coalesced into a blanket. The sun caged itself behind them, shining like the distant beam of a flashlight, before it slipped below the canyon horizon all together. A slight darkness settled. It was lit with the lavender fluoresce of light trapped by the clouds.
The clouds rumbled, sputtered, and with the setting sun, finally released their deluge of rain on the field of lifeless gems below.
Steven entered quietly, save for the soft shudder of chimes above the front door. It was a makeshift thing of piping and thread, an art project that Connie had taught him to make. He didn’t hear it. Instead his eyes went to the three pillows. Each still bore its respective gem, unmoved and untouched since Steven had run for the door. That didn’t surprise him. He’d paced around on the beach for five minutes tops before deciding to head back in.
He eased the door the rest of the way. A sprinkling of soft notes fell from overhead, but nothing else stirred. Nothing else made a noise. Steven gave quick, scared glances to the locked dog crate. He was sure to shut the door all the way once he was inside.
Steven stood still for a single, indecisive moment. He clenched his fists, set his face, and marched into the kitchen. Dragging the stepstool along for extra height, Steven reached for the pretzel bag on the top shelf of the pantry. It crinkled in his fist, firm and puffy. He hadn’t opened it yet. Steven pried the top open and felt the rush of vacuum-sealed air puff in his face. He breathed it in, clenched the bag to his chest, and made for the living room.
Steven rounded the cage and positioned himself in the middle of the circle. He looked dead-on at his prisoner, calm now at the sight of her missing limbs and spiderwebbed skin. She glanced back (maybe by reflex alone) then looked away.
“I brought snacks. Are you hungry? Amethyst gets hungry, but Garnet and Pearl don’t like to eat. I don’t know about you, so I brought pretzels.”
Peridot didn’t respond. She didn’t move or even breathe. Steven put his faith in her still-corporeal body as proof that she was alive.
“Pretzels are great. I bet you’ve never had them. You take bread dough, then you make it all thin and snake-like, and you knot it up, and you bake it until it’s crispy. And then you add salt.” Steven rustled the bag in his lap. “These are from the store, but I bet they make them the same way.”
Steven reached in and snagged a small pretzel. He bent at the waist and reached his arm forward. He slid the pretzel through the vertical slats in the cage door. It fell to the bottom with an unceremonious thud.
“Eating makes me feel better when I’m hurt or scared. Maybe you’ll feel better too…” Steven took a second pretzel and popped it into his mouth. His mind was too preoccupied with Peridot’s unmoving form to taste it. He swallowed, and sank into the silence. “…You can talk still, right? You can talk to me. I want to help.”
“…Go. Away.” The noise was tinny. It slipped out with an overlapping hiss, like air escaping from a leak.
“I want to help!”
“Then leave!” Peridot thrust her only half-remaining arm out. She spun with the motion, finally meeting Steven’s eyes. “It’s bad enough I’m assigned to this dumb, dead pet project. It’s bad enough I’m sent to this miserable dead planet. It’s bad enough I can’t actually complete my mission—failure after failure—because of you four! It’s bad enough I’m stranded here with no one and nothing and no way to get home. It’s bad enough that I’m cracked beyond repair. So the least. You can do. If you want to help. Is to leave me alone.”
Peridot’s breathing came in staggered huffs. Her eyes bulged with manic desperation, and she slammed her stump of an arm against the dog cage door.
“Or—better idea—if you want to help, then let me out. Let me out of this cage. Let me go! Before they regenerate,” she thrust her arm forward again into the door, toward the three pillows, “and send a spear through my gem while I can’t escape!”
Steven turned toward the gems. He made no effort to hide the discomfort and hurt on his face. “They wouldn’t, though. We’ve got you here now. They wouldn’t have to kill you.”
Peridot responded with a few more ragged breaths. She pushed her face against the slatted door. “Oh, my bad. Guess I misunderstood. I was getting some mixed messages when the fusion did this to my gem!” She raised her stump to the unrecognizably splintered gem on her forehead.
“Garnet?” Steven asked. His voice cracked with the upward inflection. He shook his head. “No, no, we needed to capture you. The fight must have–” Steven glanced to the gemstones behind him before swiveling back around. “Garnet got reckless because you were hurting them…”
“Nope,” Peridot let her head roll back, eyes to the ceiling of her cage. “It wasn’t reckless at all when she picked me up and pressed her thumb into my gem.” Her voice was airy, bitter. She refocused her hard gaze on Steven. “I don’t know what exactly you are, so I’ll spell it out for you. You don’t press your weapon against another gem unless you have every intention of killing the thing in it.”
Steven pooled his hands in his lap. He stared down at them. “Okay. Okay, I believe you. …The Gems were trying to kill you.” He pressed his palms into the floor and looked up. “But I’m not. So please just talk to me about what’s going on, so I can help you!”
Peridot left out a derisive laugh. “You rank below them. You’re following their orders. And they are not going to listen to you. You’re wasting what’s left of my life.”
Steven thought about this. He gave a small nod. Hand to the floor, he stood, and one by one he slid the Gem pillows back across the room. They moved with a whispering, skittering noise. Pearl pressed up against the couch leg. Amethyst and Garnet flanked her on either side. Steven gave each of them a small pat before walking back toward Peridot. He seated himself on the floor again.
“I think I know why you’re acting like this.” Steven stretched his feet out. His left foot pushed the pretzel bag away. “You’re scared, and you don’t want me to know that. So you’re acting like you’re angry at me. You’re not thinking clearly, because you’re afraid right now that you’re going to die. And that’s definitely scary.”
Steven angled his head over his shoulder. “Garnet, Amethyst, and Pearl back there? They were really scared too you know, when they found out you were coming. They didn’t know what kind of technology you’d have. Or what kind of weapons. Or armies. Or even what you wanted. They thought they were going to die when you guys came to Earth.” Steven pressed a palm firmly against his chest. “And me too. I was afraid of dying too. I saw the lasers your ship had. I saw Jasper break Garnet apart. And I was scared too. Scared I was gonna die. And I was scared the Gems were going to die.”
Steven released the pressure on his chest. His mouth hardened, and he pointed the hand out to Peridot, index finger extended. “And you know, it was you who was going to do it. And I remember how weird it was…seeing that you didn’t care.” His arm went slack, the vigor draining. “You fired off the lasers and you didn’t care. We were going to die—Garnet, Amethyst, Pearl, and me—because of what you did. …You didn’t care.” He looked up, and found Peridot’s whole uncertain attention on him. “And now it’s you who might die because of us! But you know what’s different now?” Steven swung his arm around, thumb jabbed into his chest. “I care. I care that you’re scared. I care that you’re hurt. I care that you might die. So the least you could do…is care a little bit back!”
Steven breathed in ragged huffs; his blood pulsed in his ears. He watched Peridot, watched her expression slip from uncertainty, to discomfort, to defeat. She lowered her eyes and curled her legs up to her torso.
“You’re wasting your time. Just go.” She rested her head back against the crate’s side. “The mission’s a failure. Our communication is down. Homeworld isn’t sending anyone. Just go somewhere and let them crack my gem the rest of the way once they come back.”
Steven followed her gaze to the three pillows. He gritted his teeth. He turned back to Peridot with his eyes narrowed. “Don’t call them ‘them.’ They are the Crystal Gems: Garnet, Amethyst, and Pearl. And I’m Steven! And don’t tell me you just want to be left alone to die, because you don’t!”
Peridot responded with the same vigor. “Well what do you plan to do once they regenerate!? When they see me they’ll kil—“
Peridot was cut off by a sudden, blinding flash of light. Then another. Then two more. Steven spun, and his face cracked with pure joy at the sight of the four gems floating. They threw off cascades of light that steadily took form.
“They’re back!” he shouted, and jumped to his feet.
“Oh.” He turned back to the cage. Peridot had braced herself against the back wall, wide eyes watching the regenerating gems in terror. “Oh, oh oh oh.”
He hopped forward and snagged the lock between his fingers. “Please don’t get out of the cage stay there and trust me please.”
“What?!” Peridot answered. She sat motionless though as Steven dove his free hand in and snagged the blanket off of the floor, no longer housing Peridot’s gem. He slid the latch shut again in the same quick motion.
Steven unfolded the blanket with a fast whip of his hands. It fluttered out, fuzzy and powder blue. He gave it another whip as he jerked it sideways. It fell flat on top of Peridot’s cage and spilled over the edges like a tarp.
“What is this?!” Peridot hissed.
“Shhh,” Steven set a finger to his mouth, and yanked the edge of the blanket forward until it covered the cage entirely.
He spun on his heels just in time to see Amethyst and Pearl drop. The red and blue gem shot straight to another cloud of light and reformed a half second later into Garnet.
“Guys! Guys you’re back!” Steven raced forward, arms extended. He slammed into all three and chuckled at the noise of surprise from Pearl. He felt a hand come down and fluff his hair. Steven raised his own and took the hand that was patting him: Garnet.
“Hello Steven,” Garnet said with a slight smile. Her light expression dropped instantly as she looked up, glancing around.
“Uh…woah. How’d we end up back at the Temple?” Amethyst asked, as if voicing Garnet’s thoughts.
Pearl stuck a hand to her chin. “Oh you’re right. Garnet must have grabbed us after she took out Pe—“ Pearl’s attention shifted to Garnet. She cut herself off when she saw Garnet shaking her head.
“Peridot got me too.” Garnet looked down at her hands and clenched them. “The last thing I remember is breaking apart in the Kindergarten.”
A silent, simultaneous realization rippled through the Gems. They took a step back, and angled their attention to Steven. He smiled up at them in response.
“Steven…did you bring us back?” Pearl asked with a hint of anxiety to her voice.
Steven laughed and rubbed at the back of his neck. His eyes migrated around the three. “I noticed you guys were gone way longer than usual…and I knew you went to the Kindergarten. Connie and me found you there.” Steven twisted his hands together. “I wasn’t expecting you guys to come back so soon. I thought…I thought I was gonna be stuck alone for a really long time.”
Garnet set a hand on Steven’s head. “It was just a Destabilizer, Steven. It doesn’t injure our forms badly. It just makes them lose their structure. I was back just as fast on Peridot’s ship, remember?”
Steven gave a laugh and leaned into Garnet. “No you weren’t. You were Ruby and Sapphire when I found you on the ship. It took way longer until you were back.”
She gave him a final pat and retracted her hand. “And I have you to thank for that—twice now, it seems.”
“Still,” Pearl stuck a hand up, “I don’t like that you went to the Kindergarten alone, Steven.”
“I had Connie!”
“…I don’t like that you went to the Kindergarten without another Gem,” Pearl rephrased begrudgingly. “You could have run into Peridot and—“
Garnet stuck a hand out, effectively cutting Pearl off. She shifted her attention to Steven and crouched. “Steven, while you were in the Kindergarten, did you see Peridot’s gem?”
Steven looked first to Garnet, then to Pearl and Amethyst. He clenched his jaw before looking to his hands. “You uh…what do you mean?”
“In the dirt, Steven. With the rest of us.” She clamped a hand to Steven’s shoulder. The tension made him shudder.
“It—Peridot?—She…No. No I looked all around and I only found you guys. Connie didn’t find anything else either. It was dark though…”
Garnet clenched her other fist and let out a sharp hiss of air. Steven jumped back.
“I thought I got her!” A quick gauntlet formed around her clenched hand, and Garnet stood back up. “Thank you, Steven. But the Gems and I need to go back and find Peridot. She’s injured, and missing an arm, so she can’t have gotten far.”
Steven backed away. He let one stray glance slip to the blue blanketed crate behind him. He intertwined his fingers. “And what are you going to do once you find her?”
Pearl crouched down and planted a kiss on Steven’s forehead. “Get some sleep, Steven. You look tired. I’ll be back later tonight to make sure you’re alright.”
“Yeah man, hold down the fort.” Amethyst knocked him with her elbow as she passed him, heading to the pad. “Nice saving us. Go Ste-man!”
Steven spun to follow, stumbling forward with the Gems toward the warp pad.
“But what are you gonna…do…”
The Gems all stood on the pad, facing him. Steven held his ground opposite. He looked first to Garnet, then Pearl, then Amethyst. He froze at the wide-eyed stare Amethyst gave him, the small, warning shake of her head. It sent chills down his spine.
“Take good care of the Temple, Steven. We can handle Peridot. Don’t worry.” Garnet thrust her hands out, and the three Gems disappeared in a flash of light.
A gust of wind caught in Steven’s hair, a slight ringing in his ears. He stood motionless and watched the now-dead warp pad.
He turned back to the covered dog crate. His feet made no sound as he approached it, and he lifted away the blanket. His face was impassive when he looked in at his wide-eyed, silent, steadily deteriorating prisoner.
“So what are you going to do now?”
Steven shrugged, unseen. He held the phone clenched between his ear and shoulder. His chin tucked to his collar against the cold. His body felt small, curled in against the ocean wind. “I dunno really. I don’t like lying to the Gems.”
“And they’re probably not gonna like it either when they find out.” There was a rustle from the other side as Connie adjusted herself. “One time, I lied to my parents about how many pieces of candy I ate. I said I had two but really I took five. They grounded me for two weeks after that.”
“That’s not helping, Connie,” Steven muttered into the phone. A chill wind ran past, and he shivered. The Temple’s porch took the ocean’s gusts at full blast. He pressed his back against the house and curled his legs up against his chest. He hugged them closer with his arms.
“Sorry. Your thing is a little more…serious, I guess.” Another rustle, and the bounce of bed springs. “But you’re…you’re at least trying to do something good! It’s not like you’re lying to be selfish.”
Steven straightened his back and took the phone in his hand. “Yeah. I-I’m lying because I don’t want someone to die… Otherwise I wouldn’t lie to them.”
There was a pause on Connie’s end, another shift. “Steven? Sorry but, I’d be lying too if I didn’t say this… I think your reasons are good, a-and I’m proud to be friends with someone so selfless! …But is this maybe…not a good idea? Peridot almost killed you. And now you’re alone with her in the house, and you don’t have the Gems there to protect you.” Anxiety edged itself into Connie’s voice. “I know you’re doing this because you’re a good person, and that’s why you’re lying and doing a dangerous thing. Because you’re a good person! But I’m pretty sure Peridot…isn’t.”
Steven curled back in on himself. He focused off to the shoreline, on Lion dipping his paw into the tide. The sun hung almost directly overhead, but the sky was scattered with clouds, and its light was weak. Steven shivered again. “I was talking to her. She was mad, and upset, and scared…but she didn’t seem evil. Jasper wanted to just fight us, and hurt us… But I think Peridot just wants to get her job done.”
“But she doesn’t care if that job involves killing you, Steven.” There was a thud from Connie’s end. Steven heard the creak of floorboards. “I was watching this documentary on animals in the wild. Most animals get aggressive when they’re hurt, because they’re confused and scared. And then a lot of people are attacked every year because they try to go out and help.”
“But Peridot isn’t an animal!” Steven pushed his palm against the icy deck. “She’s a person…a-almost. I’ve been talking to her!”
“Peridot’s worse, Steven. She’s almost like a human, and that means she’s probably smart like one. So she’s violent, and hurt, and scared, and smart…” Her voice trailed off. “The Gems are gonna come back sooner or later, a-and she knows she’s gonna die if they do. You’re the only thing between her and freedom right now. You’re in a lot of danger.”
“Connie…I don’t think she could hurt me no matter how much she wanted to.” Steven stood and faced the window. He stretched to his numbing toes to peer inside. His eyes settled on the wash of green inside the dog crate. “Her arms are gone. When she reformed…I don’t know, they just didn’t reform with her. All her technology and weapons and stuff, she did all of that with her hands. But now she doesn’t have any of that.”
“…Oh,” was Connie’s short response. “Why though? Is it because of the crack?”
Steven shrugged again. “A little bit, maybe. I mean there’s a lot of stuff that looks wrong with her.” He shut his eyes and shivered against the cold. “But Garnet knew that Peridot didn’t have her arms. They must have somehow come off in the middle of the fight.”
“Uh, fake limbs. You give them to people who have lost their real arm or leg. They’re mechanical.”
Steven stared at his feet, thinking. “Peridot’s fingers are all not attached to her body. She can use them, but they’re different from the rest of her. And her forearms are a different color from her normal skin. Those are both missing now.”
“Sounds like they could be prosthetics then… I hope so, actually. That means she can’t reform her arms and attack you.”
“It also means she can’t defend herself, no matter what.” Steven whispered. He clenched his fist. “And if she can’t defend herself, then I have to!”
“…And how are you gonna do that? Are you going to keep lying to Garnet, Amethyst, and Pearl?”
“I don’t know yet. They’re probably going to be gone for a while, but I don’t know for certain.” Steven squished the phone further against his cheek. “I really don’t like lying. I hate it. I really really don’t want to keep doing it, but if I tell them the truth then Peridot could die! And I don’t want that to happen.”
“…If it makes you feel better, I won’t tell the Gems. Not unless I really knew you were in danger. So I’m here always to help you. I promise.”
Steven nodded. “Thanks Connie…” He glanced again inside. This time he didn’t look away from the crate. “…I’m supposed to call Dad too. His van broke down and he’s really worried about leaving me alone. But I don’t want to lie to him too! I don’t want to lie to my dad…” Steven pressed his free hand against the house. “And he trusts the Gems a whole ton. If he knew that Garnet, Amethyst, and Pearl thought Peridot was too dangerous to keep alive…he wouldn’t be okay at all.”
His voice hitched, and he dropped back down to sitting on the deck. “I don’t want to keep lying, Connie.”
“…So then, you don’t have any ideas. I don’t have any ideas. And you can’t ask the Gems or your dad because they’d want to kill her…” Another shift on the other side of the phone. Steven heard a door shut and lock. “That only leaves one person who might know what to do.”
“Oh…oh yeah.” Steven scrambled to his feet again. He rounded to the screen door and stared in.
“Put me on speaker phone, Steven. Then go back inside and ask her if she has any idea what you can do. Maybe she knows something you don’t.”
Steven opened the door and stepped into the warmth. He heard the door slam shut behind him. The noise startled the thing in the cage. She tensed and spun. Her wide eyes were visible in the shadows of the crate.
“…or, or even, use this as a change to figure out for yourself if you should save her. Because if not, then you can call the Gems back, and your dad, and you don’t have to worry about it anymore.”
“…Got it.” Steven tapped the speaker icon on Connie’s contact. A soft white hissing burst from the phone. “Peridot, I’m coming over. And I’m bringing my friend Connie. We’re gonna talk now.” He edged closer. His voice bounced around the edges of the open house. “And it’s maybe your only hope of not dying, so you should actually talk to us this time.”
Steven watched her eyes as he got closer. She didn’t blink. She didn’t move until Steven stood only a few feet away. Finally, her body went slack, eyes falling half-lidded. Her tension faded.
“Fine,” she muttered, then slumped against the cage wall. “What do I have to lose anymore?”
“Woah, you guys took out an entire Injector after I poofed?”
Garnet shrugged, and watched Amethyst prod the fallen machinery with an unreadable tension on her face. “Peridot did. She kicked it down and ran up its side. It was clever. She almost got past us.”
“She lost her footing after I threw my spear.” Pearl knelt in the damp dirt, hand tracing over the washed-out footprints. “Oh and I almost had her too! I could have just taken out her physical body. I suppose I was foolish to offer her a noble death,” she said, teeth and fists clenched.
“We all made mistakes in this fight.” Garnet crouched against the far wall. She shoved her hands into the loose mud. “I had the chance to crack her gem, but I tried to get information out of her first.”
Amethyst turned away from the Injector. She watched Garnet slough away layers of mud by the canyon wall. “Yeah well…I found her. So I at least did that.”
“Amethyst.” Garnet didn’t turn as she spoke. She dug further into the bank of mud that had been washed into the valley by the rain. “We cannot be reckless anymore. And we cannot be hesitant. There’s a time for mercy, but this isn’t it. Peridot could be the deciding factor in whether or not Homeworld returns to earth.”
Amethyst bit down on her lip. She shrugged, even though Garnet faced away from her. “Yeah I know that. What do you want from me?”
“For you to take this mission seriously.”
Amethyst looked away. “I am.”
Amethyst crossed her arms and muttered into her elbow. “It’s not like she’s a Diamond or anything…”
There was a shhhink from the dirt. Pearl forgot her interest in the fallen Injector and looked to Garnet. Amethyst looked up too, uneasy at the noise. Garnet thrust her hand back into the muck, and was met with another shhiink.
Her hands wrapped around something, and she pulled. Out of the slop came Peridot’s missing mechanical arm—one of them, at least. There was a thick dent, accented by a fissure along one side. Garnet turned it over in her arms before laying it down to the side. She dug back into the mud and surfaced with a matching arm, less damaged this time.
“Woah…Is that her—her arm dealies?” Amethyst lighted forward. She crouched, hands to her knees, to get a better look. “That’s so nasty.”
“She lost them during our fight. Whatever mental connection she had was severed when I cracked her gem.”
Amethyst stuck her face lower to Garnet’s soupy hole in the mud. “Sooo that’s gotta mean her gem’s around here too, yeah?” She straightened. “What if we just…you know, bubbled her? What’s the difference? She’s all armless and broken anyway.” She stuck her thumb to her chest. “Heck, I’ll do it! Save you guys the trouble and whatever.”
“Amethyst, I thought we settled this.” Pearl stepped forward, pushing Amethyst a few inches back. She clicked on her light and angled it down to the mudslide. “We’ll be able to see her gem’s refraction more easily with a direct light source.”
Garnet panned silently through the mud. Amethyst looked on with agitation. She shifted from one side of Pearl to the other, looking for the best view.
About an inch deep in the muck, Garnet plucked out a brilliant pale green shard. It was hardly bigger than a tooth pick. She held it up to Pearl’s light and twisted it. “I knew I hit her,” Garnet breathed. She summoned a pink bubble in that hand to contain the shard.
Two, three, four, five, six, seven. Garnet uncovered fragments of varying size stitched throughout the muck. She added each to the bubble. Combined, they formed a gram or two worth of material, but it was significant mass to be missing from a gem.
Amethyst moved up beside Garnet. She studied the shards with a muted anxiety on her face. “Yeah…you definitely did get her.”
Pearl hopped forward, light directed closer to the ground. “Which means her shattered gem must be around here too! It’s impossible that she suffered that kind of damage without losing her physical form.”
“Maybe she reformed before us,” Amethyst offered. She kept her eyes geared toward the dirt. “And just like…ran off.”
“And what?—Left her arms behind?” Pearl asked with a huff.
“How’s she gonna carry her arms if she’s got no arms?” Amethyst countered.
“She would reattach her arms.”
“Maybe she forgot.”
“How would she manage to forget the fact that she no longer has arms?”
Garnet stood and stepped away from the mudpile. Pearl and Amethyst fell silent as Garnet turned and surveyed the ground nearby. She repositioned herself where she’d stood the night before, and glanced down into the ground behind her.
Half-buried, something gold glinted back. Garnet bent to it: two halves of a broken Destabilizer.
“It’s broken,” Garnet remarked.
“That’s good.” Amethyst freed herself from her conversation with Pearl. She pulled one half up, pinching it by a prong. “Now we can’t get poofed.”
“That’s…weird,” Pearl answered uneasily. She glanced up at Garnet. “All three of us were hit with it… How could it break?”
“Easy.” Garnet stood up tall. She stared forward, hands clenched. “Peridot is gone even though her shards and arms are still here. Peridot’s gone even though she shouldn’t have been able to reform well enough to escape. And Peridot’s weapon is broken even though none of us were able to break it.” She turned to the broad expanse of the Kindergarten, facing the warp pad. “That all makes sense, because someone was here after us.”
“Oh?” Pearl turned with Garnet. Realization dawned on her face as she stared at the warp pad. Anxiety flooded over her features. “Oh…”
“Oh man…” Amethyst whispered.
“And that someone…” Garnet moved forward. Her arms were stiff at her side, eyes to the warp pad. “…is in a lot of trouble for lying to us.”
Steven clumped together the empty couch cushions. They piled together like a pilly, faded-gray nest. He placed his hand down first, lowering himself gently. His attention stayed locked on Peridot, who watched him with just as much intent. Steven rested his phone on his knee.
He opened his mouth and shut it a few times. The sight of her still sent thrills of fear down his spine. The sensation prickled, and he wasn’t sure whether that anxiety stemmed from his worry for her or for himself. Her face was closed and cold: every bit the thing that had fired off the lazers set to kill him, Garnet, Amethyst, and Pearl.
It was the crack in her visor that drew his attention the most. It was the only superficial damage on her body. Steven was reminded of an attack two years back that had left his dad’s windshield cut almost in two. No one had been injured though, nothing damaged but the van. It felt safer to look at that than her cracked gem, just a few inches above.
“Does it hurt?” Steven asked quietly. He adjusted the phone on his leg. It bled out a steady stream of static as Connie listened.
“Those Gems are going to be back. Soon.” Peridot’s eyes roved over the house. They settled hungrily on the closed front door. “Let me out now.”
Steven angled his head over his shoulder. He scrunched his hands in his jeans. “I can’t do that.”
“Why not? You said you didn’t want me to die!” Peridot pressed her face against the bars, one half-arm extended. The splinters in her gem caught the light at a hundred different angles. “So then let me out! I won’t kill you. Like I even could.”She waved her arm in a frenzy. “Let me out if you don’t want me to die!”
“Steven’s here to talk to you, Peridot. You’re not being very kind to someone who just saved your life!” Steven’s phone vibrated with Connie’s voice. The speaker was cranked to full volume.
“Oh excuse me, where are my manners?!” She slammed her elbow into the crate again. Steven lurched backwards. “Please let me not be shattered! Please and thank you.”
“Peridot c’mon…” Steven muttered as he inched forward again. “I’m trying to help! But I…I don’t know.” He skimmed his hands along the floor in agitation. “I’m lying to the Gems about something really important. And you tried to kill us! I don’t know…I don’t know anything about what you’re doing. If I let you go, and you hurt the Gems, or you hurt me, or you hurt anyone…” He trailed off. Connie stayed silent too; the phone sang out with white static.
Peridot glanced between Steven and the cage lock. Her body tensed, and she lashed out. “Yeah, you got me. I’ll just blast them all with the ship I don’t have.Maybe break them up with the Destabilizer I lost. I’ll send Jasper except—oh wait—she’s gone.” Peridot’s teeth ground together. She drove her left foot into the cage wall and startled when a small shower of gem dust rolled down her face. She quieted, immobile, eyes wide.
Steven froze too at the scatter of gem dust. He looked Peridot over in a panic, in search of any piece of her more broken than before. The same spider-webbing cracked her skin. The same sallow light from her gem.
“Yeah, that’s right. You’ve got nothing! No weapon, and no arms, and no…no anything! Steven’s got all of that. So stop telling him what to do, Peridot. And instead listen to him! Or else you’re going to die. And you know that!”
“…Who even are you?” Peridot asked in a burst of noise. Her voice bore an overtone of tinny static. She stared at the phone, livid. “You two things are humans. You are nothing. You die too fast to know anything. Why should I bend to something that lives 8 days?”
“You’re wrong!” Steven leaned forward with fervor. “Humans live way longer than that. Like 80 years! And I’m already 11!”
“What’s the difference? Who cares?” Peridot thrust her foot out again into the side of the cage. Her eyes were wide and wet with panic. She let out only small strangled noises as she drove her foot over and over into the cage wall. Steven watched in horror as a thick, vertical crack along her leg beveled with the force.
“You’re gonna hurt yourself!” Steven insisted. He stuck a hand forward, startling when Peridot turned on him with fierce eyes.
“They’re going to hurt me! I’m running out of time. They could do anything to me in here!” Tears leaked from her large unblinking eyes. They flowed down her cheeks, panicked, unnoticed. “What chance do I stand, huh!? I can’t do anything. My gem is cracked. Cracked. That doesn’t get fixed.” She slammed her shoulder into the opposite side. Another shower of gem dust rained down her face. “I’mdead. I’m never getting home. Because of this stupid mission. This stupid stupidmission. They don’t care! They don’t care! I’m dead and they don’t care! I’m dead. I’m dead. I’m dead.”
“Who doesn’t care—“
“Anyone. Not your Gems! Not Homeworld! Not Jasper!” Steven watched a new crack pry itself open along Peridot’s shoulder. “No one cares.”
Steven jumped to his feet. The phone clattered to the ground. “Why are you saying that?!” He stepped forward and clamped his hands around the cage bars. “Why are you saying that to me? I told you already!” He rattled the cage, a fresh stream of tears rolling down his panicked face. “I told you already that I care! Please stop. Please stop hurting yourself!”
“You don’t count.” She insisted as she spun on him. “Why should I care what you think?!”
“Because I’m the only person you’ve got!” Steven jammed his thumb into his chest. “Because the Gems care about me. And because…” His eyes darted around. Anxiety crossed fresh over his face before he spoke, “because I can heal! I healed Lapis! I healed her when she was cracked!”
Peridot froze. Her cautious eyes turned to Steven through the split visor. A scowl crossed her face. “You’re lying to me.”
“He’s not. He healed my eyes. He healed Lapis! Why do you think Lapis wanted to protect Steven so much?”
Peridot didn’t make a move. Her visor was dirty with bits of dust, statically clung to the front. The sharp look in her eyes made Steven shiver. “Okay, then heal me! I don’t stand a chance like this so heal me.”
Steven felt his palms grow slick. He took a step back from the cage. His eyes stayed fixed on her disintegrating gem now. “…No. No, I won’t let you tell me what to do.” He thrust his arms out, and noted the way Peridot jumped. “I’m offering to help you because I’m thinking…I’m thinking maybe you’re not really a bad person! Maybe you just don’t know enough about Earth, and about us, and maybe you didn’t try to care.”
“Come on! Just—“
Steven stuck his hand out. “I don’t like this! You think I’m nothing, and worthless, and you don’t care at all about how I feel even when I’m trying.” He glanced down at his phone, galvanized. “I was hoping you wouldn’t be like this! But I guess you really don’t care at all about me or the Earth…even when you try. You only care now because you know I can help you. That’s not caring! That’s using me.” He blinked the tears from his eyes, face falling. “I won’t let the Gems kill you while I still think you might not be evil. I don’t want you to die, Peridot. But I trust the Gems a whole lot…and you’re really, really dangerous to us, and I’m getting in a lot of trouble for this.” He searched her anxious, uncertain face before collapsing onto the pillow nest. “So please…give me a reason why I should try to save you.”
Steven watched her eyes fall half-lidded. Her body lost its vigor, surrendering the fight to the cage. Exhaustion flooded dull and obvious over her face, defeat alongside it. “You’re right. I really don’t care about you.” Her eyes flashed to him. Something dark crossed her face. “Why should I? You don’t have any value to me. Your issues don’t affect me. You die anyway—you die quickly. So what do you matter? And why should that matter to you?”
“He matters a lot to me,” Steven’s phone trilled out. Connie’s voice came closer to the microphone. “I was so worried back when you invaded Earth. I was so worried for Steven. He said he might die. And I wouldn’t…I wouldn’t have been able to handle that.”
Peridot shrugged (as well as she could with a single shoulder.) “You matter less to me.”
Steven stared down at his lap. He chewed quietly on his tongue. “What do you care about, Peridot?”
She glanced to him, eyebrows scrunched, as if the question agitated her. “Not dying, right now. That would be great.”
“No!” He clenched his fists. “I’m being serious with you, Peridot! What kind of things do you care about? Do you have friends? Or family? O-or hobbies? …Flowers you like?”
She gave him a level stare. A few granules of stone clinked down her visor. “I care about whatever they need me to care about. At best. I do my job.”
“What stuff do they make you care about?”
Sharp disinterest crossed Peridot’s expression. “Missions. Productivity. Whatever’s for the betterment of Homeworld.”
“And how do you feel about the clusters?” Steven asked.
“They’re developing on schedule.”
Steven wrung his hands. He glanced to the warp pad. He blinked, and saw the ghost of Garnet’s silhouette behind his eyes. So strong and impassive, as usual. Not frozen in terror like she had been…
“Those clusters are made out of Gems that were cracked during the war. It’s not right. It’s cruel. They’re suffering!” Steven swept a hand out. His pleading eyes settled firmly on Peridot.
“Yes I know. I know my own assignments.”
“And do you care that they’re hurt?”
Her eyes narrowed. Agitation curled her lip. “They rebelled, and they’re cracked. They’re worse than useless. It’s the mission I was assigned. What do I care?”
Steven stared into his lap. He nodded once. “Peridot… Is something only worth caring about…if it has a use?” The warp pad danced in the edge of his vision. He looked to it, then looked back down. “I know Homeworld only wanted Earth so they could make Gems in it. They cared about that and not the people. Jasper only cared about keeping me alive when she realized I had my mom’s gem. And my mom was very important. Now you don’t care about me—or you didn’t until I told you I can heal you. Is that…is that was makes Homeworld care? If something has use?”
Peridot’s eyes dropped to the cell phone on the floor. She stared at it mutely before her gaze moved back to Steven. “Would you care about that thing if it broke? Would you care about keeping it safe and whole if it didn’t do anything for you? What’s the point?”
“The phone doesn’t think or feel. It can’t get hurt!” Connie answered.
“What if that…phone—what if, not only did it not work, but it took every opportunity to undermine your mission? What if it worked tirelessly to undo your work? Would you care then if it were safe or not?!”
Steven rested a hand on his cell phone. He dragged it closer to his side. “…You’re talking about us. Me and the Crystal Gems. Because we broke your things.”
“Repeatedly!” Peridot insisted with growing ire. “I could have warped to Earth and back! I got my Robonoids to repair the warp pad. But you destroyed it! I could have checked on the clusters remotely, but you destroyed my equipment! I had to come all the way out here, only to have you strand me here!” Her breathing grew ragged, and she banged her head against the back of the crate. “So no, I don’t care about you. I have no reason to care about you.”
Steven pooled his hands in his lap. He inched forward. “Do you want me dead?”
“I said I don’t care.”
“You know, Peridot…” Steven forced his attention to her face. The crawling cracks had spread to her eyes. He found small, dime-sized pieces chipped away from her face, her body. She looked for all the world like a statue dug out of ancient ruins. “I don’t have any use for you. You hurt me. You made me very afraid. You did bad things to me, like we did to you. But then I meant what I said before—Icare about what happens to you. …Why is that?”
The first hint of pain crossed Peridot’s expression. Another crackle, another small shower of gem grains. Her lips were parted slightly as she looked him over, at a loss for words.
“Because humans are foolish with what they care about?” Her voice was flat, disinterested. She tucked her legs up, and lowered her face to her knees. “…Or maybe, because you’re kind.”
A small tired smile stretched at Steven’s mouth. He nodded, once at first, then more vigorously. He inched himself to the edge of Peridot’s cage and placed a hand against the bars. “Yeah, that’s it exactly! And that’s what’s so great about Earth. People are kind. So many people, who all make their own lives and love all different things, and they’re so kind to each other.” He wrapped his other hand around the bars, nose pressed inside the cage. “You keep talking about going home…but if no one is kind there, why would you want to? Wouldn’t you rather stay here…and learn how to be kind?”
Steven saw Peridot look up. He didn’t have the time to read her expression. A sharp, crystalline clink erupted from behind him. He jumped to his feet, feeling ice flood through his veins as he spun to face the glowing, active warp pad.
“Steven!” Garnet’s voice echoed off the walls.
He thrust his arms wide. His body shot numb with fear, panic, as the column of light around the warp pad vanished. Pearl and Amethyst stayed still on the warp. It was Garnet, front and center, who moved forward.
She was huge—in a way Steven never seemed to realize. Tall and strong and solid and powerful. He read her gritted teeth, the sharp glare in her glasses, and felt fearful tears prick his eyes. He wanted to run, but he kept his feet planted in front of Peridot’s cage.
“Steven? Did something happen? I heard a noise. Is that Garnet? What—“
Garnet’s heel came down on the phone. Steven winced as the screen cracked. It bled with spiderweb cracks and sent a new ripple of terror down Steven’s spine. Connie’s voice shorted out permanently.
“Move out of the way, Steven. Step away, do not look, and start thinking of a proper punishment for yourself for lying to us.” Her lips parted wide over her teeth as she spoke. Her gauntlets flashed to life on each stiff hand. She brought them up eye-level with Steven. He heard a terrified squeak from behind him, a scrambled against the wire meshing in the back of the cage.
“I’m sorry, Garnet.” Steven backed into the cage. His wide-spread arms clung to its edges. “I’m sorry but you were gonna kill her! Please don’t. Please don’t! Please don’t kill her Garnet please don’t!”
“Step aside.” Garnet angled her head down to him. The strength bled out of Steven’s legs until he couldn’t feel them. “This is not your decision. You do not get to override me, and you do not get to lie to me.”
“Steven, just listen to Garnet!” Pearl called. She hopped off the warp pad, moving forward with brisk sweeps. “You won’t be in as much trouble if you just move away now. We’ll talk about why you lied to us after this is all done. You don’t need to be afraid. We’re disappointed, but we would never hurt you Steven!”
“But are you going to kill her?!” Steven spoke through fluttering sobs. His eyes darted between Pearl and Garnet, who stood solidly above him. “Are you?! Is she gonna die? Why? Why are you killing her? Why won’t you tell me? She can’t hurt us now I promise! I was talking to her!”
Three seconds of solid silence pressed down on them. Steven held his breath to dampen his own convulsive breathing. Garnet stared down without answer.
“C’mon Garnet, just be honest with him for once, huh?” Amethyst hopped around Garnet’s side and placed a firm hand on Steven’s shoulder. “She’s gonna kill Peridot, yeah. That’s what’s happening.”
“Amethyst, stay out of it.”
Steven looked to Amethyst. He clung mentally to the heavy hand she had on him. He glanced back to the cage. Peridot was out of sight, pressed as far against the crate’s back as she could go.
“I…I’m gonna ask you something first, Garnet! Please. Please let me ask this.” He looked to Pearl, who had a hand pressed over her mouth. Then Amethyst, who nodded with a muted understanding. His eyes settled on Garnet, who gave no response.
“Let ‘im ask, Garnet,” Amethyst said. “What’s it matter if Peridot dies now or in five minutes? Nothing’s different.”
Another beat of silence. Then slowly, firmly, Garnet gave a nod.
Steven followed with small, fast nods of his own. He swallowed, and spread his feet. “Peridot’s very hurt right now. And very scared. And she has no hope about getting home. And when I look at her, a-and I see how hurt she is, it makes me sad!” He clenched his fists. “She’s dying right in front of me! I’m watching her die. And I…I don’t know if I can stop it. And I know she’s not good. I know she almost got us killed. But I don’t want her to die. It’s—I care about what happens to her, because she’s alive, and has feelings, and she’s hurting.” He stuck a shaking hand out, pointing to Garnet. “So I want to ask. I want to ask you Garnet. What’s…what’s different with you?” He threw a quick glance to the cage and felt his heart clench at the field of dust, chips, and shards that littered the crate floor.
He found his strength again. Steven looked forward, footing firm, and stared hard into Garnet’s eyes. “I wanna know…Why don’t you care?”
Garnet angled her head down to Steven. Her arms were stiff at her side, and Steven’s eyes shot between them and her stone face. The gauntlets sent thrills of fear through his body. He balled up his fists, leaned his body forward, and took a deep breath.
“Well?! Do you know why not?!”
“Because that kind of caring gets you killed, Steven.” She set one foot forward. Steven pressed himself flat against the dog crate. “Because caring about anything from Homeworld is asking for your own death. I would destroy all of Homeworld—everyone, and everything in it—without hesitation. For the sake of protecting us.” Another step forward. “They have thousands more soldiers. Thousands who would shatter us, and enjoy it. If we show any mercy, we stand no chance. And they haven’t earned our mercy. Not in any way. Get away from Peridot.”
Steven looked between Pearl and Amethyst for support. Pearl hung back. Her eyes were wide and fretful, but she made no move to come forward. Amethyst tightened her grip on Steven’s shoulder in a show of support, but she had nothing to say in response.
He slipped his hand to the lock. His fingers squirmed under the latch. “You say that like Peridot is Homeworld. But she’s just here because they told her to be. I-isn’t that…then isn’t that like saying you are Homeworld too?! You and Pearl and Amethyst and…my mom.” He didn’t dare blink, afraid of missing a single change in Garnet’s expression. “You’re all here because Homeworld told you to be. And then my mom changed her mind, because she’s not Homeworld. What if she never had that chance? What if humans started killing all the Gems they could, because Gems were Homeworld, and they killed my mom right with them, because they thought she didn’t deserve at least a chance?!”
“Preposterous. Rose Quartz could never be defeated by humans. You didn’t even have any explosive weaponry back during the war.”
“Pearl,” Garnet clipped out. Pearl put her hands up in a show of defense.
“Sorry…just felt the need to clarify.”
Garnet’s head tilted back to Steven. He looked in vain for any show of softness in her features.
“In answer to your question: they would have been right to do so. Rose Quartz was a very rare instance of something from Homeworld showing compassion to the things she invaded. If they had trusted her, or anyone, on the distant hope of finding compassion, they’d have invited their own death. Peridot is one of the bad ones. Peridot is not like your mother, and you shouldn’t speak as if they were anything alike.” Garnet stretched a glove forward and pressed it against Steven’s free shoulder. “This conversation is over. Move out of the way before I have to move you myself.”
“Ah, c’mon Garnet! You can’t shut him down like th—“
All four Crystal Gems startled as the front door flung open. It clanked against the far wall with a warbling bang, frame bouncing with the impact. Greg stood at the entrance, red-faced and huffing. He had his palms pressed to his knees.
“I’m back, I’m back! I heard shouting! What—“ He straightened up. A smile broke over his face. “Oh you guys are back! Steven why didn’t you call me?”
He looked to his son. The joy on Greg’s face instantly waned to confusion. He noted the terror on Steven’s face, his small body pressed protectively to the dog cage.
“…My phone broke,” Steven answered quietly.
Greg didn’t acknowledge the answer. He stepped forward and angled his thumb over his shoulder. “My…van broke down. Got it fixed. But I was—I—okay anyone wanna fill me in on what’s happening here?”
Garnet looked over her shoulder. She adjusted her whole stance until she faced Greg. He bristled at the sight of her summoned gauntlets.
“Greg, we would like you to talk some sense into Steven.”
Greg looked first to her, then to his son who seemed to be jiggling the crate lock loose. For a moment he watched, fascinated, as Steven popped the lock clear off, swung the door wide open, and reached inside…
“Sense about…what? That?” Greg asked, pointing. He stiffened entirely at the sight of Steven yanking the cracked, half-formed Gem out of the cage by the stump of her only remaining arm.
All three Gems turned as Steven ducked around the back of the cage. Peridot was dragged in tandem, stumbling over feet that seemed incapable of finding proper purchase on the ground. She managed to stay completely silent for the first few steps before the Gems noticed the jailbreak.
“Steven!” It was Pearl now. She summoned her spear on reflex and joined Garnet in a sprint to the warp pad. Steven stumbled on ahead of them. He let out small scared squeaks when he glanced behind him. With only a few inches between Peridot and Garnet, Steven spun. He used his momentum to swing Peridot around and position himself between her and Garnet. Garnet’s gauntlet froze mid-thrust. It paused an inch from Steven’s face, and no one seemed to breathe for that instant.
Garnet only watched the stalemate unfold as Steven inched backwards, pushing Peridot along. She yielded easily to Steven’s pressing, but her shocked eyes stayed on Garnet.
“If you take the warp pad, Steven, we will follow you. There is nowhere that pad can go that we cannot find. Stop, now. I’m tired of asking.”
“And…and I’m tired of trying to make you listen!” Steven choked out. He kept up his slow paces backwards. “I still don’t get it, Garnet! I still don’t get why Peridot has to die. You’re not telling me. You just keep saying she has to! How’m I supposed to let you do that?”
“Steven, I get you buddy.” Amethyst hopped forward behind the other two Gems. “I’m the last Gem who’s gonna argue against giving a ‘bad Gem’ a second chance…but you’ve got nothing, Steven. Sometimes things happen that you don’t want to. That’s life. You can talk it out with me after, okay?”
“Amethyst is right, Steven.” Pearl had her spear braced across her chest. “You don’t have any more tricks that can stand up to us.” She watched with apprehension as Steven pushed Peridot back on to the warp pad. His small sandaled feet followed. “You can’t warp anywhere that we can’t follow!”
“I know that!” Steven answered. He looked to his dad, looking away at the growing fear on Greg’s face.
Garnet angled her head over her shoulder. “Amethyst, use your whip to reach Peridot. Don’t hit Steven.”
Amethyst took a moment to survey the scene. Steven had his whole body pressed in front of Peridot as the two moved backwards. She nodded once. “Yeah, I can loop around him.” Amethyst yanked her whip out of her gem. “Come on, Steven. Don’t try to warp or anything. You’re gonna break her a lot worse if you try and warp her away while I’ve got my whip wrapped around some part of her.”
“I’m…I’m not gonna. I’m not warping anywhere.” Steven clamped his hand firmly on Peridot’s upper arm, spun, and sprinted past the warp pad. He lifted his shirt with his free hand as Peridot yelped at the sudden acceleration. “I’m going somewhere else—and you can’t follow!”
“Steven!” He couldn’t tell which of the Gems had spoken—maybe all of them. But it was too late. The Temple door glimmered, stretched wide, and Steven threw his body past the barrier as he heard feet beat a frantic sprint behind him.
He pressed his palms into the ground and wheezed. They closed around soft cloud. It felt cool and yielding under his hot, wet cheek. Steven let his face sink into them for all of a second.
“What…where are we?! What is this?! Where’d you bring me?!”
Steven looked up, finding Peridot attempting to push herself to her feet. Her head whipped around in all directions. Specks of gem dust cascaded down her visor.
“My mom’s room…” Steven answered breathlessly. He took a few deep inhales. He heard the blood pulsing through his ears. Anxiety squirmed in his gut like a worm. He put his shaking hands under him and stood. He swayed, but stayed standing. Which was more than Peridot could manage.
“I don’t know what that means!” she insisted. Steven only stuck a finger out to her.
He turned back to the empty space they’d tumbled through. It led only to an endless expanse of clouds. Steven put a hand up and skimmed it over the nothing where the house had once been.
“Room! I want a window to see them, and hear them, so we can talk about this.”
A pillar of clouds burst from the ground beneath Steven. They coalesced, flattened themselves, and faded to utter translucency. The three Gems appeared instantly, faces right up against the door, and Greg behind them.
Peridot shrieked and scrambled backwards. She locked eyes with them—and the Gems with her—as she tried to move herself further back in the room. Steven spun to her.
“It’s okay! It’s just a window.” He turned back to the Gems. His face was set with authority. “So we can talk.”
It was Greg who moved forward first. He pressed a wide palm against the translucent film and looked in to Steven. “Hey bud.”
“Hey Dad,” Steven answered. He watched the way Greg’s anxious eyes stayed fixed on Peridot behind him.
“I…think I get the gist of what’s going on. And I think it’s great that you’re being so caring about…frankly something you shouldn’t care about at all. It’s how your mother would have felt.” He stuck his other hand against the barrier. “But your mother was also very old, and very wise, and very experienced. She knew how to pick her battles like no one’s business. But you’ve uh…you’ve still got a lot of learning and growing up to do. Not the Gems though. They’ve been handling this stuff for thousands of years. And if I had to trust anyone with this stuff, it’s them.”
Steven looked frantically between his dad and the Gems. He pressed a hand back, matching it to his dad’s right palm. “I trust them a lot too… But I gotta know why this needs to happen. I don’t like just being told that it’s gotta happen this way!”
“Homeworld’s left us alone because they didn’t know we were here. To them, the Earth is a long-dead project from an older time. But if they know we’re here, there’s no saying what they’ll do, or who they’ll send. Especially if they learn you have your mother’s gem, Steven. That’s why.” Garnet’s words were clipped, fast, and definitely angry. They made Steven’s heart thrum against his rib cage.
“But Peridot doesn’t have contact with Homeworld! We were talking, like I told you. She’s stranded here just like we are. Why don’t you let her talk to you?! You’re only talking to me and not her, but she could tell you herself!”
“We are not talking to Peridot, Steven,” Garnet answered, and her voice was ice.
Greg gave a nervous glance to her before speaking up. “Yeah uh, and you really shouldn’t be taking people into that room just…anyway. It only listens to you. And if you leave anyone in there alone, the room will reset and kind of…eat them. Your mother never let me inside for just that reason. It’s not a safe place to be.”
Pearl pushed her small body to the front. Her eyes were imploring. “Greg’s exactly right. You’ve trapped yourself, Steven. You certainly can’t stay in there forever. And if you leave that room without Peridot, it will dissolve her. There’s no getting out of this. Just send her out, Steven! We promise you won’t be in trouble if you do it now.”
“That is not a promise,” Garnet responded. Pearl glanced to her, then back to Steven with a nervous laugh.
“I don’t care about getting in trouble!” Steven insisted. He banged his hand against the barrier. “I care about… I don’t know. I care about knowing what the right thing to do is…”
Steven slumped to his knees. His hand dragged down the veil. He glanced over his shoulder to Peridot. She was exactly where he left her, sitting and staring back without a sound. He noticed charred, decayed patches on her legs that he hadn’t seen before. With a jolt of guilt, he wondered if he’d caused that by running her out of her cage.
“Peridot! Say something!”
She startled at the address. A certain hazy confusion had entered her face. The sharp fear he’d seen before was gone. What remained of her eyes looked around, as if for the first time, and she pulled her legs up to her body.
“…What? About what?”
“Any of this!” Steven swung his arm out to the barrier. “You can save yourself! Maybe they’ll listen.”
“No we won’t,” Garnet said. Steven swiveled back to the veil; his fear shot to desperation.
“Where are we?” Peridot turned her head with slow, forced motions. She winced, froze, and lowered her head to her knees. “Ow.”
Gems forgotten, Steven scrambled to his feet. He moved to Peridot, sunk to his knees, and lifted her head. Up so close, Steven could see at least a third of her gem had been gouged out.
“No…” Steven whispered. He shook her. “No this isn’t enough time! I haven’t figured anything out!” He pulled one hand back to his mouth, licked it sloppily, and plastered it to her gem. Peridot’s eyes went wide and she rocked backwards with a strangled noise of surprise. Steven grabbed her head again and stared her gem down.
“What’s wrong with me?” Steven slapped his cheeks twice. Panic pulsed through his veins like the very blood inside them. His every nerve tingled. He heard the distant shouts of the Gems behind him, his dad’s voice, and in front of them he watched Peridot fade out. “I still don’t know…anything about this! I still don’t know what the right thing is! I didn’t have enough time.”
He sunk. Low. Until his face was all but pressed to the clouds, and tears flowed unheeded from his eyes. He dug his hands into the ground.
“I wish I knew what I could do for you…” he muttered. Steven’s eyes went wide then with a thought. He lifted his body from the clouds, and swiveled about on his knees. “I want to know what I can do!”
There was a pause, a vacuum of sound, until a small batch of clouds rose from the bed beneath him. It stretched itself thin, then beveled out at one end. It adopted color, texture, solid shape.
Steven stared at it, baffled. “A ukulele?” He swept a hand out for it, but it hung out of reach. “That doesn’t answer anything! What can I do—“
Then, of its own accord, the ukulele started playing. It plucked out a light, steady rhythm. The first verse of something, pause, the same verse, pause, the same verse.
“You’re useless!” he shouted at it. But he clamped his mouth shut when the tune worked its way into his head. It played through again, and his eyes went wide.
“I-if you’re evil and you’re on the rise, you can count on the four of us taking you down…” The ukulele grew excited. It played louder, faster, and echoed off non-existent walls.
Steven swayed his body, moving, feeling as the beginning verse played again. “If you’re evil and you’re on the rise…”
Excitement and terror grabbed him all at once as he looked to Peridot. She watched the ukulele with fading attention. Her eyes were dull, but passive, still (for the time) conscious.
And Steven grabbed the stump of her arm.
“Peridot, stand up.”
She looked to him. The ukulele had stopped. Without questioning why, she pushed herself to wobbling feet. It took Steven’s grip on her to keep her standing. He set his feet opposite to hers and looked up into her broken eyes. “Just, do what I do, okay?”
“Steven!” It was Garnet. She slammed her fists against the barrier. He heard frantic shouts from Amethyst and Pearl too, but he didn’t let himself look. He took a deep breath and watched only Peridot.
The ukulele struck the first chord again.
“If you’re evil and you’re on the rise, you can count on the four of us taking you down.” He stepped with the rhythm, loose and free. Peridot’s shaky limbs followed his lead, and made the same formless steps back. “Cuz we’re good, and evil never beats us! We’ll win the fight and then go out for pizzas!”
“Buddy, stop! Don’t—I know what you’re trying to do!” Greg’s panicked voice was drowned, as if the room purposely muted the sounds from the outside. The ukulele played on without concern for him. Steven fought to not lose his rhythm.
“We, are the Crystal Gems! We’ll always save the day. And if you think we can’t, we’ll always find a way.” Steven swung his leading arm wide, and Peridot’s matched its arc. She met his movements without sound or acknowledgment.
“That’s dangerous, Steven! Please don’t!” Pearl now, as if from a million miles away. A distant, tinny echo.
“That’s why the people of this world believe in Garnet,” they swung right, “Amethyst,” left, “and Pearl,” Steven ended with a final spin of Peridot’s broken body. His voice was low—hardly a whisper—and cracked with an edge of fear, “and Steven.”
Light. Blinding light was all that followed. The room lost itself in a wash of formless, glowing fog. It hung there, projected by the two suspended gems—pink and green, before slowly, hesitantly congealing. The vapor found itself, shakily, in a single form, which then dimmed, formed colors and textures, solidified…
The Gems looked on in horror as the thing, slowly, got to their feet. They stared back with a two wide, pupiled eyes. Their dark green hair puffed up and out, thick and knotted. Their visor was thickly cracked along the middle, and similar cracks bled out from the damaged, murky gemstone in their forehead. It invaded their eyes with branching slits.
They reached out with only a single arm, gloved from fingers to elbow. The other was missing entirely. Their skin was tinged green, their outfit a mix of grays and pinks. A single star was plastered on their chest, centered about a foot above the murky gem on their stomach that glowed a bit too brightly.
Their cheeks were child-like, and their eyes were wide—huge and shining with fear.
They stepped closer to the window. All three Gems were tense, frozen entirely in place. None of them could move; none of them could talk. The three of them only flinched when the thing stepping toward them stopped, raised its lone hand to its forehead, and muttered “Ow…”
“Oh man,” Amethyst whispered. She shook her head, slowly at first, then franticly. “No no no no no…”
Pearl’s arms trembled. She clenched her fists, and spoke with the authority drained from her terrified voice. “Unfuse right now! You can’t do that. You can’t…you can’t.”
It was Garnet alone who stayed mute. Her gauntlets vanished in that moment, and a noticeable quiver ran through her whole body. The thing stepped closer; they teetered as they walked, thrown into a sudden painful existence, before resting their single hand against the veil.
“You…would protect Steven with your life, the four of you. And you want Peridot dead.” The thing clenched their fist, and the barrier dissolved instantly. A soft breeze flowed past them into the house. “So…what are you going to do with me?”
Greg backed away with numb feet. Panicked tears ran down his face. “What…what are you…”
They stuck their single hand out, wide pained eyes glancing about. A forced smile crept over their face. “I’m Tourmaline.”
No one took Tourmaline’s offered hand. It hung there, repelling the other Gems as if infected.
Instead Tourmaline glanced about, losing their nerve, before letting the hand drop entirely. Tourmaline stepped out of Rose’s room. Their movements came in slow unbalanced steps, but they kept themselves upright. The barrier to Rose’s room passed seamlessly under them. The door shut itself without any knowledge of what it’d caused. Or maybe, with no concern for what it’d done.
The Gems had all scattered back from the door. Garnet stood center, Amethyst to her right and Pearl to her left. Greg had been shunted behind them. Pearl’s spear was pressed tightly to her chest, Amethyst’s whip clenched against her right thigh. Only Garnet no longer had her weapon drawn.
Pearl was the first to move forward. She did so with a few frantic, side-long glances to Garnet. She kept on without finding any reassurance. “I am not…fooling around!” Her spear twitched, but she didn’t dare turn it forward. “Unfuse! Unfuse right now.”
Tourmaline watched her with a guilty pain in their eyes. Their hand twitched at their side. “I’m sorry, Pearl,” they answered with another wobbling step forward. “…I’m…I’m scaring you, aren’t I?”
Pearl dropped her spear parallel to the ground, still clenched tightly in just her right hand. She clung to it as a mental crutch, its use as a weapon far-lost on her. All her focus centered on the Rose Quartz gem, which glowed much too brightly.
Tourmaline put their one hand up in a show of good faith. Their eyes darted around, peppered with anxiety as they drank in the defensive positions that surrounded them.
“They are, uh—they’re scared, you know? Scared about all of this. You guys and me. Steven is…scared most of all.” Tourmaline looked down at their body and swallowed once. It crawled with distorted pieces. “Peridot too--whatever part of her even knows I’m here…which isn’t much.” Tourmaline’s balance waned. They stepped to the side and braced their hand against the back wall. They shut their eyes tightly. “…I don’t want this.”
“Then split apart!” Amethyst answered in a hurry. She cracked her whip into the floor. “Stop being stupid and just…get out of that! We’ll talk, okay? We’ll talk!”
Tourmaline opened their eyes. A small, scared smile pulled at their lips. “But we’re talking now! Finally. You’re all listening to me. …That’s not gonna last if I’m gone.” They winced again, eyes squeezing shut. A new seam split down their left cheek as they cracked their eyes back open.
“That’s not important though! You’re in danger!” Pearl insisted. She clutched her spear against her chest. Her head shot from side to side. “Garnet? Amethyst? Steven can’t be fused to Peridot’s gem! He can’t be fused! It’s cracked.”
Amethyst spun with a fierce amount of torque. “Thanks for filling us in, P. I hadn’t realized.”
Pearl bristled. “Your sarcasm isn’t helping, Amethyst!”
“Well you’re not helping either.”
“Garnet!” Pearl shouted in search of help. She shut her mouth immediately as she faced Garnet. Amethyst turned too, her whip falling slack at her side.
Garnet took a step back. Her lips parted mutely, and a tremor worked its way through her whole body. The other Gems watched her with growing panic in their eyes. They’d seen it before on only a handful of occasions, but they knew what it meant: Garnet was hardly there.
Slowly, almost gracefully, she fell to her knees.
Tourmaline pushed themselves off the back wall in a sudden fit of worry. Two quick, precarious steps brought them forward. “Garnet?” they whispered.
Tourmaline wasn’t the first to reach Garnet. Gently, Greg placed a hand on her shoulder and walked past her. He spared a glance at the other two gems before facing the fusion.
He cleared his throat. “Tourmaline, was it?” He stuck a hand out for them. “I don’t…know very much about fusions, or being a fusion, or, or even most Gem stuff in general… But I know Steven. Let’s talk, okay? I’m…Greg.”
“I know who you are,” they answered and grasped Greg’s offered hand. “I’m half Steven.”
“And you’ll go back to being Steven when this is all sorted out, yeah?”
Tourmaline gave a small nod. “That’s the plan.” They paused as they released Greg’s hand. “And…sooner rather than later. I don’t like being here. I don’t like…this. None of this feels right.” They flexed their hand and glanced about with wider eyes. “Please just listen, so I can stop.”
“Out—out of the question!” Pearl voiced. She’d found her composure and shoved herself past Greg. “All the power for this fusion is coming from Steven’s gem. He can’t handle that!”
Tourmaline watched her cautiously. “Don’t worry. I would split apart before anything happened. I’m half Steven--…no, no I’m even more than that. Right now, I’m mostly Steven. I wouldn’t let him get hurt.”
“Then unfuse now. Before anything can happen.” Pearl swung her spear forward and angled it to Tourmaline. Her wide, worried eyes betrayed her bluff.
Greg moved between the two. He put a hand to Pearl’s shoulder. It was a firm grasp, one that made Pearl glance to her shoulder in surprise.
“Pearl, yelling orders, and then not listening—that’s what got us here to start… Steven doesn’t like being told to do something he thinks is—you know—wrong. And if Tourmaline is mostly Steven, I don’t think they’re going to like it any better.” He shifted his attention to the fusion, and he dropped his hand from Pearl. His eyes lingered on the severed arm, stumped just below the shoulder. Their form was hazy with misremembered pieces. Black streaks ran from shoulder to collar on their rosy shirt, which bore a single gold star in the center. Black pants cut off at the knee. Their lone hand was gloved with something thick, robotic, and menacing.
Greg let out a small, strangled laugh “I don’t really handle the dangerous stuff, you know? All these…Gem monsters and intergalactic warp pads a-and world ending spaceships… When it comes to Steven, I’m in charge of tv and french fries.” Greg turned back to the Gems. “So maybe it’s not my place to be giving advice…but Tourmaline’s already told us when they’ll unfuse, and that’s after we let them talk to us.” He angled himself back to Pearl and eased her spear away by the hilt. She let it go with no resistance.
“…Okay,” Pearl answered softly. Amethyst offered a mute nod. Garnet gave no indication she had even heard Greg.
Tourmaline glanced down again at their hand. They nodded once, and flexed the gloved appendage. “You three haven’t seen Homeworld in a long time—Amethyst never has, I guess. It’s different now. The casts there, the roles we play, there is no room for free thought.” Tourmaline looked to Pearl. “Loving someone, caring about someone, you were allowed to do that, right? I can feel it in Steven. I know what it’s like.”
“If anyone knows love, it’s Steven…” Greg answered in a whisper.
Tourmaline gave a nod, reassured. “I can feel it all from Peridot too though. Love doesn’t…exist anymore. Not really. I…I don’t know if I can explain it. It’s bad. Love isn’t—you’re not assigned that. You shouldn’t. No one should… It’s just--no passion, no selflessness, or hope, or desire.” Tourmaline ran their hand through their hair, suddenly distraught. “So…dead. There are tasks, and you do them. There’s a role, and you fill it. That’s the only joy you get. There’s no room to care about anyone but yourself.”
Steven’s gem flared brightly. Small, spider cracks rooted outward from it. They crawled along Tourmaline’s skin, save for the hairline fractures that started to leech inward. Tourmaline cringed and quieted. They looked up, eyes wide and resting on Garnet.
Garnet had put her hand down to the floor, pressing herself upward. She rose with only a slight wobble before finding her bearings. She stared at Tourmaline dead-on.
“Yeah, no kidding Homeworld hates love. That’s why we left! Everything born there gets turned into cold heartless monsters! And they should die!” Garnet’s back stiffened. She eased backwards. Her voice came out softer. “Don’t be so emotional. This is more important than our reasons for leaving. This is about Steven right now.”
For the first time since Tourmaline appeared, no one was looking at them. Attention had shifted to Garnet, who managed a slight step forward.
“I know this is about Steven!” Garnet placed her right hand against her head. “I know pretty damn well what this is about. We damaged him! He’s cracking and we did that. We cracked his gem.” A sharp jerk to her spine. “Ruby!”
Tourmaline’s yellowed eyes shot wide. As best as their shaky legs would allow, Tourmaline ran forward, until only a few feet separated them from Garnet. They closed half the remaining distance by reaching their hand out.
“Garnet?” they whispered. They buckled at the waist as another crack arced over the Quartz gem, thinner than a thread. “No, you didn’t—I chose! I—Steven—this wasn’t you! We needed you to listen! This was me—us—him! I’ll stop! I will, just once you…” Their frantic eyes darted in zigzags. Tourmaline’s hand retracted. “I didn’t want to hurt you.”
“Tourmaline, just stop!” Amethyst shouted. She gave a cursory glance to Garnet before looking forward again. “Forget her, she’ll be fine! Steven’s getting hurt though! We’re listening, see? So unfuse. And then we’ll still talk! You’re not too late! We’re all ears now!”
Tourmaline shook their head in frantic bursts. “No…No! No Steven can’t explain it the way I can! I just—this was too sudden. I’m not good with words. I can do it! I just need time. I need…” Their head lowered, weak, into their palm. They clenched their teeth as a small, pitiful whine eked out. “I’m failing…”
Greg caught up to them. He took them by their stumped shoulder and turned them away from Garnet. “Just focus on what you need to say then! I believe you can do it, and then you can break apart without anyone getting hurt.”
Tourmaline’s face shined with sweat, and a flutter entered their breathing. They gave a worried nod. “Peridot doesn’t know what it’s like to have empathy. She doesn’t see this planet—anyone on it—as…as anything. Just dirt and dust…a-and some of it’s ‘alive’ but that doesn’t matter to Homeworld, so it can’t matter to her. But Steven feels so much, a-and bound to him, Peridot’s gotta feel…She’s got to feel what I can feel right now. She didn’t know any better! But…but maybe now…”
“We get it,” Pearl answered. Her words were fast; they ran together, strangled in an attempt to keep her voice low. She turned Tourmaline to her, Amethyst, and Garnet. Her eyes dropped instantly to Steven’s gem. “There’s no love in Homeworld, and Peridot couldn’t have known any better about hurting us—why it’s bad to hurt us. We get it! Split now. Split apart.” Her grip was harsh on Tourmaline’s shoulder.
Tourmaline met her stare with uncertainty. They tugged their shoulder back. “No… No you’re only saying that. You’re not really listening. I can’t leave until…” Tourmaline dropped their hand. It hovered over their stomach before pressing gently into the gem. They winced, and braced their hand against the whole gem.
“Tourmaline please!” It was Greg again. “I get it too! A-and you said you wouldn’t let Steven get hurt.”
“N-no, I didn’t explain it right!” Tourmaline sunk their head low, squaring their feet. “I’m how Peridot’s gonna learn to care! She’s part of me! She can feel…she can feel what I feel! And I care! I care… I care…” Tourmaline’s eyes shot wide, pupils thinning to nothing. Their breath grew ragged, face a mask of paranoid horror. Their hand stayed braced against Steven’s gem, but it stiffened suddenly. The fingers twitched, until a small, thin laser generated from the palm. The hand didn’t move from its hold.
It stayed, aimed point-blank, at the Rose Quartz gem.
“I care…” Tourmaline’s head bobbed upwards, and their eyes focused on the Crystal Gems with manic glee. “about myself!”
A ripple of shock ran through the room, settling as Pearl drew her spear again with fresh tears resting in the corners of her eyes. “…Peridot.”
Greg spun to Pearl, and the color drained from his already-ashen face. “That’s--?”
“It’s nice to see you again, except it’s not.” Tourmaline shouted. They pressed the gun harder against the gem on their stomach. “It never is. You break my tech and you break my ship and you break my gem.” They thrust their head out, gem front and center above their too-wide eyes. “Maybe…maybe it’s time I start breaking stuff of yours. I’m dead anyway, right?! I’m dead anyway. I’m tired—I’m tired! I’ve had enough! I’ve had enough of this!” Their breathing turned to frantic heaves. “I’m done! I’m done I’m done I’m done and I’ll make you suffer before I’m gone before I’m dead yeah go kill me kill me and the Steven comes with me!” The fusion quieted, chest heaving in and out, before taking to a burst of manic, crazed laughter. Something like fear crossed their face for a split second.
“You can’t! Please, you can’t!” Greg stared at the fusion in a fresh light. His apprehension had bled through to terror. “Not…not again. I can’t…” Helplessness sapped the strength from his knees. They threatened to give out beneath him as fear robbed him of his voice.
“He’s…he’s helping you!” Amethyst cried out. Her whip had gone slack at her side. Horror and confusion widened her eyes, parted her lips. Her voice disappeared to hardly a whisper. “Steven’s done so much for you. Why would you hurt him?”
“I’m out of options,” Tourmaline answered with an icy certainty. “You think I should—what?—die grateful that one of you clods decided to pat me on the head while the rest of you smashed my gem into a hundred pieces!? I’m hunted and stranded and left for dead, but oh I’m the unreasonable one for grabbing at the low-hanging fruit here?!”
“You’re not thinking clearly!” Pearl said. Her spear quaked in her hands. “Steven! Steven I know you can hear me! You have to take back control. You can split, I know you can!”
“I’ll smash his gem the second he tries!” Tourmaline shouted.
“He saved your life!” Amethyst’s voice cracked with outrage.
“As if any of you really planned to spare me!”
It was Garnet. She thrust herself forward, and the hard edge to her voice had vanished. It was soft, pleading. She held a palm out. “You’re not dead yet, Peridot. We have a healing spring, and it can repair your gem.”
Tourmaline’s mouth shut, puckered in distrust. “I suppose it will magically regenerate the third of my gem that’s missing? That YOU shattered?!”
A bubble materialized instantly in Garnet’s outstretched palm. Pink in color, it concealed a field of small splinters. Tourmaline’s eyebrows arched in surprise.
They looked then to Garnet, unsettled by the steady stream of tears than ran down both sides of her cheeks, eking from beneath her glasses.
“I am not trying to fool you. We can heal you. We can save you.” The bubble burst open, skin peeling backwards, until the dusty splinters clinked down onto Garnet’s open palm. “Just please…” She stepped forward, and in the glare of her glasses, Tourmaline caught their own damaged reflection. Cracked visor, cracked gem, splintered skin, matted hair, wide frantic tear-stained eyes.
They looked down into the offered palm. The shards glinted back in silence.
“Whatever you do…” A tear dripped from Garnet’s cheek, striking the front-most shard and rolling down its jagged surface. Tourmaline looked up from the fragments, drawn to the fear that played clear across Garnet’s face. Her voice came out a pleading whisper. “…don’t hurt Steven.”
Steven flexed his hand. It was weird. He could feel it, sense it, see it, but all with the distinct understanding that it wasn’t there. The rest of his body was visible to him, but he didn’t feel entirely inside it. It felt as if he had willed it into existence. It was like a dream, wherever he existed.
And she was there too, shackled to him with threads he could feel but not see. He could sense the flow of energy leeching off him—off his gem, specifically. It hurt. It made his heart beat sluggishly and his blood pulse dense inside his ears. Dizzy, foggy, draining.
Steven watched her in silence. He pressed a hand against his head in hopes of lessening the throbbing ache inside him. It did nothing; his hand didn’t really exist, and he knew that.
Peridot’s body fizzled in and out like old tv static. Steven was reminded instantly of old block buster movies with his dad, curled up on the storage shed couch in front of the tiny, grainy, gray television. It spread the ache to his chest. He wondered if he’d ever have nights like that with his dad again. His dad, who’d warned him over and over to be careful…
“You’re trying too hard,” Steven said. His words stayed contained, as if in a bubble. There was no echo from the vast, hazy nothing that bled out into the distance.
Peridot stiffened. She swung her head around and wobbled as she did so. The fear in her eyes confused him. Wide, cracked, wild things. Like an injured animal…
“What?!” she demanded before facing forward again. Her brow narrowed, sweat dripping down her almost-existent forehead. “No. Never mind. Shut up. I’m concentrating. Shut up or I’ll kill you.”
“You’re using up all your strength trying to take control,” Steven elaborated. He stood. The static spread to his gem, but this time he felt it instead of seeing it. “You’re already so weak. You’re gonna hurt yourself.”
“Nice try, but I’m not giving up control!” Peridot dropped to her knees. Her lone arm dug into the strange, fuzzy, colorless floor. “You heard all that! You heard what I said to them! Try anything and I’ll break you.”
Steven looked past her. He screwed his eyes, as if focusing on a 3D movie or an optical illusion. He could feel the strain building in his head, but things took focus. They were moving toward the warp pad. Their field of vision spun in frantic arcs: Amethyst there, Pearl there, Dad, Garnet—cupping the gem shards in her palm. Steven felt a jab in his stomach at the fresh pain and panic in their faces.
“You should let Tourmaline come back…” Steven muttered. He stepped forward. His feet beat irregular ripples into the ground. Peridot startled at his advance and scrambled away from him. “They were trying so hard to help. They can help us. They can help the Gems.” Steven stared out again. The world vanished in a flash of bright light. “You don’t need to do this.”
Peridot whipped her head around. A trail of gem granules shot out and stayed suspended in the air like tire tracks. She huffed, opening her mouth a few times before speaking.
“You…you are not allowed to talk! You are my prisoner now! You are mine. I’m in charge! I’m in control! You’ll do what I say or else! So shut up! Shut up.”
Steven dropped into a sitting position. The vigor left his body. He’d never felt anything like it: being drained right from his core, turned into a power source. Like a battery. Like a lamp, burning out, slowly…
“Please stop trying so hard. I won’t take back control by surprise, I promise.”
Peridot let out a barking laugh. “As if you could!”
Steven shut his mouth. He watched Peridot with searching eyes. She stared back, defensive, hunching in on herself. Steven scooted himself forward. He stopped when he was side-by-side with her, and offered her one sidelong glance before reaching his hand out. He clenched his fist.
In the real world, Tourmaline stiffened. Their eyes relaxed, duller and dimmer. The tension eased out of their shoulder, and they carried on with a silent calm. The change was small, and none of the Gems surrounding them noticed the silent transition of the reigns.
“Stop! Stop stop stop stop.” Peridot shooed at him with wild gestures of her stumpy arm. She sat back on her haunches now. She flipped her attention between Steven and the vast expanse beyond. Her breathing turned to violent, closed-mouth inhales and exhales. Steven eased away.
“…I told you I could.”
“Well don’t because I’m gonna smash your gem!” Peridot tensed, then slammed her stump into the ground with a strangled cry. “Just stop just stop just...let me…” She let out another small whine. “I didn’t ask to fuse with you! This is your fault. This is only your fault!”
Steven crossed his legs. He pooled his hands in his lap. They tingled too, and blotchiness entered the edges of his vision. He lifted his shirt. Tiny cracks crawled up and down his gem.
“We haven’t said anything in a while.”
“Huh?” Peridot shook her head, eyes forward. “Shut up. You’re distr—“
“Tourmaline hasn’t said anything. You’re just talking to me. Everyone else has been totally silent.”
“It’s gotta be really awful for them. …What I’ve done.” Steven pressed his hands into his spiderwebbing gem. “They’re stuck inside their own heads too, all silent, and they’re worried I’m gonna die. I’ve never seen Garnet like that… I just—I thought I was doing a good thing.”
“Shut up, and we’ll both live, okay? I won’t crack you if you shut up.”
“I’m really dumb, you know?” Steven clenched his hand to his gem. “That’s what I have Connie for, and the Gems. They’re so smart, a-and I don’t know anything. Everyone wants me to be great, but when I try I just mess everything up. This time I tried to figure things out by myself… Look what I did. I didn’t mean to.”
“That’s not shutting up.”
Tears eked from the corners of Steven’s eyes. He wiped at them messily. “Tourmaline thought they could…could work it out. Maybe Tourmaline was just wrong. Maybe I’m just wrong.” Steven glanced up to Peridot. His brow narrowed. “Why’d you have to be like this?! Why?! Why are you like this? Why don’t you feel anything?”
Peridot let out an exasperated growl. She swung her arm out at Steven, as if swatting at a fly. Her cheeks were flushed, but the rest of her skin had gone pale and clammy. Her eyes bulged, and tears leaked unnoticed from their edges. “I’m dying! Stop crying over yourself! It’s annoying. Annoying! I will crack you I will I will crack you I will that’s what I’ll do I can do it I can I can I can shut up shut up shut up.”
Something dull and disappointed edged into Steven’s eyes. Confusion, hurt, disappointment. Self-hatred finally, as he backed away from Peridot, eyes to his lap. Frustrated tears spilled over his eyelids. He clenched his fists in his lap. “I was just really stupid all along, huh? I should have listened. I don’t know anything. And now I might not be able to fix this. Any of this. I hurt them—it is my fault. You’re right. This is my fault.”
The entire formless dimension rocked. Steven felt the words explode out of Tourmaline’s mouth. They’d frozen in place, the Gems and Greg, tense with weapons drawn. Steven looked for a moment through Tourmaline’s eyes before pulling himself back in and staring, dead-on, into Peridot’s shattered, terrified face. Her tears flowed freely, and not a hint of malice remained in them. Fear alone pulled at them.
“…What?” Steven asked with a whisper. It unsettled something deep in his stomach. The word, laced with desperation, echoed in his mind.
Peridot shook her head violently. Her jaw clenched. Her body shook. She didn’t answer though, she only burnt through her strength.
She shut her eyes, bowed her head, and let the tension disappear from her body. “Please stop feeling what you’re feeling. I don’t like it. I don’t like it at all. Get it away. Get it off me. Get it out of me! I don’t want it. I don’t want it.” Her arm wrapped as best as it could around her body. Steven could feel the real Tourmaline wink back into hazy control.
“Stop…feeling?” Steven asked. He pushed himself to wobbling feet and took a deep breath. He felt inside himself, explored the mangle of emotions twisting in his chest. He heard Peridot whine in response. “That’s—you can feel what I feel,” he whispered. Steven clenched both his fists. He angled his body forward. “And I feel guilty!”
He took a step forward, hand plastered to his chest. “That means you know howawful I feel about this! I feel like I’ve messed up. I feel like I’ve hurt everyone. Like I’ve hurt people that I care about.” Steven dropped his hand. “And…then you know how much I care about them.”
Peridot hunched down. Her head shook in rhythmic bobs. “I didn’t…I didn’t doanything wrong! This was my mission. I’m completing my mission! You stranded me here! This is your fault. I’m trying to survive! Your problems aren’t my problem! Stop it! Stop making me…”
Steven took a deep breath. He focused on her, and a new sensation wormed its way into his gut. Tight, throat-clenching outrage. Heart-fluttering confusion. Terror like a heavy stone in his stomach.
“You did though,” Steven answered. He swallowed the borrowed feelings down. That blameless, righteous outrage that threatened to encase his heart, that Peridot had felt this whole time. “Remember when you came here with Jasper? How you looked at us like…like we were nothing? And Jasper told you to blast us. And you did it, because you didn’t care about us?” Steven spread his feet, straightened his back. He jammed his thumb into his chest. The edges of his vision bled to static. “Well that was my family! That was the people I love! And I thought…” His shoulders went slack. Steven looked away. “I thought I was gonna watch them get killed! And it was because of you.”
Steven let the memories flood through his mind. They’d lived on fresh in his nightmares, stamped like a bleach stain on his mind. They came flooding in: horror that turned his diaphragm to a pulsating mess and scrambled the thoughts in his brain. (Garnet, frozen in place, cracks blooming along her body. Her eyes—so open and lost—staring unknowingly at him before she broke apart entirely). Disbelief. His thoughts a soupy mess of adrenaline and panic. The strength leaving his limbs, (I was there you know. At the first war for this garbage planet.) The surreal, destructive, dissociating realization that he could—would, was going to—die. And the most important people to him would die too, without him ever saving them.
“Don’t,” Peridot breathed. But from the frantic flutter of her chest, her too wide eyes, Steven knew she’d already felt it.
She was supported only on her stump, stuck backwards into the ethereal floor. Her feet were forward, looking for the life of her like someone had shoved her over into the mud. Like a child, bullied on the playground.
Steven breathed in the self-righteous outrage that had leeched off Peridot. His head swam, vision dying at the edges. Some scared part of him realized these could be his last moments, spent riding the pain and exhilaration of feeling wronged.
A wave of shock pulsed over both of them. Steven loosened his shoulders, startled at the sudden draining of emotion from his body. The righteousness vanished, and remorse sat firmly in its spot. Peridot too was frozen, unsettled and confused by her own words. She sat up and pressed her stump against her cheek. The wetness there seemed to shock her.
“Peridot…” Steven breathed.
“I…I didn’t…” Peridot mumbled. She wavered where she sat, and Steven could sense her fading out again. “I was doing…what they told me. I don’t have any reason to care.” Her eyes dropped to her prone, shaking body. Her head tilted to the side as she took it in, her brain swimming in the wash of forcibly shared emotions. “But I’m…sorry,” she all but mouthed.
Steven sank to his knees. He stared down at the non-existent ground. He rested his palms on his thighs. Distantly, he hoped the feeling would return if he pressed hard enough. “I’m…sorry, too. I made--I made bad choices. And I can’t even really blame you. I feel it too…” He scrunched his jeans in his hands. “You’re so scared, and so overwhelmed by Earth. You’re falling apart. It’s breaking you down, being so alone, so far from home, so trapped and helpless. You did bad things…” Steven tensed his fingers. “But bad things were done to you too. I know what it’s like to think I’m gonna die. But you—that’s been every second of this past day. It feels terrible.” Steven sunk lower on himself. He shut his eyes. “I couldn’t fix that for you, though. I couldn’t talk it out before things got bad. …You know, and I think I know too, that the Gems still wanna kill you after we get to the fountain. I couldn’t convince them at all to change their minds. They want us to split, and then you’re helpless all over again, and then they can kill you. You know that, and I know that, and Tourmaline knows that.”
Peridot put all her energy into pushing herself upright. She pulled her knees in and rested her face on them, angled down, staring at her feet. She didn’t answer. She remained silent, until giving a slight shrug.
“I know I’m dead. Duh. Why do you think I said it a freaking million times, huh? Whatever. Who cares?”
Steven sat in silence. He stared at his hands, before whispering into the emptiness. “I do…”
Peridot gave a small snort before shutting her eyes.
“I’m sorry, really. About all of this,” Steven continued. He set his palms to the ground and tried to push himself into a standing position. He watched small, splintering shards clink out from under his shirt. “I couldn’t control anything.”
Another pause. “You can control this.”
Steven looked to Peridot. She stayed motionless, save for a shallow breath every few seconds.
“This. Tourmaline. Just take it back. I don’t care.” She stuck her arm out, using it as best she could to lie down on her side. She stayed there. “Just take it.”
Steven felt a shift about his gem. It was as strange a sensation as before: a battery being unplugged. A leech gone. He breathed in deep, and felt his own weak soupy energy swishing around in him. It stayed put, cut off from Peridot.
He nodded. “Yeah, okay.” Steven stared forward, finding the split between endless horizon and reality. The fountain grew out of the skyline ahead of them. Almost there. Almost. “I’ll get us to the fountain, and then we’ll be okay.”
Peridot didn’t answer. She didn’t budge. Steven gave a worried glance in her direction, eyes roving for any signs of life. He knew she had to be alive, or else the fusion would have crumbled. But it did nothing to ease the anxious butterflies in his stomach.
“Just hang tight. I-I’ll figure this out.” Steven took a deep breath. He felt himself slide back into existence. He felt legs, an arm, like slipping on socks and a glove. Fresh air hit his face, smells and sights and sounds. His family flanked him on all sides, all part of the same solemn procession.
His next words he kept to only a thought.
“I can still fix this.”
Steven pictured it like the revolving door he’d once seen in the city. Tourmaline surrendered their consciousness, passing quietly into one end of the spinning passage as Steven pressed his weight from the other side. It spun for him, his sight and hearing and smell sharpening like a front of heat after stepping into the sunlight. And beside him, Tourmaline passed the other way into the senseless recesses of their shared mind.
He felt a stab of guilt in his now-existent stomach. Steven could sense the ebb of abject failure move out with them. They’d been created for the purpose of resolving an unsolvable problem. And when that failed, Tourmaline had just been used as a puppet—their mouth used to make threats that weren’t theirs, their body used to do harm they never wanted. In control only for a few minutes, taken over by Peridot, in control, taken over by Steven. Tourmaline had been reduced to a vessel whose own thoughts and feelings were shunted aside by the very people who created them.
Sorry, Tourmaline… Steven thought. I’ll find a way to make it up to you.
It was a fleeting thought, It had to be, as Steven became aware of his new body, his new surroundings.
These legs were bulky, heavy. They moved with a clunk in every step. His single arm scared him. Clenching only his left fist sent thrills of panic down his borrowed spine. There existed a steady ache where his right arm stumped. It brought a small whine of pain to his lips, which he swallowed down. He shivered, remembering the first time he saw Peridot reemerge. One arm stumped, the other gone completely. It bred anxiety in his stomach.
With small tilts of his head, Steven looked side to side. They’d warped in his mental absence. Knots of green bushes and heady grass flanked them on all sides. Trees dripping with the wilted dregs of summer flowers, ground peppered with the flakes of red and orange foliage the signaled the start of fall. Steven’s whole world had bled to iridescent green. It was splintered by a crack in the center of Tourmaline’s visor. Garnet and Amethyst walked to his left, Greg and Pearl to his right. Steven felt himself stiffen as he made direct eye-contact with Pearl.
Hatred burned there. Pure hatred.
He stared back a moment longer, mystified. It unsettled his stomach to see such raw disdain in her face. Pearl, who kissed his booboos better. Pearl, who read him bedtime stories and did the voices for him even if they were never right. He knew she was strong; he knew she was a soldier, but seeing that pure rage directed at him felt…surreal. Teeth clenched, eyes blazing and streaked with drying tears, every nerve in her body taut and prepared.
Steven looked away. He noticed after a moment he’d stopped breathing.
They still think I’m Peridot, he remembered. Steven glanced down to his single gloved hand. Tourmaline’s, he supposed. Or maybe no one’s—a costume to be thrown around and yanked on and shed until it broke down entirely. He fought down the bubbling terror in his gut at the thought of it.
He shunted those fears to the back of his mind. He had to think. He needed something, a strategy, a way forward.
No plan. No grasping tricks. He had control of Tourmaline, sure, but that meant less than nothing when he had no influence over the Gems. Everything he’d tried had failed. All his begging and pleading had gotten him nowhere, worse than nowhere. It’d earned him nothing but conflict.
And now, Steven had nothing else to say. He had only Peridot’s pained apology echoing in his mind, and he knew he couldn’t explain it the way he’d experienced it. He couldn’t find a shred of faith in his ability to show them what he’d seen. Not now that Peridot had threatened his life directly.
Another dusting of murky sand clinked down his visor. It didn’t startle Steven. He only wondered absently how much of Peridot’s gem had been lost to these tiny, eroded cascades.
Garnet. He looked to her next. It took an obvious twist of his head, and he felt himself unable to search her face. He only looked to the cluster of tiny gem shards rebubbled in Garnet’s hand.
He twisted to Amethyst, who looked almost comically stunted beneath Peridot’s two mechanical arms. Steven hadn’t been entirely conscious of the demands Peridot made when she took control of Tourmaline, but some small part of him recalled her screaming about the Gems bringing along her arms for her after she healed.
“Look, uh, Peridot. We’re not gonna try anything. Really.” Greg jogged up closer. Apprehension widened his eyes. He looked from Pearl, to Garnet, to Amethyst, tracing out the path Steven’s gaze had taken. “Steven staying safe is the most important thing to us. We wouldn’t risk trying to double cross you or anything. W-we’re almost there.”
“O-oh. Okay,” Steven answered. He hid his face away, finding interest in the chalky ground beneath his feet. It hurt him, seeing that fear in his dad’s eyes.
It’s me! It’s Steven again! Please stop worrying. I’m okay! Peridot and I worked it out and great news, she’s changed her mind about…killing me.
He buried the thought, fighting every urge to scream it aloud. The Gems were cooperating now, only because they believed Peridot held his life in her hands.
Steven looked forward. The fountain bloomed nearer. A stiff, warm cliffside to the left, wide blue skies on the right. It had been overcast back home—Steven was sure of it. Here though, the clouds had slipped away. In the center sat her fountain. The stone Rose towered high at its center. Her arms were spread out, open. They were passive and kind and welcoming. Pale, pink streams of water washed from her eyes. They rippled in the fountain below, their currents revealed by the swirling dance of flower petals caught in the flow.
He could run and dive into the fountain, take the Gems by surprise. He could split from Peridot underwater, and hope she’d have enough sense to bolt away in the confusion. Maybe she could get away then, fly off—maybe—out of harm’s reach.
It meant trusting a lot to uncertainty, Steven realized with a tight-throated swallow.
He could order the Gems to back away, stay back two hundred feet while he approached the fountain. That would definitely give Peridot the headstart she needed. They’d listen to him too, so long as he still pretended to be her. As long as he lied to them, and threatened himself.
The thought of putting them through that brought guilty tears to his eyes.
He blinked them back. His heart beat faster as the fountain approached, as time thinned. Even if he did that, even if Peridot could get away, it left the hollow certainty in his gut that it wasn’t enough. He hadn’t convinced anyone of anything. The Gems would never stop looking for her. She’d live out the rest of her days on Earth hunted and scared and constantly looking over her shoulder. It wouldn’t be enough. Nothing Steven could think of would be enough.
I’m sorry. I’m really sorry… Steven searched inside his mind, but Peridot had vanished. He couldn’t tell when she’d stopped paying attention, but it drove it home with a pang to his gut that she really had given up hope. He felt so suddenly alone in his head.
“Alright Peridot, this is Rose’s fountain. Not that you should even be here,” Pearl said with a nasty bite to her voice. Steven saw her teeth grinding inside her closed mouth. Her empty fingers twitched, stir-crazy without a weapon to grasp. “…But it’s for Steven.” She turned to him, vicious eyes boring into his. “I’ll remind you that if you do anything to hurt him once you’re healed, we will crack your gem for good. And we will do it slowly, piece at a time. Maybe we will heal you along the way, and therefore you can live every day in agony, for millennia, until we finally shatter you through. The war made me creative, Peridot. I don’t make empty threats: I swear on my honor as a knight of Rose Quartz.”
A shudder of horror worked its way through Steven’s commandeered body. He dropped his eyes, trying to scrub the visual from his mind. “Yeah, I wouldn’t… I’m not…” Steven quieted. He couldn’t find the words Peridot would use. Her voice was lost to him, her thinking gone. His head swam in isolation.
Garnet stepped forward. The bubble popped, and she offered a stiff hand forward. Somehow, her silence burned harder against Steven’s heart than Pearl’s threats. “Heal yourself, and then release Steven. That’s our deal.”
Amethyst eyed Garnet before moving forward. A forced calm settled on her face, eyes dull and mouth tight. “Yeah, and here are your gross robot arms, fresh from the Kindergarten muck.” Amethyst spread her arms wide. The two mechanical limbs collapsed into the dirt with a metal clunk. “Want me to spit-shine ‘em too?”
“Uh… no?” Steven cowed under the Gems’ aggressive gazes. He looked instead to his dad as the beginnings of tears pricked at his eyes. “And uh are you gonna let…me escape, once I’ve unfused from Steven?”
Greg stared back. The fear ebbed from his face; it tightened instead, eyes suddenly narrowed. He leaned forward. Steven looked away.
“Of course,” Garnet answered. “We care about Steven far more than we care about cracking you.”
She’s lying, a little voice whispered in Steven’s head. He could sense the edge to her voice. She’s not gonna let Peridot escape after this. But it’s not like she’d tell you that. Not when you’re supposed to be Peridot, and you have Steven “hostage.”
Not enough. Nothing would be.
Steven edged to the fountain. He skimmed his remaining hand over the stone wall, about a foot high. It was cold, bumped with jagged ruts and seams. He breathed in deeply, and the soft floral air stole his mind away.
Something was pushed beneath his eyes. He focused, startled, at Garnet’s hand. She offered the gem shards without a word. Steven struggled to find his voice. “O-oh. Oh yeah. Thank you.” He gathered the shards in his hand and cradled them to his stomach. It brought him back to the previous night, with Peridot’s shattered gem housed in his folded shirt. It felt a lifetime ago.
“Hey, uh, Peridot?” Greg. Steven looked up at his dad. Greg’s eyes were piercing, but not unkind. “Y-you know, I wasn’t so certain about you at first. But I’m starting to think—you know, we all mess up. And make mistakes. Sometimes we don’t understand things until it’s too late. Maybe we rushed this… I mean, i-it’s kind of a saying-- If every porkchop were perfect—“
“—we wouldn’t have hotdogs,” Steven answered in quiet monotone. It came so naturally, a default response. The realization hit him a half second later, and he stiffened. Eyes wide, face alert, he searched the Gems. They’d all frozen. New eyes stared at him in disbelief.
“Steven…” Garnet breathed.
Pearl clapped her hands together. Hope broke clear over her voice. “You got it back! You did it Steven! I knew you could—Unfuse now! Before it’s too late! Who knows when she’ll come back?! Quick, Steven.”
“Yeah man!” Amethyst jammed her hand out for a high-five. It hung there, unreciprocated, as Steven pressed himself back against the fountain. His head shook rhythmically.
Pearl’s face fell slowly. “…Steven?” She swept an arm out. “Do it now, Steven! Unfuse now!”
His held-back tears finally rolled to his cheeks. Steven gave a quick glance to his broken, monstrous body before looking up again. His voice was hardly a whisper. “You don’t get it… She apologized. She apologized to me. And gave it back. And gave up.” He swallowed, and tried to ignore the open horror on Pearl’s face. “I could feel that—linked to me—that decision to give up living. You can’t understand…”
“Steven,” it was Garnet now, speaking through clenched teeth, “how long have you been in control?”
“O-only a few minutes!” he answered hurriedly.
“I knew it…” Greg whispered from the back. Amethyst spared a second’s glance to him before focusing on Steven.
“Dude, ‘a few minutes’? That’s like--a freaking eternity for us here!” She threw her pleading arms out. “You know how many seconds that was where I thought you were gonna die? Every single second I thought you were dead, man! And I couldn’t do anything about it!”
Steven opened and shut his mouth a few times. Loss wormed its way into his heart. He felt useless, he felt cruel. It spread to shaking in his single arm. Imploringly, he looked to Pearl.
“It’s…It’s not like that. No one gets it. I never wanted… This—This is all wrong, guys. I didn’t mean for it…” His eyes shifted among the Gems and his dad. “…Guys?”
Pearl tooka step back. Her trembling hands tightened to fists at her side. Suddenly taller, suddenly colder. “What’s wrong with you, Steven?” Pearl asked. And the hurt in her voice cut deeper than any anger.
“…I can’t believe you.” Garnet was hardly audible. She kept her head lowered, angled to the side, as if she couldn’t stand the sight of him. Steven noted a tremor that worked its way into her clenched fists. “Everything you’ve done today. Peridot. Fusing. Letting us believe…that we—that I…” She backed away and pressed a finger to the center of her shades. “I’ve never been so disappointed in you, Steven. Maybe we were wrong about this…Maybe you can’t handle the responsibility of the Rose Quartz gem.”
The words came like the lash of a whip. Steven flinched. All the doubt that had been whirling in his mind crashed over his body at that second. He’d done everything wrong. He’d ruined everything. He’d hurt them. It choked up his lungs and sprung tears from his eyes.
Until his mind flooded with confusion at the sound of a small, sad chuckle from Pearl. He looked to her, Amethyst and Garnet too. Her eyes were lost in the distance. They were soft again. A gentle blue, the kind Steven remembered. Alertness returned to Pearl’s face, and a fierce blush crawled along her cheeks.
“S-sorry,” she muttered. “It’s just—I-I remember…they said just that to Rose. So many Gems turned their back on her when she…declared she had every intention of fighting for Earth’s protection.” A near imperceptible smile pulled at her lips. “She’d told me ahead of time; I was prepared. I understood her reasons, but so many other Gems didn’t. I heard it in the whispers…that maybe she wasn’t fit to lead. Maybe she’d cracked under the pressure. Maybe she’d hated her troops all this time.” She twisted her hands together. The distant, nostalgic smile on her face dropped. Her mouth grew firm, and her eyes dropped. “I…can’t believe I’d forgotten. Taking the brunt of their hurt and their hate, from the people she loved. I’d forgotten how much I…admired her for that.”
Pearl took a step forward. Past Amethyst, past Greg, past Garnet. She stopped just shy of the Tourmaline body, staring into eyes she recognized as Steven’s. She reached a hand out to his cheek, and pressed her palm there gently as Steven’s face twisted with fresh tears. “Rose was so…flawless, in my eyes. I forgot anyone could doubt her. I forgot how strong she was when everyone turned on her.” She wrapped her other arm around Steven’s back, and pulled the fusion in. “I’m hurt, Steven. We’re all hurt. …But you never wanted that. You’re Steven. You’d never want anyone hurt.”
A sob broke from Steven’s mouth, and he buried himself into Pearl. His cries echoed, hard and heavy. All the pent up anxiety and fear exploded outward. He leaned in harder and found support in Pearl’s grasp.
Amethyst stepped forward. Her eyes shot from side to side, a guilty timid hunch entering her figure. “I uh…I knew Pearl was the smart one for a reason.” She busied her eyes in a particular stone on the ground. “What are we doing yelling at you, huh? You’ve had it worse than any of us. Just for…tryin’ save someone’s life. You really are Rose’s kid, aren’t you?” She looked up, pushing herself to her tiptoes. Amethyst patted a hand against the matted dark green hair on Steven’s head.
Pearl released him. Steven found his own footing. His breaths came in hiccupping bursts, and he fought to find his composure as he glanced up. Garnet had moved forward, closer, intent on him. Steven pressed the gem shards closer to his stomach. His breath caught.
Garnet fell to her knees, and grabbed him close to her. Steven’s heart fluttered.
“What am I doing?” she breathed into his hair. “The clusters, Peridot, Homeworld—I’m angry, Steven. I’ve felt lost. I’ve felt scared. I’ve felt useless ever since we found them…a-all these years, thousands and thousands of years they’ve been here, and I’ve done nothing for them. I’ve been angry. Angry at Homeworld. Angry at Peridot. Angry at myself.” Her arms tightened around Steven’s back. “…But not at you. Never at you, Steven. …I’ve made you do such terrible things today.” she pulled him closer as she spoke. “How can you forgive me?”
Steven eased away from her. Tremors of relief racked his body, and he smiled at her. He grasped the gem shards in his palm, and used the back of his hand to wipe away the tears from Garnet’s face.
“By talking,” Steven answered. “…By finally talking to me.”
Greg’s hand came down hard on Steven’s shoulder. He turned, and found his dad’s beaming eyes brimming with tears. “Why’d I ever have to fall in love with a woman as brave and selfless as your mother? Why’d our kid have to take after her instead of being a big old scaredy coward like me?” He wrapped Steven in another hug. “Gave me quite a scare there, kiddo…”
“I’m not super brave like Mom was, Dad…” Steven answered breathlessly. “I’ve been so scared this whole time.”
“That just makes you super brave,” Amethyst answered. Her eyes dropped to Steven’s chipping gem. “But maybe go for something a little less stupid next time. Dive in that fountain before you turn into sand, dude.”
Steven nodded. He disentangled himself, backed up a few steps, and swung one leg over the fountain’s edge. The next followed, until he stood about a foot deep in the pool’s periphery. He glanced toward the center, noting how the fountain’s floor sloped downward, deepest toward the middle. He waded out, step by step, as the currents lapped higher. The water surface broke in ripples. A jolt rocked through his body as the ring of water around his waist lapped at the edges of his gem. The Rose Quartz gem glowed instantly, its webbing cracks receding into nothing. The pains he’d buried vanished in part. The exhaustion pulling at his gut loosened. He felt alive, restored, renewed.
And Peridot’s gem…
Steven froze. The other Gems did too as an edge of tinny static broke over the air. Steven felt a singing echo to the noise in his right arm, like a phantom limb. Nothing there, but something calling to it.
…ishing contact. Signal received. Crystal System Peridot, do you copy? Crystal System Peridot.
Steven spun in the fountain. He looked toward the edge, eyes falling instantly to the two dropped limbs in the dirt there. One of them sung out with the same signal.
Attempting to establish contact. Crystal System Peridot, do you copy? Crystal System Peridot.
Silence, thick and heavy, followed the radio sequence.
“Why’s it doing that?” Amethyst hissed. She was met with a harsh shh from Pearl and Garnet both. The voice on the other line stirred something inside Steven, something he knew wasn’t his. An alertness. A hope. He raced back to the Gems as fast as he could in the sluggish water.
He caught only a quick glance of the four frozen faces surrounding the mutilated limbs before Tourmaline snagged back control.
Greg backed away from the piece. He put his hands up and out before twisting to Garnet and whispering. “What’s happening? Who’s that? What does it want?”
“The radio transmodulator has picked up a signal from a Homeworld Gem,” Tourmaline breathed as they set one foot out of the fountain. The Gems and Greg looked to Tourmaline with lost faces. The change in tone, the knowledge of Peridot’s systems, a silent understanding settled over them that Steven was no longer in control.
“T-tourmaline?” Amethyst tiptoed around the arm, sidling up beside the fusion. Her wide, panicked eyes shot between the limb and Tourmaline. “What’s that even mean? Explain it please because I am fa-reaking out a little.”
“It…it doesn’t make sense,” Tourmaline whispered back. Their mind whirled with impossibilities. A tempest of fear and hope swamped their thoughts as the static crackled. “None at all. There needs to be a functioning warp pad to carry a signal from Homeworld.”
“We destroyed those,” Pearl hissed. She summoned a fresh spear from her gem and drew it tight to her chest.
“That’s why it doesn’t make sense. Steven helped you destroy the Homeworld Warp, and Peridot never fixed it again. It’s down.” Tourmaline quieted, stiffened, a spark flickering across their cracked eyes. “Unless…”
“Unless what?” Garnet asked. She drew her gauntlets, but uncertainty kept her from smashing the signing limb.
“Unless…” Tourmaline shivered at the thought, for both fear and excitement. The wind was cold on their wet skin, hollow in their ringing ears. “It’s a local signal.”
Attempting to establish contact. Crystal System Peridot, do you copy? Crystal System Peridot…
Steven landed hard on his hands and knees. He let out a small oomf, even if his lungs and voice weren’t technically there. It came as a reflex to the sudden fall from control. He looked up, blinking the disorientation from his body as he found himself back in the fuzzy, not-so-real matrix of their shared mind.
A sharp motion caught his attention. Peridot startled at the intrusion. She was still lying on her side, but her eyes flew open. She flinched as Steven crashed beside her, before scrambling to get her stump of an arm under her for support in a fit of adrenaline-fueled panic.
“What- What are you doing here?! What happened?!” Her words echoed raw with static. Steven gave her form a once over, noting with a pit of fear in his stomach that her cracks had gouged deeper, and her form had blurred.
“I-I’m sorry,” he choked out. Steven crawled backwards. A seed of heavy, twisting failure knotted in him. “I couldn’t heal your gem in time.”
A shade of alertness dropped from Peridot’s eyes. Peridot gave a quick glance to Steven’s healed gem, almost with disinterest. She lowered herself flat to the hazy ground again. “Then leave me alone. I wanna die in peace.”
Steven didn’t budge though. He sat there, immobile, uncertain. It bred a thick tension between the two, one Peridot couldn’t willfully ignore. Peridot cracked her eyes open and searched his face. Confusion and terrified uncertainty bled through to her mind—emotions that weren’t her own. She inhaled deeply in hopes of stirring her failing matrix. “…What happened?” she clipped out, as if it pained her to even ask.
“I-I-I was gonna do it. I had to be careful about it because all your gem shards and everything—if I lost one maybe it wouldn’t work. I was being slow. And then your arms—you remember how you told Amethyst to bring your arms?—they uh…see I don’t really know but…”
“Spit it out!” Peridot answered. She jerked her head forward, body still pressed to the floor.
“It picked up a signal someone’s talking to it!” Steven shielded his hands over his head and squeezed his eyes shut. He froze, then cracked one eye open to Peridot.
Peridot didn’t answer. She blinked. She waited. Against better judgement, Peridot shoved herself bolt upright. “WHAT?!”
Steven hopped back. He stumbled to his feet and all but pinwheeled away. Peridot’s voice rang in his ears with an intensity he hadn’t thought possible in the mindspace.
“A…Homeworld signal, I think.”
He watched, almost awestruck, as Peridot’s remaining limbs shoved and kicked against the ground. A flailing, fading, uncoordinated mess, she got herself standing before all but tipping over. Steven jumped forward and grabbed her half-arm to keep her upright.
“A signal. A signal?! Impossible that’s impossible there’s no warp to carry across it’d have to…” She rocked. Steven tightened his grip and pulled against the weight of her body. “…be here… It means they’re here. It means they came back they came back for me.”
She yanked and swung her arm in wild loops, grabbing for freedom away from Steven.
“Peridot, you’re gonna hurt yourself worse!” Steven whined. He endured the desperate tugging, knocked left and right like a chew toy. “You disconnected yourself from me now you’re just hurting your gem!”
“Get off me I don’t care!” One final, savage swing of her arm sent Steven off. “I need to take back control! I need to talk to them!”
Peridot moved forward, attempting a run as her head swung side to side in search of the front view. Steven scrambled after her. He threw himself at her leg and tackled her in a rolling fit of limbs and (form Peridot) curses. He endured a few ungraceful kicks to his face.
“Peridot, stop! I gave Tourmaline control; let them handle it!”
“Why?!” Peridot waved her useless stump as Steven dragged himself closer to her face, hands still clamped around her trapped body.
“Because I’m not letting you tell Homeworld to come back and hurt us!” He sat himself firmly on top of her. She flung another string of curses at him as he crossed his arms. “I made Tourmaline to handle this, and that’s what they’re gonna do.”
“They’re gonna get me killed!”
“Why would they do that?” Steven asked with an edge to his voice. “They’re half you…”
Steven tried to ignore the way the vigor and life drained from Peridot’s body. She went limp, face to the floor, and gave up the fight.
“It’s only fair,” Steven said quietly.
He breathed in deep, steeled himself, fighting the worming panic in his chest as Peridot whined and cried into the imaginary ground.
Attempting to establish contact. Crystal System Peridot, do you copy? Crystal System Peridot.
“Okay so staring at this thing is fun and all,” Amethyst spoke in a clipped, panicked whisper. She’d sidled up beside Garnet, both hands clamped painfully tight to Garnet’s leg, “but what do we do what’s it mean what do we tell it? Garnet, come on.”
Garnet took to only small shakes of her head, before shifting her attention to Tourmaline. They returned the stare, nodded once, and pushed off from the fountain. They knelt down in the mulchy dirt. Tourmaline pressed their hand to the ground, and with gentle care they dropped Peridot’s gem shards. The bits of stone clinked together like a wind chime, existing for only a second. Cautiously, they tapped their fingers against the disconnected limb. It whined with a burst of white static, feedback.
“…This is Crystal System Peridot,” Tourmaline said. “I copy.”
They looked up to the Gems, mouth shut, eyes wide, and shook their head in large, exaggerated arcs. They glanced back to the limb before looking to the Gems and aggressively mouthing No I’m not…
“Crystal System Peridot, this is Crystal System Commander Cinnabar. Do you copy?”
“Yes, Crystal System Commander Cinnabar,” Tourmaline answered. They stuck their single hand to their forehead in salute, despite no visual connection to the voice.
“U-uh…mission failed, for the most part. Ship is down, status unknown. Informant and Escort are gone, status unknown.”
“Copy, Crystal System Peridot.” There was a rustle in the communication. “We are receiving no visual. Can you confirm?”
“Yes. No visual on this end.”
“U-uh,” Tourmaline tripped over their words. They opened and closed their single fist, eyes scanning the Gems and Greg for some kind of signal. “My gem is cracked. I imagine that is the source of…of the technical difficulties.”
“…Severe,” Tourmaline answered truthfully. They crossed their legs beneath them and leaned in. They didn’t dare blink as they stared down the arm.
“We’ve received files from your database. Transferring now. Are these the data on the Crystal System Clusters?”
“Yes, ma’am,” Tourmaline answered. “Clusters are developing as expected, some ahead of schedule.”
“…Well it’s nice to have one part of this monumental pain in my ass cleared up.”
“M-ma’am?” Tourmaline asked.
“My branch has absorbed the Cluster Project from you. We are en-route to Earth. Expect contact in one planetary rotation.”
“Oh!” Tourmaline answered in a strangled fit of excitement and terror. Their whole body felt suddenly numb at the implications. Freedom! Death! Home! Capture! Steadily, fright won over in Tourmaline’s head as something about Cinnabar’s voice dug into their mind.
“The blackbox signal from Captain Jasper’s spacecraft has also cleared transfer. Jasper claims you’ve found the Rose Quartz gem on Earth embedded in a human. Can you confirm?”
Garnet, all but silently, let a sharp hiss of air pass her teeth. Pearl clasped her spear closer. Her mouth worked in fits of unspoken words. Things she couldn’t possibly say out loud without blowing their cover. She settled on covering her mouth with a hand she loosened from her weapon. Amethyst backed away with large, disbelieving shakes of her head. Greg glanced among the Gems, but didn’t dare say anything.
Tourmaline swallowed down a few different responses. They pressed their hand to the healed gem on their stomach.
“Peridot, do you copy?”
“L-loud and clear! I-I just… I cannot confirm. I am not familiar with the Rose Quartz gem. I do not know.”
“Did you take hostile gems and a human prisoner? Please confirm, Crystal System Peridot.”
Tourmaline looked back to the Gems. Stressed tears eked at the edges of their eyes. She’s got Jasper’s message, Tourmaline mouthed to the others. Tourmaline saw past the Gems, to the garden beyond. The dense network of trees rustled. Rusty leaves dropped with each passing gust of wind, wilting, shriveling, dying.
Slowly, Garnet nodded her head.
“…Y-yes, ma’am. We did.”
“Were they the cause of the crash?”
“I…U-unknown. The ship started losing altitude while I was piloting it. Some internal failure I-I think.”
“Status of the Rose Quartz gem?”
There was a slight crack on the other end. “What do you know, Peridot?”
Tourmaline flinched. They stared into the mechanical arms, attention drawn to the buckling metal. Harsh seams cut through and mangled them. Green chipped away, revealing rough gouges in the silver plating. Seeing the arms like this hurt Tourmaline in a way they couldn’t quite grasp. “N-not much, Crystal Commander Cinnabar. Jasper understood much better than I—uh I just…when the ship went down, I took the escape pod. That was 49 Earth rotations ago. I’ve collected the Cluster data, but I haven’t figured out anything else since.”
A sigh pierced from the other side. A moment of silence. “Attempt to locate the Rose Quartz gem. We will make contact at the crash site.”
There came a click from the limb, a momentary crackle, then heavy bleeding silence. Tourmaline slumped in on themselves. The Earth was damp and cold beneath them.
“It’s off, you know… You guys can talk,” they muttered.
Three voices started up at once, two of them quieting as Pearl’s question rang loudest.
“Who is she?” she asked with an edge of hysteria in her voice. Her hands trembled.
“Commander Cinnabar…” Tourmaline swept their hand back. They skimmed over the green shards in the dirt. Their fingers played over the sharp contours, the jagged edges. Clinking, broken, sad things.
Amethyst puffed herself upward. She swung her arms wide, and drove one fist into her open hand. “Welp. Are we ready for Homeworld butt-kicking round two?”
Tourmaline spun fiercely, still on their knees. “No!” they shouted, voice imploring. “You can’t fight Cinnabar! She’s got hundreds of Gems under her control. T-they’re not with her, but if she goes missing, they’ll know! And that’s assuming we can win,” Tourmaline scrambled to their feet, swaying with the effort, “which we can’t! Cinnabar’s been in charge of the Crystal System for like…thousands of years.”
Pearl angled her head down to the dirt. “She probably assumed command after the war.” A derisive, indulgent smirk crossed her face, and she laughed. “I can only imagine Homeworld’s opinion of someone leading the Crystal System after Rose’s rebellion. It can’t be positive.”
Tourmaline nodded. “Yeah, they’re at her neck all the time.”
Garnet shifted. She looked Tourmaline over. “You know this for a fact.”
“It’s…yeah, I just do. I guess Peridot knows?”
“And now she’s on her way here,” Garnet followed up. There was no inflection to her voice.
Tourmaline stared back into the ground. Their eyes trailed to the pile of gem shards. “She’s…she’s excited that Rose Quartz might be weak. If she can capture the gem…Well, she could earn Homeworld retribution for the War. She thinks so, at least.”
Garnet took another step to Tourmaline. She was a foot taller than Tourmaline and looked down through glaring shades. It unsettled Tourmaline, who took a step back.
“I-I’m not gonna try to double-cross you guys! I really promise.”
Garnet didn’t move. “Peridot didn’t know anything about the Rose Quartz gem when she came to Earth. Jasper alone recognized Steven’s gem. Peridot may know Cinnabar, but there is no reason for Peridot to know Cinnabar’s motives if they involve the Rose Quartz gem.”
Tourmaline blinked. They held their breath against the suddenly hostile energy. “O-oh. Are you asking me how I know that?” Tourmaline angled their head back to the pile of arms. “I heard it. Didn’t you guys? Just now.”
Pearl eyed the cluster of limbs. She narrowed her eyes. “I have an immaculate memory. …One could assume that’s why she has interest in the gem, but she didn’t say anything of the sort.”
“What are you talking about?” Tourmaline asked in a whisper. They turned to Greg. “Greg, you heard that, didn’t you? I-I don’t remember the exact quote.”
Greg only gave a small shrug. He looked to Pearl. “I didn’t. I gotta go with Pearl on this one.”
Amethyst broke into the loop. She just narrowly avoided crushing Peridot’s gem shards into the ground. “Okay but consider this: Who cares?!” She thrust her arms out. “Homeworld’s back in orbit, and we’ve got nothing. They could be here looking for a pencil they dropped 5,000 years ago and we’d still be screwed!”
Garnet stood center. She twisted to get a good view of everyone present. “We were lucky last time. It was a fluke that we were able to escape, and that was with only two Homeworld Gems opposing us. We need to evacuate Beach City, and we need to leave.”
Pearl swallowed, ashen faced, and nodded. Amethyst looked lost for once, no protest rising to her lips. Greg sat down, and lowered his head in his hands. Garnet closed back in on Tourmaline and placed a gentle hand on their shoulder.
“Tourmaline, I am sorry. I am sorry for how we’ve treated you so far. I’m sorry you’ve had to exist for this reason. But we no longer have the luxury of caring about Peridot’s existence. We cannot give her back to Homeworld. We cannot put ourselves in any further danger for her sake.”
Tourmaline stared back, silent. Steadily, they brought their one hand up to Garnet’s. They rested it on top, then leaned their head against it. Sad, listless eyes scanned the ground.
“It’s not like returning her to Homeworld would help her much anyway.”
A ripple of confusion broke over the Gems and Greg. Amethyst let out a huff, crossing her arms. “Yeah, death is probably better than going back to some slave-driving evil dictatorship.”
Tourmaline angled their head back up. “No, I mean they won’t take her back. She’s cracked. I told them she’s cracked…”
A beat of silence. “Elaborate,” Garnet said.
“She said it at the end of the message!” Tourmaline insisted. They stuck their pleading hand out. “I-I screwed up! I told her Peridot’s badly cracked. Now they won’t take her back! And even i-if we healed her now, then they’d know we’ve got something on Earth that magically heals gems. They think the Earth is useless! And that’d give them a reason to come back!”
Pearl shook her head. “Tourmaline, Cinnabar did not say that. I’m positive.”
“She did though! I-I didn’t imagine it.”
Greg came forward. “Tourmaline, what exactly did she say? What words did she use?”
Tourmaline opened their mouth to speak, suddenly lost. Anxiety tore at their face as they glanced among the Gems. “I-I’m not cracked through yet. I’m not that broken. I-I know what I heard. I just don’t remember…how she said it.”
“Tourmaline, look at me.” Garnet crouched by the fusion. She stared hard into their shattered eyes. A moment of silence passed, pregnant with the wind and rustle of leaves. “Now repeat to me what I told you.”
Tourmaline tilted their head, narrowed their eyes. “You said you want to get the word out to Beach City about this once we get back, so they can get as far away as possible.”
Greg glanced between the two fusion Gems. “Garnet didn’t say anything, Champ.”
Tourmaline’s eyes shot to him, offended. “I heard! She was quiet.”
“Greg is right. I didn’t say anything,” Garnet cut in.
“That is what I want to do though.” Garnet stared through her darkened shades, unblinking. “You understand intentions, Tourmaline. You’ve been understanding intentions this entire time.” She pulled the fusion closer. “You knew when Pearl was lying back in the house. Steven, in your body, knew when I lied about not intending to heal Peridot. Was that you who told him?”
Tourmaline nodded, looking away like a child caught eaves-dropping. “Y-yeah, I told him that.”
Garnet angled herself backwards. Her vision strayed to the fountain behind Tourmaline. Tourmaline turned with her, scanning the soft stone face at the top. Rose’s eyes were shut, but a steady flow of tears fell from them. They rippled below, spun currents, released a stream of gentle white noise.
“Rose Quartz had incredible powers of empathy. She understood emotions, and pain, and love better than any Gem before her. This is something Steven has inherited. He senses emotions; he understands others.” Garnet refocused on Tourmaline. She came closer. Through her shades, Tourmaline caught the sharp worry in her three eyes. “He understood Peridot’s pain. He felt it with her. Everything Steven has done up until now has been for her protection, and he has had no reason to protect her.”
“He did, though. He had a reason. He did it because he cared that she was hurt.” Tourmaline answered quietly. They looked down to their own cracking body as they spoke.
“Yes, more than any of us.” Garnet bent lower, commanding Tourmaline’s attention back. “And he created you in an act of pure empathy. You are an amplification of his power. That’s what you are, that’s why you exist: you are a conduit for emotion.”
Tourmaline shook their head. They tried to shrug away Garnet’s hands. “T-that’s not true! You say that like—you make it sound like I’m a mind-reader!”
“I did not say you are.” Garnet took a step back. “I said you sense intention. You understand unspoken action. It’s how you knew when the three of us lied about not intending to break Peridot. It’s how you’re able to share emotion between Steven and Peridot. It’s how you’re able to sense Cinnabar’s intentions with the Rose Quartz gem, with Peridot.”
Slowly, silently, Tourmaline nodded. It was reserved; the revelation meant nothing to them. They angled their eyes up. “So… so what? I need to die either way. Peridot needs to crack through, and Steven needs to escape from Cinnabar.” They looked directly into Garnet’s eyes.
“You know what I want you to tell me.”
“What’s… What’s Cinnabar’s plan then if she can’t find the Rose Quartz gem…” Tourmaline screwed up their face, concentrating, as if trying to remember. “The Earth is useless and dead beside the Clusters… Attacking it would waste resources, and time. Homeworld wouldn’t have any reason to.”
Amethyst circled around Tourmaline and Garnet. She kept her eyes to them and leaned against the fountain. “So… Homeworld’s got no beef with the Earth right now. They just want Steven. That means we just gotta bury Steven like ten miles underground somewhere, yeah?” she asked. “Put him behind like 18 locked doors? Ship him off to the Bermuda Triangle? Just keep him on the down-low and hope they give up?”
Tourmaline watched her. Defeat broke clear over their face. “Their gem-sensing technology would see through that. They could probably scan the whole Earth in a couple hours. It’s a system they use mostly to scan Kindergarten planets and figure out how well they’re producing.” Tourmaline’s eyes flitted among the Gems, suddenly meek. “P-peridot knows that.”
“24 hours is not enough time to build anything that could get Steven off-planet,” Pearl said. Anxiety cut her voice. She threaded her fingers together and finally let her spear disappear from existence. “It didn’t matter then, whether or not we’d killed Peridot. Cinnabar was coming for the Clusters anyway. She’d have found Jasper’s transmission regardless, once she was in range.” She swallowed, slumped to the ground, and offered one cynical laugh. “All this running around, all this fighting, got us nowhere in the end…”
Greg watched her, stricken. He looked young, almost childish, peeking up from the ground. His attention turned to Garnet. “That…that can’t be true, can it? There’s gotta be something…somehow…anything we can do…”
Garnet crossed her arms. She stared down into the dirt, and when she spoke, her voice was laced with shame. “This clock has been ticking ever since Homeworld started the Cluster project… We couldn’t have known any sooner, and there isn’t much preparation we can do now.” She stiffened her arms at her side. “We knew this was a possibility ever since Peridot made contact with Earth. We’ll warn Beach City, and we’ll do everything we can to hide Steven.”
Four sets of eyes moved to Tourmaline. Focused as they were now, Tourmaline could feel the intent behind their gazes bleeding off, thick, palpable, warbling like sound waves. Thoughts that once felt like intuition now screamed in their mind, clear as day.
Unfuse now. Leave Peridot’s gem behind. Run.
Or, in other words, Die
Tourmaline nodded to the unspoken requests. Their broken body trembled with fear, their every nerve aware of the consequence of losing Peridot. Another scattering of gem dust toppled down their visor, thin now. Tourmaline swallowed; they felt inward, found all the sharp stabs of pain in their body, the strain of existing. Peridot’s gem had stopped leeching off Steven’s, and the splitting pain of it pulsed thick behind their visor. Short, sad, painful, failed existence.
“Okay,” they said. “I’m sorry I couldn’t help. I’m sorry for not fixing anything. I did try.” They glanced up, testing the air. “You know that, though.” Tourmaline placed a hand against the cracked gem on their forehead. It stung on contact, and they pulled the hand away, dropping their fingers to their stomach. Subconsciously, they were glad they could only see the Rose Quartz gem—distorted as it was in fusion. It was desaturated and murky, like a blend of mismatched paints, but alive and whole. They knew through Steven how brilliantly the pink was meant to shine. This was dull, opaque, housed in Gem skin.
“We’re sorry, Tourmaline,” Greg voiced. He watched Tourmaline with apprehension.
“Wait…” Tourmaline breathed. Their skin buzzed, nerves alert. Something rash and terrifying quickened the pounding of their heart. They looked up, stood taller. Their eyes were wide, mouth dropping open suddenly. They looked first to Pearl, then Amethyst, then Greg, then Garnet. “What if…what if we don’t hide Steven at all?”
Silence met the question.
“Then Homeworld takes Steven, cuz they think he’s Rose, and the rest of us die probably,” Amethyst answered bluntly. She looked Tourmaline over. “Look, I-I know we’re asking a lot of you, basically asking you to kill yourself off for us and all. I get it. But if we do nothing, then both Steven and Peridot are screwed. There’s not really an option where you…” She scanned Tourmaline’s face, her eyes twisting with guilt before she looked away. “…live.”
Tourmaline knotted their fingers in their hair, head shaking in panicked excitement. “No, no I mean… T-there is. I just--” They thrust their arm out. “Cinnabar only knows what Jasper knows. Cinnabar’s looking for the Rose Quartz gem that’s been transferred to a human. She’s coming here, looking for Steven. They don’t care about anyone but Steven.” Tourmaline braced their hand against their stomach, eyes bright and forward. They looked among the four, mouth working soundlessly, before finally speaking. “And I’m not Steven.”
Tourmaline was slumped over the counter. Their one hand stacked the carefully-collected fragments of Peridot’s gem together. The pieces found purchase in each other, like bits of a jigsaw puzzle. But it crumbled steadily as Tourmaline pulled their hand away, unable to support itself.
Pearl leaned against the fridge. She was cautious to avoid the flour-stained hand prints on the handle, left over from Steven and Connie’s frenzied breakfast-making. All the Gems had positioned themselves around the mess: gooey seats ignored, pans left stacked haphazardly in the sink, plates abandoned under the soggy remains of syrup-soaked pancakes, room-temperature milk left to bask in the waning sunlight. The air was dense with a hot, sickly sweetness.
Pearl clenched her fingers. They wrapped around a small milk bottle of sorts she’d summoned back by the fountain. It was filled to the top with tears from the fountain, in case…
…she wasn’t sure.
“You can say it out loud,” Tourmaline said. Their chin rested on the counter, hand gently stroking the gem bits. “It wouldn’t offend me or anything.”
Pearl startled, then nodded. All sets of eyes had shifted to her, save for Tourmaline’s. Amethyst, seated beside Tourmaline, looked away from the puzzle-piecing. Garnet had pressed herself against the stove. Greg sat sideways in a chair at the head of the counter, set with a plate of soggy pancakes.
“I… I’m on board with the idea,” Pearl finally said. She moved her back off the fridge. “But I don’t like how we’re going about it. I’d rather have Steven fuse with me. Rainbow Quartz will not be how I remember her, but her appearance will still be convincingly non-human.”
Tourmaline gave a small nod. “Okay, well…maybe I’m a little biased…” They let out a weak chuckle, looking up from the shard tower they’d created. “But I don’t think I’m all that dangerous to Steven anymore. Peridot’s kinda…nothing but fumes at this point.” Tourmaline spun their hand in the air. “She doesn’t have the strength to grab back control—I know for certain, because she tried really hard when she realized Homeworld was contacting her arm.”
“At the Fountain?” Pearl interrupted.
“Yeah, Steven kept me in control though…” Tourmaline flexed their hand in their lap, curling in. “It makes sense she’d try though… Imagine you guys were prisoners on Homeworld, all cracked and maybe almost dead, and you found out someone from Earth was on their way to get you. You’d do anything to get out and get back here.” Tourmaline sat up straight. They brought their hand down, gentle, on the construction of gem shards. It collapsed steadily in on itself. “That’s how she feels. Desperate and wild—maybe her only chance to get home--and even then she couldn’t come close. Not a bit. Not even a little fraction. She cut herself off from Steven’s gem, and now she can’t do anything.”
Pearl crossed her arms, looking down. Something like shame tainted her voice. “Then you’re weak as well.”
“Y-yeah.” Tourmaline gave another small, conscious laugh. “But maybe that’s a good thing!” Their eyes scanned over the Gems, mental gears working to find a way to put their thoughts into words. “Peridot’s gem I mean—it’s burnt out. Almost dead, basically. Maybe would be dead if it weren’t in me, I don’t really know…” They ran their hand through their hair and suppressed the sudden shudder of anxiety. “I-I’m a fusion, but I don’t have the strength of one. I don’t have the power. I don’t have…anything a fusion should, really. I don’t seem like a fusion! I’m powered by only one gem.”
“Yeah, see, and that has me worried.” Greg pushed himself away from counter’s edge. He stared at the soggy pancakes in dismay, the broken spoiling mess of what his son had made. “Should Steven’s gem be supporting a fusion for this long? It could last until tomorrow. Or the day after. Or however long Cinnabar stays.”
“We do have the fountain tears here!” Tourmaline gestured to Pearl’s hand. “I mean, yeah, we don’t want Homeworld to know we’ve got magical gem-healing stuff on Earth. But we’d stay subtle with it!” The vigor drained from Tourmaline. They hunched in on themselves. “What, uh…What would you do with Peridot if you did defuse me, and fuse Steven with someone else?”
Tourmaline flinched before the answer was spoken out loud.
“We would crack her through,” Garnet said.
“Well don’t sugar-coat it…” Tourmaline muttered. They rested their chin back on the counter, eyes dull and unfocused. “Nothing Steven or I said meant…I dunno, anything?”
Pearl pushed off from the fridge. She took to pacing, snagging a loose bowl and ladle along the way. She stopped by the sink and got the water running. “We know why Steven did what he did. We were willing to discuss that with him, have a real conversation about what the right thing to do is. We could have let you unfuse and heal Peridot. She would have been our prisoner, and we could have come to a conclusion with Steven about the best way forward.” The bottle clunked down on the counter, tears inside sloshing. Pearl started scrubbing the bowl. Her fingers raked at the dried-on batter and yolk. “We’ve lost that luxury. Healing Peridot now would be unthinkable. We can’t give Homeworld any more of an advantage over us than they already have.”
“Yeah, and anyway—“ Amethyst leaned forward. She tilted her head and stared into Tourmaline’s eyes, who glanced back with muted defeat. “—weren’t you the one just saying how Peridot threw a huge fit tryin’ to grab back control from you? If we heal her, then you and Steven are toast.”
“She’ll try to return to Cinnabar. Then even if we have Steven fuse with me, she’ll be able to inform Cinnabar of our trick.” Pearl stacked the dripping bowl and ladle to the side of the sink. Her hands dropped to the two grit- and grease-encrusted pans in the sink, aborted attempts at cooking bacon. “It would be a ridiculous risk to take in our current situation.”
“Maybe she wouldn’t?” Tourmaline asked with breathless hope in their voice. Peridot’s cries had faded to a whisper in their mind, unintelligible.
“She already tried that once today!” Pearl answered. Her arms tensed, voice sharp. “She was willing to threaten Steven’s life in order to preserve her own. I have every reason to believe she’d do the same again.”
“We are not trying to be cruel. We’re trying to be logical,” Garnet said.
“I-I know…” Tourmaline whispered, face to the countertop. Logical or not, it did nothing to bury the hostile energy that leaked from Garnet. Tourmaline could sense it like a smell in the air, sharp like cinnamon and whisky, that Garnet would have Peridot dead in any situation. Tourmaline was glad for the moment that Amethyst was sitting closest.
“We’re not denying that it sucks to be you.” Amethyst thumped Tourmaline on the back. “It totally does. You don’t want Peridot or Steven dead, cuz you’re not suicidal. But you know Steven is waaaaaaay more important here, yeah?”
Tourmaline breathed in deep. They blurred their vision until the gem shard mound was nothing but a hazy formless pale green. “Steven had hoped…maybe Peridot could stay and learn to love Earth. She could meet all the kind people, and see the skies and oceans and mountains and funny movies and maybe…maybe then she wouldn’t hate it here. And she wouldn’t hurt anyone.” Tourmaline shrugged. “It’s a nice thought but…I don’t think I believe it’s gonna end like that.”
“That-a-fusion,” Amethyst answered, though Tourmaline felt the sharp twang of guilt seep off her words.
“No one wants you dead, Tourmaline.” Greg squared his feet on the bottom bar of his stool. “It’s just how things are. We’re thankful you’re helping, really. You could have just as easily been fighting us for Peridot’s safety.” He swallowed. “…So thank you for that, and sorry.”
Tourmaline made a grunting noise. They shut their eyes entirely. “I get it… Kinda missed my chance to have this end in any way that I get to—that Peridot gets to…” They trailed off and slumped harder against the counter’s edge. “I just…get it, is all.”
Greg opened his mouth to answer, but the words choked in his throat. He ended up nodding, though Tourmaline didn’t have their eyes open to see. “So, what do you guys plan tell Cinnabar when she comes knocking? So that she doesn’t—you know—blast you on site?”
Amethyst’s head jerked up. “Oh, I’ve got this one.” She hopped off the stool and covered the distance between the kitchen and the warp pad. She returned with Peridot’s dented arms clasped against her chest. Amethyst dropped them in the graceless heap. “We tell her that we’ve got her tech monkey hostage, and if she blasts us then Peridot’s toast too.”
Pearl gave a wry smile, a small nod. “It would be true.”
Tourmaline watched the limb pile anxiously. “Cinnabar doesn’t really…care about Peridot, all that much. Peridot’s a loan from Yellow Diamond, and Yellow Diamond’s got more than enough floating around to—“ Tourmaline shook their head. “Think ‘complementary pen from the doctor’s office…’”
Amethyst snorted, though she looked away in discomfort. Greg’s eyes widened immediately. “Then we don’t have a plan to keep her from melting us?”
Pearl’s shoulder blades pointed toward the ceiling. She hunched herself over the sink, high-pressure water steaming, as she raked the crusted, greasy remains of bacon off the pans. “No, no we just need to think creatively. We can’t be out of options. Not now. Not so soon.”
Tourmaline glanced to Garnet. She hadn’t shifted positions once since the conversation started. Tourmaline felt a different sort of shift, a split in energy. Something cold and gentle, like the buoyant support of the ocean cresting with rhythmic waves. It was passive, understanding. Along with it drifted another sensation, sharp and hot like a hand grabbing at sunburned skin—suffocating, encompassing, menacing. Tourmaline felt it choking inside their rib cage, and looked away entirely from Garnet.
“W-we’ve got maybe one advantage,” they finally said. Their fingers drummed anxiously over the countertop. “Cinnabar doesn’t know much, but she does know—whatever we are—we were able to bring down an entire space craft. She doesn’t care about Jasper, or Lapis, or Peridot, or the ship, but that is something she’s got to report. She’s got to take the fall for that loss.” Tourmaline pressed their hand over the gem fragments, sweeping them out like a deck of cards. “If she can find and capture Steven, then the loss of a single ship and a few soldiers is nothing. Last time they tried to capture Rose Quartz, thousands and thousands of their soldiers died. Cinnabar would be a hero if she could take Rose after losing only one ship.”
Pearl shut off the faucet. “But if the Rose Quartz gem isn’t here, we’ll be nothing but rogue worthless Gems…” She turned around and braced her hands against the sink behind her. “Ones that have already proven their ability to capsize one of her ships.”
“And she might decide that fighting us would be an unnecessary risk.” Tourmaline chewed their tongue. “She could be the next Gem stranded here, and for nothing.”
Greg’s back was stiff. He glanced among the Gems, even the silent ones, before coughing to clear his throat. “That’s really--” his voice cracked “--really trusting a lot to the hope that this Gem Commander’s gonna not be violent and unpredictable.”
There was silence, a beat, until Amethyst’s body stiffened in excitement. “But she will be predictable,” she said with an impish smile. Amethyst elbowed Tourmaline, who rocked with the gentle impact. “Tell me, what am I gonna do next?”
Tourmaline’s eyes shot between Amethyst’s eager pupils. They pressed their teeth together, and recoiled a little. “You’re gonna elbow me again.”
“Heck yeah I am,” Amethyst answered, driving her elbow again into Tourmaline’s side. “Tourmaline’s psychic. They’ll know if Cinnabar plans on vaporizing us.
“I-I don’t think we should be relying on that!” Tourmaline answered. They raised their hand in a show of defense. “I didn’t even realize I could do this until now! It’s just like—I can tell how you feel about things if I concentrate, about me mostly.” They looked among the Gems for support, finding none. “You’re asking me to be bombsquad here!”
“Eh, this plan’s already a minefield…” Amethyst glanced around, suddenly disinterested, and shrugged. “What’s wrong with throwing in one more crazy hail-mary?”
“Amethyst, that’s pessimistic. We’re…at least more prepared now than last time,” Pearl said. She crossed her arms over her chest, throwing an anxious glance to Garnet. “When Jasper came to Earth, we knew nothing. Purpose, intentions, weaponry, technology—these are things we know now, things we can plan for accordingly. We can be prepared.”
Tourmaline straightened their back. They kept their eyes low, scanning the countertops littered with pancake slop and sticky fingerprints of maple syrup. “So…let’s say this works out. Cinnabar doesn’t call our bluff, and she leaves, and Steven’s not in danger anymore.” They glanced up, “…What happens then? To Peridot?” before dropping their eyes to the floor, voice lowered. “…To me?”
Pearl shrunk in against the sink. Her eyes wandered back to the half-dozen unclean bowls that peppered the kitchen counter. “Let’s focus on the most pressing matters first. We don’t have a solid plan yet.”
Garnet shifted. Tourmaline’s attention shot to her, finding the split energy had faded into background noise. They still shrunk in on themselves as she approached. Garnet put a hand out, rested it on their shoulder. In that moment, Tourmaline could feel the gesture wasn’t for them.
“We want to speak to him,” she said. “We’ve excluded him from too many vital decisions. We can’t make that mistake anymore.”
Tourmaline nodded once, then more vigorously. “Oh…oh yeah, yeah I understand. I shouldn’t…be the one here right now.” Tourmaline felt out the anxious excitement in the room, hot and pricking like stagnant summer air. “I’m…sorry.”
There came a sudden distance to Tourmaline’s eyes—hazy, unfocused things staring into the nothingness. Their body sagged right, before snapping up. A new tense excitement drew back their shoulders, eyes bright, aware, and wrought with concern.
“Steven?” Pearl asked.
“I…Hi, Pearl…” He glanced down to his body, instantly real, instantly heavy. He was sitting on a stool now, not Peridot. He wondered if she even noticed his absence now. Steven shifted his focus from himself. He looked around the room, at the mess that coated the kitchen, before letting out a laugh. “Oh man! I forgot all about the mess from breakfast.”
Steven didn’t have the chance to say anything else. Garnet wrapped him in a tight hug, followed by Amethyst, Pearl, Greg. The weight pressed him down, and he leaned back into it, losing himself in a relieved shudder. One arm hugging back, he felt the tension in his chest melt under the pulsing flood of relief and love that wafted off the others—Tourmaline’s ability, Steven remembered.
He cracked his eyes open. Through the gap over Garnet and Amethyst’s shoulders, his eyes fell on the counter. It was a gray mottled thing, half buried in spilled flour and milk. His attention focused to the center, and lingered on the spread of gem shards that twinkled, lifeless, in the waning afternoon sunlight.
Steven lay flat on the couch, singular arm slung over the edge. He stared at the slatted ceiling, which had bled to a dark projection of desaturated stripes now that the sun had gone down. He glanced to the screen door; darkness swallowed up anything past the radius of the porch light. It led to only a vast nothingness, formlessness which he couldn’t make out. There was only the lapping and crashing of the distant ocean, like falling rain. The air was damp with lingering rain water, and cold.
He blinked. He stared up again. He held his breath. He shut his eyes.
This body didn’t sleep.
Steven pressed his eyes closed, harder now, until stars sparked in his vision. It did nothing. He couldn’t feel the scattered, thoughtless pull of drowsiness in his mind. He was tired though. Mentally, physically exhausted. Just now, he was permanently conscious too. Steven groaned, rolled, and set his feet to the floor.
He wanted desperately to get the Gems. He wanted to sit side-by-side with Amethyst and lose himself to fits of laughter over her goofy jokes about his body. He wanted to listen, silently, to Pearl’s stories about how his mom handled the Homeworld invasions, to feel that strange cocktail of pride and admiration and fear whenever Pearl let details of the war slip. He wanted to press himself into Garnet’s sturdy arms and forget anything else existed.
Now more than ever, though, he knew they needed their space. There’d been a steady, dense, stickiness in the air when the Gems were around. Like oatmeal on a hot day, soggy and topped with too much cinnamon: it was a discomfort, a queasy fullness, when they had to look at him as he…was, in this body, trapped in this form. It taxed them; it exhausted them to deal with what he’d created.
So he sat in the growing darkness now, “asleep”, trying to sort out which of his memories had been the Gems’ spoken words and which had been their private thoughts. The “We love you”s and the “We’re sorry”s had been out loud. He knew that. And he knew they were sincere. But that didn’t help; Steven took no comfort in their regret, especially not now. He’d hated feeling it, and he hadn’t been able to say anything to lighten it. The Gems had laughed at the jokes he’d cracked: about his arm, about his dance, about his all-around stupid behavior. But each modest chuckle had come with a stinging new twang of guilt in the air. It was like a physical weight on his chest, feeling that responsibility for their pain.
Steven walked to the kitchen. He skimmed his only hand along the counter, sinking into the strange silence of his mind. Tourmaline was in there somewhere, maybe too exhausted or ashamed to say anything. Peridot had stopped struggling against him hours ago. She was hardly a blip now in their shared conscience.
He shook his head, opening and closing three cabinets. It was too dark to see what was there. He wasn’t hungry anyway. His attention turned to the explosion of flour and syrup and pancakes that still coated half the kitchen. Pearl had given up on scrubbing the grease off his pans. She’d torn through the metal bottom of one of them, now badly dented out of shape. The other still soaked in the sink. Detergent threatened to eat it through. The room stunk thickly of cleaning agents and pungent milk. He didn’t even remember taking the milk out that morning, it must have been—
Steven straightened, and fumbled to round the corner of the counter in the dark. He grabbed the house phone off its base. His other arm swung forward to dial, stopping. It was severed at the elbow. Steven only stared down at the buttons and remembered his own brokenness.
Gently, he placed the phone down on the counter. It wobbled, and he gave it a moment to fall still. One button at a time, he dialed the number, then lifted the phone to his left ear. His heart pulsed, deafening, in his ears as the other end rang.
“…even!? Steven?! Steven oh my god please is that you?!” Her voice cracked. Steven swallowed.
“Y-yeah, Connie. It’s me. I—we got cut off earlier. I’m sorry.” He lowered himself onto the ground. He blinked, finding his eyes couldn’t adjust to the gray darkness. The porch light vanished; he sat in a shadow. “A lot’s happened.”
“Yeah. The Gems told Beach City to evacuate?! What’d she do?! What’d Peridot do!?” There was a choking sound on her end, a hum of static. When her voice returned, it wobbled. “Oh my god Steven I-I thought you were dead. I couldn’t call your phone. I-I couldn’t get my parents to bring me over. The Kindergarten was my idea, Steven. Going was my idea. I thought I—I thought it was my fault—W-what happened?!”
Steven curled harder over the phone. “No! No, Connie. Nothing’s your fault! Nothing bad happened because of you! I promise! I promise! The Gems are back. I-I’m not hurt. They’re not even mad at me anymore. You didn’t—You didn’t…” Steven lost his voice. The thick waves of guilt and worry hit him through the phone, pulsed in his mind. They hurt, they clawed.
“But…something happened. Garnet was yelling. And now Beach City is evacuated. What did Peridot do?!”
“She!...N-not much, really. She’s too weak, now. It’s not Peridot.” Steven breathed in. He mentally drifted back to the one-armed hug he’d given his dad right before Greg left to evacuate too. Thick and choking and…wrong. The possibility that that was his last interaction with his dad, wrought with suffocating worry, pulsed in his mind. He swallowed, and steeled himself. “Please, Connie, can you do me a favor?” he whispered. Steven drew his bulky knees up to his chest. He glanced to the porch in hopes of seeing Lion there. Emptiness looked back. “Please stop being worried right now. Please. I know why you are! But…it’s important.” He waited a moment. “Please try.”
“…Okay,” was her uncertain response. A thick pause followed, but it came like a weight off Steven’s chest. That leeching worry around his heart lessened. It pulled back its claws, and he could breathe again.
“Thank you,” Steven said, breathless.
“…Yeah. Yeah my mom’s been teaching me meditation techniques. She’s worried about me maintaining my heart health—No, no never mind. Tell me, please. Tell me what happened.” Her sheets rustled, her voice dropped. “You sound…different.”
Steven let out a small laugh. “Yeah I—a lot’s happened. A lot of…bad things. I didn’t have time to think about anything. I did things that—I still don’t really know, Connie, if I should have…” He shut his mouth, looking through the closest window. The moonless sky reigned overhead, a black void. Hazy shapes buzzed with static in his vision. “I sound different, Connie. That’s—it’s because I’m not really all…me, right now.”
“…What do you mean you’re not you?”
“I…” He felt his body, felt out the clanking heavy legs, the missing arm, the thrumming ache from the gem in his forehead. He felt wrong, down to the pit of his stomach. “I’m Tourmaline, Connie. Not—not right now—right now I’m me. But I’m part of—I’m half of—I’m in…Tourmaline.”
“I don’t…Who’s…Is that a-a Gem? Like a fusion?” Connie paused. Steven felt the hot whip of anxiety that shot through her stomach. “…Which one, Steven? Please. I-is it with Amethyst? Why? What happened?”
“It’s not Amethyst,” Steven answered. The words felt like mud in his throat. “…And it’s not Pearl.”
“…Garnet?” Her voice was a whisper.
He swallowed, and crouched inward on his monster body. “No, not Garnet…”
A shuffle. A rustle. A spike of fear. “…Steven. Steven, you didn’t…”
“They were gonna kill her!” he insisted quickly. Steven thrust his head out. “You heard Garnet, didn’t you? Before she smashed my phone. They were all angry. I couldn’t talk to them! I couldn’t…” His breath died. He breathed. “I couldn’t—Connie, I couldn’t let her die…”
Another pause followed. Something tight around Steven’s chest loosened. “…Of course you couldn’t. You wouldn’t—you couldn’t sit and watch anyone die, Steven. You uh…” She gave a small chuckle “You covered your eyes during the series finale of Under the Knife when Angela died on the operating table… You had all these ideas about how they could save her.”
Steven breathed. He basked in it, the heady wave of nostalgia and affection that came through the phone. It brought tears to his eyes. “Y-yeah. Angela was amazing, a-and she didn’t deserve to die because Bradford was distracted over his break up! I think it was a plot! Rachel told him that out of revenge. And Angela’s fine, and just hiding, because she owes Rachel a favor for the diagnosis Rachel gave her in season 2 when no other doctor could figure out what was wrong! I’m…” he trailed off, adjusting his position on the floor, “…I really like Angela, Connie.”
“I know you do.” There was the sharp clack of computer keys on the other end. “I’ll write you a fanfiction where that happens, Steven.”
“Really?” He straightened up. His mind buzzed, catching small grainy snippets of the scenes that Connie already intended to write. It came through like radio static. “I thought you only wrote fanfiction for Unfamiliar Familiar!”
“Yeah, usually. I mostly stay out of the Under the Knife fandom because they are really petty about their ships. I don’t want to get involved with the Brangela vs Radford wars. I’ve seen nasty things happen to honest fanfiction writers in the fandom…” There came another solid clacking of keys, and Steven felt the burst of another scene in his head. Rachel and Angela sitting down to coffee to plan their elaborate revenge. “But it’s for you, Steven.”
For a solid few seconds, Steven felt himself melt in pure excitement. Angela would be alive again. Connie would make it happen for him. And he loved her writing; he loved the way she threw in small plot twists, stuff he never saw them coming, but they always made sense. If only he couldn’t…
…sense what she was planning.
Cinnabar, planning to touch down on Earth tomorrow. Peridot, faded to nothing but a shadow in his mind. Greg, driving through sleepless exhaustion to get away from Beach City. Pearl, closed in her room, bouncing a one-sided conversation off a hologram projection of Rose. Amethyst, stowed deep in the recesses of a junk pile in her room. Garnet, hardly herself, fighting to come back from the schism of her two halves.
“I guess uh…you want a story from me too, yeah?” Steven asked. He cupped the phone close to his mouth. “I haven’t told you anything. Not really.”
“…Do it at your own pace, Steven. My parents don’t know I snuck my cellphone into my room. I can talk for as long as you need, just so long as my parents don’t hear I’m awake.”
Steven nodded. He breathed through the knot in his stomach. The air was suddenly colder, the darkness denser, enclosing. “And…when I’m done,” he pulled his feet close to his body, “you wanna start writing that story? Use me for ideas!”
“Yeah totally!” There came a drop in her volume. “But uh…you first.”
He nodded again, opening and closing his mouth a few times in a timid search of where to begin.
“…And uh, you actually left your headband here on Saturday. I was gonna give it back, but then I forgot. It kinda matches Tourmaline’s clothes. It’s the gray one, with the tie-thingies in the back? Yeah uh, if we wrap it over Peridot’s gem, then maybe Cinnabar won’t realize it’s there. It’ll look like part of Tourmaline’s normal outfit, and Cinnabar will just see the one gem on my stomach. And if she thinks I’m just one gem, and not a fusion, then she won’t think I have my mom’s gem, because it doesn’t look like the Rose Quartz gem anymore. Not totally. Fusion gems change color.” His eyes shot around, blind. “…A-and uh, we might be able to scare her, because we already took down Jasper’s ship, so she probably thinks we might have some secret weapon or something. So maybe she’ll just leave, because there’s no reason to take us, o-or hurt us.”
Steven’s mouth had gone dry from talking. His palm was sweaty, clamped around the phone. He could feel the caking saltiness of tears drying down his cheeks. How long it took to recount the whole story, he wasn’t sure. The clock in the distance was completely cloaked in darkness. He wasn’t near enough to make out the time, but from the exhaustive weight in his chest, he guessed it had been hours.
“Can you feel her now? Peridot?”
Steven shook his head, unseen. “No. She’s there, somewhere. But she’s not trying anything: not talking to me, not feeling what I’m doing…not trying to do anything on her own. I stopped her from trying to take control back from Tourmaline, and she just kinda cried there for a while, then stopped. And she wouldn’t answer me when I tried asking her stuff. I-I think she could still hear me back then, when Tourmaline was in control, but she…she didn’t wanna talk.”
“So she knows about the plan?”
Steven didn’t answer immediately. He thought about it, prodding around in his mind. “…She’s gotta…I mean I know about it. If Tourmaline knows about it, then I know about it, and that means Peridot knows too.” Steven stretched his legs out. They pressed into the cold floor. “…And yeah, she knows that the Gems still want her to die. And they don’t want to heal her. …And that Cinnabar doesn’t even want her. I’m still… I think I’m still the only one who’d want her to stay alive. I think she knows that too.”
“Well…you know, after Cinnabar’s gone, you still have hope! You can talk to the Gems about it for real. They want to listen now. I’ll come over too! And Greg. I’ll help you explain it to the Gems, all that stuff Peridot told you inside your head. We’ll…We’ll work it all out.”
“Yeah, good idea,” Steven answered. “I might even ask Sadie to come over. She’s really good at talking to angry customers. And to Lars, and he’s always angry.” A sudden sharpness hit his stomach. “…I-I haven’t seen her at all today… I always buy a donut from her. I wonder if she realized I was gone.”
“She probably got out with everyone else evacuating Beach City. I bet she understands you’ve been…busy.” There was a rustle from the other end, a fresh bang of anxiety. “So uh…what happens if Cinnabar doesn’t decide on her own to leave you guys alone? What if she decides to attack anyway? …What happens then?”
Steven stood. His legs had gone numb during the conversation. He walked on pins and needles to the wall clock, and squinted to make out the time: 1:12 in the morning. They’d been on the phone for four hours. Connie needed sleep, he realized with an edge of guilt.
“So uh,” Steven hugged the phone closer to his face, “if Angela faked her own death during the open heart surgery, how’d she manage to fool all the machines? I can’t figure that out, Connie. Because we see the monitor flatline at the end of the episode. I’ve been thinking about that a lot.”
He held his breath through the silence on Connie’s end.
“Well, it was a heart transplant, right? That means they must have stopped Angela’s heart during the exchange, so the anesthesiologist must have had all the necessary chemicals to fake a flatline. She must have had an extra dose hidden from Bradford, and she used it again after the transplant was complete, so Bradford would think he failed the surgery.”
“Oh!” Steven felt his heart jump. “Oh my gosh, Connie, that’s so smart!”
She let out a flustered laugh. “I-it’s nothing special really. Anyone could have thought of that... What’s even more important is that Caitlyn is the anesthesiologist’s cousin. They told us that back in season one!”
Steven let out an excited gasp. He spun in the cold, empty, silent kitchen. “And Angela saved Caitlyn’s cat in season three! Even though she wasn’t a licensed vet and could have gotten sued, but she did it anyway! It was the cat that woke Caitlyn up when the smoke alarm in her apartment didn’t go off, so it was really special to her.”
“Exactly! So Caitlyn’s been indebted to Angela this whole time! It would only make sense that Angela could use Caitlyn as a connection to Bradford’s anesthesiologist and plan her faked death ahead of time.”
“Are you gonna write that into the story?!”
“Um, of course! I need to incorporate all the canon evidence I can for this. It has to be legit.”
Steven plopped down on the ground. The clock ticked away above his head. He shimmied his feet on the floor in excitement. “What’s the first scene you’re gonna write?!”
He held his breath, and for the time, he managed to ignore the pre-emptive answer scratching at his mind.
“It’s gonna be a flashback to the break-up scene between Bradford and Rachel. It always bothered me that they didn’t include it in the mid-season finale, because it had such important implications for the dynamic of Rachel and Angela’s friendship! We don’t know if Bradford tried to blame Angela, or if he just told Rachel he wasn’t in love with her anymore. I headcanon that Bradford did it quickly, in a fit of passion, totally unplanned, because we see him browsing a wedding ring catalogue in the episode right before!”
Steven listened intently, silently, bulky mismatched legs wiggling. The ache in his forehead faded to nothing as he lost himself in Connie’s logic. Bradford, Angela, Rachel the story was real in his mind. It coalesced into everything he’d dreamed about since the finale. Everyone, alive again, long past the end.
He didn’t notice when the first pink shades of sunlight bloomed over the ocean’s surface.
Steven scrunched his toes against the rippling, semi-solid ether of his mindspace. He’d braced his hands against the ground, lost in thought, as he stared up at the open nothing that crowned above his head. The silence of everything edged into his mind; the vast emptiness felt suddenly suffocating.
Steven shook his head. He wanted something, anything, to distract himself. He wanted Connie back; he wanted the Gems back from before any of this had happened. He couldn’t have that, though; he had only the endless mindspace, and his single silent companion.
Steven refocused on his feet, which felt strange squishing into the not-really-there flooring. He spared a moment to wonder where his sandals had gone, bare squirming toes pressing freely into the nothing. As if on cue, a snaking pink rope shot from the ground. Steven jumped with surprise as it wrapped like vines around his feet—left foot first, then right foot--until it congealed into two exact replicas of his real sandals. He stared at them in wonder, before rocking back onto his tailbone and wiggling his feet in the air. “Coooool!” he voiced. The sound of his words carried around the mindspace in one echoless breath. He rolled over, sparkling eyes set to his companion. “Hey Peridot, check this out! You gotta try it.”
Peridot didn’t move. Steven gave her a few seconds to respond, feeling the heavy twist of anxiety tighten in his stomach as the seconds passed. He fought it back; if he could feel it, then Peridot would feel it, and he didn’t want to spread his own worry. He mentally blocked away his own emotions, and refocused his eyes on her motionless form.
Peridot was lying down on her side, turned away from him. Her knees were tucked up close to her chest, single stump of an arm slung over them. She was 30 or 40 feet away, and nothingness bled away from her in all directions: down, up, left, right, nothing. Her outline blurred with a growing, seamless acceptance.
“Hey, Peridot!” Steven insisted again. He braced his hands beneath him and hopped to his feet. “I said you gotta check this out.” He shoved his left foot in her direction. He wobbled on his right foot, looking between his presented new sandal and Peridot. He waited, set it down again, and focused solely on his foot. His lips puckered, and Steven let out a delighted laugh as the sandal melted off in a viscous pink slurry. He wriggled his toes, which were stained a pale rose. “It does what I want it to!”
He shot a sidelong glance to Peridot again. Her body hadn’t budged, and the small smile slipped from Steven’s face. His lips pressed together, eyes roving over her prone body. “…Peridot?” He bunched his hands protectively close to his chest, fingers meshing with each other as he moved forward. Sharp sparks of fear raked through his body. He breathed in deep, hoping to bury them.
“You know, it’s just gonna be you and me in here for a while. Tourmaline’s got control back now for when Cinnabar comes. They know all the stuff both you and me know, so they’ve got the best chance of talking Cinnabar out of uh…you know…wanting to kill us.” Steven plopped down beside her. He looked to her, but didn’t dare touch her. “But uh…you know if that doesn’t work…” Steven twisted his fingers together, “if that doesn’t work, we could both die in here. …Is this really what you want?” He looked down at his hands before glancing back to her “…To spend the rest of your life not talking to me?”
Silence, thick and bleeding, came down on them. It felt so much denser in the vast, echoless expanse of their mind. Steven balled his fists. He waited. He breathed. He stood, mismatched feet squared on the floor. “You’re not gonna say anything?!” He thrust his arms out. “Why are you suddenly okay with dying, huh? Why am I the only one still trying?! Why aren’t you—“ Steven leaned over Peridot, his head upside-down as he looked her in the eyes. He stopped himself.
Peridot’s mouth was clamped shut, but her eyes were open impossibly wide. A steady stream of tears leaked from both, running into the hazy matrix of the world that surrounded them. Her head lent itself to small trembles. There was a harsh tension in her jaw, and all at once Peridot’s emotions hit Steven like a whip.
He felt his body flush with a panic attack.
Steven stumbled away. His heart beat frantically against his chest. He lowered himself to the floor, and fought to separate himself from Peridot’s shared emotions. The sensation ebbed steadily, leaving behind cold tremors that washed through his body.
“Peridot…” Steven shook his head. He scrambled forward. “A-are you okay?”
A pause. A breath.
“Am I okay?!” Peridot answered. Her head rocked, and her voice broke over itself. “Am I okay?!”
“I’m really sorry—“
She flinched, pushing herself up a fraction as her head swung to him. Something like bafflement crossed her face as she looked at Steven. “What? No, not you. Them. Everyone.” She raked her knees inward and let out a derisive laugh. “Why was I kidding myself?! Cinnabar doesn’t need me back! Since when do they salvage Gems?! She’d crush me! She’d use me as fuel.” Peridot threw her head back, laughing as tears streamed freely down her cheeks. “And now I can feel it… I can feel them all wanting to kill me. All the time. All the time fantasizing about the ways they didn’t kill me before. I can’t shut it out. Always always all the time in the body and I can’t do anything—“ She silenced herself, slumping in. “Everything hurts. I just want to die already. Please don’t make me keep living…”
Steven steadied himself with his palms to the ground. He only shook his head. “No… No, I can still save you!” he insisted, hand slamming into the ground. “We’ll send Cinnabar away, and then the Gems and me will talk, and then we’ll save you.” He balled his fingers. “Because now I know you don’t care about killing us. If Homeworld doesn’t want you, and you also don’t wanna kill us, then there’s no reason for you to die anymore.”
Peridot let out a huff, wobbling as she tried to stay sitting upright, and dropped her head onto her knees. “Oh joy. So I get to survive on Earth? That’ll be fun. That’ll be great. I’ll have a great time losing the rest of my mind to this backwards, dead planet.” She rolled back onto her side. “At least until you Gems change your mind and kill me anyway.”
Steven sat back. He crossed his legs and pooled his hands in his lap. He shot a few uncertain glances to Peridot. “It’s…not so bad on Earth. There are so many cool things all around, and so many cool people. I was telling you that before. It’s true. Why don’t you wanna live, and see them all?”
“Why would I care?” she answered back.
“Because you haven’t even tried liking Earth.” Steven pushed himself into a standing position. “You just keep thinking it’s awful here without trying.”
Peridot didn’t move; she resigned herself back to silence.
Steven glanced down at his one shoeless foot. It fascinated him, still stained with pink from where he’d melted off his sandal. He’d made it do that, just by thinking it should.
Steven steeled himself, focused on his wriggling shoeless foot, and let loose a noise of delight when a shimmering red slipper grew over it. He didn’t really own a pair like that; he remembered it from the costume Connie kept in her closet. She had it for a school play of sorts: plaid blue dress, ruby-red slippers that sparkled in the light. He remembered her laugh as he hobbled around in her room in those shoes, reciting back the lines that Connie had been practicing on him. There’s no place like home. There’s no place like home.
He focused hard on Peridot. He stared at the back of her head, clenched his teeth, and imagined.
Peridot yelped. Her single arm pinwheeled about as a large, floppy, straw-woven sunhat appeared on her head. She shook it off, giving herself into breathless huffs as Steven laughed.
“What th—What was that? What did you do?” Peridot demanded. She wobbled, before falling flat again on the shared ground.
“It’s a hat. Hats are personally one of my favorite human inventions.” Steven puffed his chest out. He gritted his teeth, shut his eyes, and popped them open in excitement when he felt the heavy weight of a pirate’s hat drop onto his head. “We’re not really ‘here,’” he said. Steven spun around, arms out wide, as if to encompass the whole mindspace. “In fact, I don’t think there even really is a ‘here.’ Our bodies don’t exist here. They’re both part of Tourmaline. My body isn’t really here, but I feel like I can see it.” Steven stuck a foot out, still ruby slipper-clad. “I just look how I know I look. I forgot about my sandals before, so I didn’t have any. And when I remembered them, they were there. So now I remembered Connie’s shoes, and here they are!”
He stepped closer, offering a hand out. Peridot didn’t retract. She only stared on in fascination. “We look how we remember we look. Because we’re not really here. It’s just in our heads.” Steven stopped just shy of her. He crouched and looked into her cracked eyes. They were still too-wide with suspicion. Slowly, obviously, he redirected his hand to her stunted shoulder. “But, you know, I also remember how you looked before you were broken.”
“Stop—“ she answered hastily, a moment too late.
Steven’s hand touched down on her shoulder. When he swept it out, an arm bloomed behind in its wake, finding form, structure, solidity. Green, mechanical, with hovering fingers hanging loose at the end. It didn’t budge at first, stuck in immobile confusion. It wasn’t until Peridot blinked, letting her head jerk back, that the newly formed fingers flexed. They closed into a fist, loosened, closed again. Peridot set it under herself and used it to push herself upright. Steven took the opportunity to grab her stumped elbow. He breathed in deep, and let the same imaginary trail of her mechanical limb generate in his wake.
Peridot didn’t respond. She only pulled her two arms close to her chest, shocked into silence.
“And let me just—“ He got on his tiptoes as he pressed his open palm to her visor. The crack disappeared along a zippering seam. The rivets in her face crawled backwards, paving over themselves with regular skin. They tucked back into her gem, which stitched over itself with remembered shards and substance. Peridot reached her newly-formed right arm up to her gem. She pressed her fingers against it, stunned into silence, until her faced twisted up with fresh tears.
Steven watched her cover her face. He offered a small smile as he drew his hand back. “I couldn’t fix you in real life… I’m sorry about that. Your gem—it’s still very hurt in Tourmaline’s body. But we can pretend in here it’s not! We can look however we want in here! A-and if we die in here…” he swallowed, fishing for the smile that almost dropped from his face, “it can be without either of us feeling hurt.”
Peridot didn’t answer. She just flexed her fingers over and over, moved her arms back and forth. Steven watched her for a moment before dipping at the waist and retrieving his imaginary sunhat from the ground.
He spread his feet—one sandal-clad, one slipper-clad—and presented the sunhat again. “Now, as I was saying about hats…”
Tourmaline let a light smile brush over their face. Their eyes roved over the half-cleaned kitchen without really seeing anything, not the windex-streaked fridge or the air-drying pans in the sink. They were focused internally. Tourmaline lifted their chin from the cold counter and laughed.
It drew the attention of all three other Gems.
“What? What happened?” Pearl leaned inward. She spared a glance toward the two mangled mechanical arms, which had been set side-by-side at the center of the counter, before looking again to Tourmaline.
Tourmaline shook their head. “It’s nothing. Steven’s just…being Steven.” They wrapped their singular arm on the counter and rested their head on it. Moving too much sent cold flushes through Peridot’s gem.
“Is he okay?” Pearl asked. Her eyes flickered below the counter to Steven’s gem.
“He’s fine.” Tourmaline redirected their attention to the arm pile. Pearl sat to their right, Amethyst to their left, Garnet directly across. The kitchen fell back to silence. “Just making the most of things. …’s got good taste in hats.”
None of the Gems knew how to follow up.
Amethyst only twisted uncomfortably in her seat. She eyed the arm pile with growing disdain. “…Maybe it was a false alarm, you know? Maybe Cinnabar said that stuff so Peridot would think she’s getting rescued, but really she’s not planning on coming here at all.” Amethyst sat up straight, one hand pressed hard against the countertop. “Just a guess.”
“I really don’t think so,” Tourmaline answered. “She felt really serious about it when she contacted us before.”
“Shhh,” came Garnet’s quick response. All the Gems looked to her before falling silent. Anxiety wormed into their minds, and Tourmaline caught a quick glimpse of the vision that had just passed through Garnet’s mind. Coming, any second now…
A shohck of static crackled over the arms. It was loud, erratic, the pitch careening up and down. Amethyst even covered her ears before the tone found stability in a constant flood of white noise. It left behind a negative patch in the room’s sound. A heavy, nothing, silence.
“Crystal System Peridot, do you copy?”
The arms bled out the noise like water from a waterfall. It seeped into the room and filled the Gems’ ears like a thick presence. They didn’t react immediately. Instead all eyes moved to Amethyst, who inhaled deeply before scooting herself closer to the arms. “Yeah, negatory. This is Amethyst. Can I ask who the hell I’m talking to?”
A thick silence followed. Tourmaline sensed the jolt of surprise from the other end of the transmission. There was a shuffling, a flurry of hushed whispers, before someone came back and cleared their throat.
“Hello….Amethyst. This is Crystal System Commander Cinnabar. Are you with Peridot? And if so, may I ask to speak to her privately?”
Amethyst chewed on her lip. She let a smile break over her lips, and she indulged herself in her next words. “Sorry, no can do. She tried to kill us, so we kidnapped her. No hard feelings bro.”
Radio static, a solid three seconds’ worth.
“Well, that is understandable, Amethyst. I am Peridot’s superior, and I have no intention of turning a blind eye to any acts of hostility or violence performed in Homeworld’s name. It has come to my attention recently that three of our Gems may have involved themselves in illegal acts of aggression against Crystal System natives. I apologize for the…sensitivity of the subject, but were you one of their victims?”
Amethyst snorted. “Oh, you mean did your goons try and kidnap us before we smashed their ship into the rocks below? A-yeah, that’s me and Pearl and Garnet and Tourmaline here.”
More silence. Tourmaline leaned back, lip curling into a bemused smile. “You probably don’t need me to figure this out, but she’s faking…” they whispered. Tourmaline leaned farther away from the arms. “She is pissed we have Peridot though. …Insulted, actually, I think.”
A break in the static.
“And now she’s gonna ask to meet with us,” Tourmaline concluded with a hushed whisper. They dropped their head back onto the counter and closed their eyes.
“Amethyst, I appreciate you being upfront and honest with me. If possible, would you meet with me in person about this? You and your friends of course. I know your location from Peridot’s transponder. Morally, this is not something I can ignore. Your testimony would be valuable to our investigations.”
“Sure thing, Cinnamon. Looking forward to seeing your ugly mug in person.”
There came a sharp click from the arms. All eyes shifted to Tourmaline, who confirmed with a quick nod of their head that communication had been severed.
Amethyst straightened, and let out a coarse laugh. “She’s so uptight! I don’t think Pearl even has a stick shoved that far up her butt.” Amethyst thrust her hands against the counter, ignoring the silence glare from Pearl. “I can’t wait to see how she tries that whole ‘kind understanding warrior for justice’ shtick when we meet her.” Amethyst spun to Garnet. “Can I keep insulting her?”
“No. We can’t goad her on.” Garnet crossed her arms, focusing intently on whatever she saw in her mind. “We’re trying to diffuse this.”
Amethyst shrugged. “Eh, I’ll just come up with some great one-liners in my head then. Tourmaline gets me.”
Tourmaline opened their eyes again, humoring Amethyst with a quick laugh. They lifted their head and glanced about, stopping when they saw the gray headband resting on the countertop. It ended in beaded tassels wound into braids. Tourmaline pressed their hand to their visor, easing it off their face with extreme care. They set it down, cracked lens facedown to the granite, and shifted their hand to the headband.
“She’ll be here soon.”
“What’s she bringing with her?” Pearl asked. Her hand hovered over her glowing gem. In increments, she dropped her hand, spear unsummoned. She moved forward instead and grabbed the headband from Tourmaline, who couldn’t tie it over Peridot’s gem single-handedly. Pearl threaded the ends of the band behind Tourmaline’s head with excessive care.
“No weapons, unless you count the blade she can summon. Only one crewmate is coming down with her, but her ship can blast things just like Jasper’s could. We gotta be careful of that. But she won’t blast us when she’s standing right next to us.” Tourmaline flinched as Pearl knotted the headband. They watched Pearl back away, and pushed their fingers to the new accessory. “She’s not planning on fighting us…yet, at least.”
“And that’s the most we could have hoped for, I guess,” Pearl answered quietly.
Tourmaline didn’t face her. Instead they hopped down from the counter and set their sights on the front door, trying their hardest to ignore the roiling pot of emotions that bled off the Gems.
“Come on… We should get outside before she does.”
“And…where’s that exactly?” Amethyst asked. She followed quickly in Tourmaline’s tracks.
“Same place as Peridot…back when she arrived.” They set their sights to the crashing shoreline, fighting down the chill of familiarity that washed over them at the thought of someone landing there again.
The beach air rolled with salty, muggy humidity. The saltiness came with an abnormal, crackling heat, and clung like a presence to the Gems’ bodies. The churning wind blew back their hair, choked in the back of their throats, roared in their ears.
The maelstrom of wind and heat and salt came as the least of their worries. Instead the Gems focused wholly on the massive, hulking ship that worked itself down in the sand. The Gems had watched it bloom out of the horizon, faster and sleeker than the one Jasper had arrived in. It had been maybe three minutes between its first appearance and contact with the sand, but to the Gems’ churning minds, it had amounted to an agonizing wait.
The ship’s hull reflected back sheets of sunlight, blanketing the ship in a blinding coat of light. Only its underbelly was visible, which choked out the sun.
Rolling heat, suffocating drafts of sand and salt water, the sun eclipsed by the massive perimeter of the ship. Every roaring instinct in the Gems’ core told them to take an offensive stance, to start attacking as soon as possible. Or at the least, to draw their weapons. They couldn’t. They merely stood their ground, every nerve on fire, as the ship made itself comfortable in the receding wake of the ocean.
Its front tapered to three sharp points, its body thinner, smaller, sleeker than the massive hand Jasper had directed to Earth. Its color was indistinguishable; the parts of its body that faced the sun only shot back blinding white light. The bits of its hull shaded from the sun lived in complete shadow. The thing sent out pulsating waves of energy. Its engines screamed across the vacant buildings. Tourmaline glanced about among the other three Gems. They regretted it instantly as borrowed fear leeched through their whole body.
There came a shift in the ship’s main nose. It let out a pneumatic hiss, engines dying, and disconnected itself entirely from the body of the ship. A conical section merely rolled through empty air, like a sliding door, in no need of its own support. A thick, polished steel carpet shot out like a whip. Tourmaline dodged to the side as the edge of the new bridge exploded into the sand they’d been standing on. A puff of sand ballooned outward, settling on its own after a few seconds. Tourmaline hurriedly rubbed the dust and grains off their body with their single arm, peddling back from the walkway.
Clunk. Clunk. Clunk.
Tourmaline froze. The front of heady, fierce intent hit them like a crashing ocean wave. It sparked with excitement. They looked up, back straightened, as a blooming silhouette moved down the steel path.
She grew out of the wobbling hot air, finding shape, finding color. She stood taller than Tourmaline, hair cropped short and sharp about her head. A faceted gem glimmered on her forehead, off to the right, where her hair parted. Her eyes were thin slits, her cheekbones sharp on a sallow face. Her uniform came to sharp edges and jagged plates, decorated with an array of both weak and heavy reds. Front and center, a yellow diamond blazed below her collar.
Her face was stone as she appeared, eyes scanning over the four Gems. She reached the end of the walkway and stopped, toe to toe, face to face with Tourmaline.
A wide, gentle smile broke over her lips. Tourmaline fought down the shiver they felt at the stream of thoughts that lay behind her crocodile grin.
“Hello, I’m Commandeer Cinnabar, leader of the Crystal System. It’s a pleasure to meet you.”
She stuck her right hand out in greeting.
Tourmaline only stared, immobile, at the offered hand. They felt Cinnabar’s eyes flicker to their right side, and mutual understanding bridged between them.
Tourmaline didn’t have the hand necessary to meet it.
The next second beat down like an eternity, pregnant and chaffing with the ship’s artificial heat. Its hot wind swept in behind Cinnabar, and the only motion existed in the tiny, fluttering movements of her hair. In a singular fluid action, Cinnabar dropped her right hand and swung her left forward, palm open and offered. Her mouth turned up with a soft smile, thin lips stretching white.
“I’m sorry. That was rude of me.” Her voice came in authoritative clips, but the edge was gone from it. It was softer now, quieter, warm with something like understanding. Her eyes flickered to Tourmaline’s stumped right arm. “Battle injury?”
“Something like that,” Tourmaline answered. They clasped their left hand in Cinnabar’s and moved with the one, solid shake she offered. Her grip was tight, but not crushing. Tourmaline struggled to meet its firmness. “I’m Tourmaline.”
Cinnabar nodded, before allowing her hungry eyes to move among the four of them. The ships engines died down in a twisting whine. The air grew flat, but did not lose its sucking heat. Cinnabar started first with scanning Tourmaline’s gem, before shifting her focus to Amethyst on Tourmaline’s right, and Pearl on their left. Her gaze lingered a moment longer on Garnet.
“Garnet’s gems are on her palms,” Tourmaline answered aloud. They clamped their mouth shut, rocking with a wave of regret as they became aware a second too late that Cinnabar’s question hadn’t been verbal.
Cinnabar’s attention flickered back to Tourmaline. She only smiled and nodded in response, before giving the beach another casual once-over. “I see Peridot’s not with you.” She cocked her head to the side. “Why?”
“She’s in a dog crate inside. But—“ Amethyst thrust a foot out. She kicked away the sand that had accrued into a thick mound. The sweeping revealed Peridot’s two mechanical limbs—dented, stunted, broken, as the layers of sand shot away. They emerged, like something printed out of the ground. “—we’ve got her robot arms here. In case you had any doubts about us kicking the snot out of her.”
No expression crossed Cinnabar’s face, but Tourmaline fought down a shiver at the burst of disdain in Cinnabar’s mind. The Gem Commander only shook her head, light smile tugging at her lips, and let out something like a chuckle.
“I shouldn’t be laughing; it’s not professional, but I’m glad you four have taught her a valuable lesson even in my absence. I can’t condone it officially, but as a Commander from Homeworld, I’m glad to see justice unfold in all its deserved forms. Homeworld doesn’t support what Peridot did; we don’t support aggression as a foreign policy,” Her sharp eyes flashed to Tourmaline, “anymore.”
Amethyst angled herself around Tourmaline, foot screwing into the malleable sand. Cinnabar still stood at the ramp’s edge, offering her a six-inch height advantage over the other Gems. The difference in stature didn’t faze Amethyst. “Yeah, you guys are lucky we didn’t just take a hack saw to her if we’re being totally honest here.” She intertwined her fingers and set them behind her head, eyes shut. “We were feeling generous considering she tried to roast us with her ship.”
A twitch along Cinnabar’s lip. A hot wave flashed down Tourmaline’s spine.
Cinnabar shut her eyes, shook her head, smile plastered on her face. “A small, displaced sect of Gems is more civil than even Homeworld’s best. Who would have thought? We could learn a thing or two from you natives about not entertaining the idea of killing our own.” Cinnabar stepped forward. She swept her arms out, as if to encompass the four gems facing her. Her expression hardened. “It…was just an attempt, right? None of your sect was cracked by our Gems?”
“None. We’re all still alive.” Garnet folded her arms over her chest. A tinge of a threat danced at the edge of her words.
“Good! I’m glad!” Cinnabar’s attention shifted from gem to gem—Amethyst’s chest, Pearl’s forehead, Tourmaline’s stomach. Tourmaline stiffened, swallowed, clenched their fist as the probing gaze worked its way into their mind. “You four were certainly lucky.”
“No, we were not lucky,” Pearl answered instantly. There was a bite to her words, and she set a foot forward. “We’re skilled. We’re strong. We do not take well to anyone from Homeworld trying to harm us or this planet!”
Cinnabar blinked. She cocked an eyebrow, eyes wide and unassuming. Until she let her head rock back with a laugh. “Oh! Oh my dear, you think I’m—“ Cinnabar waved off the concern. “I’m not here to hurt you four. Not in my wildest dreams. Homeworld signed an armistice with Rose Quartz ages ago. It would be nothing short of illegal for me to break that.” Her eyes narrowed, dropping with disdain to the clump of arms in the sand. The half-buried things shined in the ship’s reflected light. They dazzled, like small displaced clones of the vast, hulking machine that haloed behind Cinnabar. “Which is precisely why I’m here looking for Peridot. She has broken this important intergalactic treaty, and I cannot morally turn a blind eye to it. I will find justice for you four, no matter what.”
Cinnabar took a step to the left, off the last of her steel walkway. Her eyes were wide and watchful of the four gems, her movements slow and exaggerated. She moved again, another step, until she stood directly in front of Peridot’s limbs. She crouched then, and ran a hand along the hull of one. Cinnabar let out a condescending tsk.
“A faulty model, no doubt. She’ll be shipped off to the Refinery once she’s convicted, and all these tired parts will be recycled.”
Amethyst dropped a foot on top of the arms. Cinnabar’s hand retracted to avoid being stepped on. “Refinery?” she asked, arms folding.
Cinnabar stood. She looked Amethyst up and down. Her hand rose to her face, brushing back a loose strand of her fiery hair. “Oh, you’re a Kindergarten gem,” Cinnabar answered. Her voice had changed; it adopted a sing-song affectation, something cutesy and almost motherly. “The Refinery is where we send convicts, defectors, cracked or dead Gems—they’re ground up and their gems are used as a source of energy. It’s a very green practice. Limits the number of planets we need to set up with Injectors.” She took a step back. Her head swiveled, investigating the beach, as if expecting to see one. She found only sand, the stone monolithic walls, and the Temple watching over from above. “It was inspired, in part, by Rose Quartz. Her compassion for interstellar life made us reevaluate our policies.”
Tourmaline almost laughed as the harsh, sour shock of the lie rippled on their tongue.
“Fusion!” Cinnabar barked. Tourmaline went rigid, head snapping to attention. Their body flushed with anxiety, stomach clamping, mind whirling. What had they done? What had given it away?
Cinnabar walked toward them, harsh boots soft in the sand
Then past them.
Cinnabar stopped just shy of Garnet. She had to angle her head up a fraction of an inch to look Garnet in the eyes. “May I see your palms?” Cinnabar asked. She folded her arms behind her. The cutting edges of her uniform, sloping out from the back of her elbows, raked into the air.
A silent moment passed. Garnet gave a curt nod, her body drenched in shadow from Cinnabar’s ship. She turned her palms out. Cinnabar inspected the color, shape, and facets on each hand. Her hands lingered above each, never daring to actually touch Garnet. A pulsing few seconds passed before Cinnabar nodded and backed away. It was annoyance then that rippled down her spine. It bled off to Tourmaline. “And who are they, may I ask?” She enunciated each word, not maliciously.
“Ruby,” Garnet clenched her left hand. “Sapphire,” right hand.
“Jasper mentioned something about a…permanent fusion.” Disgust wafted off from her open, unassuming face. “The culture you Gems have developed on Earth is very…different.” Another tight smile on Cinnabar’s lips. “We could learn a lot from each other.” She gave one more sidelong glance to Garnet as she reestablished her position at the head of the Gems. Her boots clanked on the half-buried walkway. The sun was dropping below the ship’s hull. Crashing waves from the ocean were dwarfed behind it; uneven, debris-speckled sand dunes were eclipsed in shade. The monster of the ship crawled across the beach in shadows.
Cinnabar’s eyes flickered back to Tourmaline. Tourmaline shivered before the question was even asked.
“And you, Tourmaline, is your gem quite alright?” Cinnabar took the chance to let her gaze linger on the stone, prodding, probing. Tourmaline kept desperate pace with Cinnabar’s thoughts. Murky, dull, tinged with green. Projecting a body that did not resemble Rose Quartz in even a single detail. “You seem injured.”
Tourmaline shrugged, and set a foot back in the sand. Their eyes moved away from Cinnabar. “Gem’s fine. It’s not cracking any time soon.”
“Last reformation was rushed. My fault.” Tourmaline felt their voice dropping. They refocused their eyes on Cinnabar (cracked, skin crawling with rivets) and inhaled deeply. “’m waiting until my next reformation to fix it. I don’t wanna waste the energy now.”
Her eyes were invasive. Suspicion, like dense heavy mud, worked its way into the creases of Tourmaline’s mind.
“How is your weapon?”
Tourmaline shrugged again on impulse. They felt their heartbeat pick up, exacerbated by the bleeding anxiety from Garnet, Amethyst, and Pearl. Tourmaline made to cross their arm over their chest, giving up when the gesture proved awkward and uncomfortable with only one limb. They didn’t look directly at Cinnabar. Their eyes lingered on the smooth, shimmering, convex exterior of the ship, warping with the heat it generated. “Weapon’s fine. Why?”
“Summon it, if you would please.”
Tourmaline shook their head. Their blood pulsed much too loud in their ears. “I thought this was friendly company? Why would I summon my weapon?”
Cinnabar’s eyebrows went up, open and unoffended. She thrust her arms out. “I’m asking you to. It’s not a sign of aggression, it’s a sign of trust.”
Tourmaline swung their head around, making quick rounds of the other Gems. Small nods met them, until they turned dead-on back to Cinnabar. “A-alright.”
They breathed in deep, set their arm in front of them. Sweat trickled thin and hot down their neck. Tourmaline shut their eyes, focused, insides squirming with terror. They couldn’t summon the Rose Quartz shield: their life depended on it. They needed their fusion weapon, all at once. Like Garnet’s gauntlets—one weapon, summoned from the simultaneous projections of the two components…
Pure light sparked in front of Tourmaline; it condensed into a sheet. Rectangular, rippling outward, form growing hazy. It adopted a rounder look, which sent a bolt of fear through Tourmaline. They focused harder on it, and eased back when the thing solidified into an octagon. The top, left, bottom, and right edges grew thick cylindrical barriers. The diagonals floated free and unbound in space. It bloomed larger, larger, until the screen created a solid glass window between them and Cinnabar.
It sparkled mint green, before beveling outward with a pop: convex, with eight triangular faces whose tapered ends met in the middle. Dark, thorny vines crawled along its surface, and coalesced into a thick tangle dead-center.
Cinnabar appraised it in silence. She set a hand to her mouth, sinking into the tense silence.
“It’s a shield?” she asked.
Tourmaline dropped their arm to their side, letting the weapon disintegrate on itself. “More of a light screen,” they answered instinctively, the knowledge unburying itself from their mind, as if they’d known all along. It brought a wry smile to their face; the term had come from one of Steven’s games. They had the memories: sleepy uneventful afternoons spent on the bed, upside-down with feet kicking at the air and DS in hand, amassing a team based on which Pokémon design appealed to Steven the most. Tourmaline distanced themselves from the strange nostalgia. They’d have liked to play…if only once.
Tourmaline felt their body flood with relief as they caught a hint of the pure confusion from Cinnabar. Not the Rose Quartz shield.
“It’s interesting. And,” she did another once-over of Tourmaline’s broken form, “I hope you sort out your reformation issues soon.” Cinnabar threw a nod back to her ship. “If you Gems would be so kind, could you bring Peridot out? The sooner we get her home, the sooner she can face justice for her actions.”
The relief faded, cold, hollow, from Tourmaline’s gut. They almost didn’t notice the silence that followed, as whirling emotions stole their focus. There was an emptiness behind Cinnabar’s words, one which hadn’t been there before. Her previous sentiments had been riddled with a fiery anticipation, dense and pungent like pepper. That had disappeared with Tourmaline’s shield: excitement gone at the final confirmation that Rose Quartz was not among the Earth gems.
The ship had detected eight gems in the vicinity. The two underwater were the escort and the informant: useless pieces. That left six ashore. The Amethyst: one. The Pearl: two. The Ruby/Sapphire fusion: four. Peridot: five. Tourmaline: six.
The mental check-off played like an audio recording in Tourmaline’s mind. Every gem was accounted for, Tourmaline’s masquerade seamlessly filling the spot of the Rose Quartz gem. Success. Success…
And in excitement’s hollow, vacant spot, cold fury found purchase. Disappointment. Frustration. Insult. The feelings hit Tourmaline in a rush. Their legs shot cold at the tidal wave of ferocity.
Cinnabar only cocked her head again, offered another smile. “We can send you updates as the trial progresses. We have no intention of pardoning her. I assume you four could bring her out to me? The sooner I can be out of your hair, the better—I know my presence is an inconvenience as is.”
Tourmaline felt it then too: the Crystal Gems had turned to them for an answer. They steeled themselves, adrenaline flooding through their emotion-hijacked body. They took a step back, and rooted their foot deep into the sand.
Cinnabar’s smile dropped, as if she was hurt. “It’s interstellar law. I’m required to take Peridot back to Homeworld.”
Tourmaline shook their head. They tried in vain to shut out the horrifying visuals that bloomed in their mind. Sand turning to glass in a fiery wake, scattered debris of what had once been the Temple—
“No, you’re lying about everything.” Tourmaline opened their cracked eyes, hot and livid with Cinnabar’s borrowed emotions. “You’re angry. You’re angry at us for not being what you wanted, and you’re angry at Peridot for getting the ship wrecked in the first place. You don’t care about law. You don’t care about her. You don’t care about us.” Tourmaline steeled themselves. What they knew terrified them. “You only want us to head back into the house so you can tell your goons on board to ready the lasers and destroy us.”
The response was immediate. Amethyst let loose a growl, whip at the ready. Garnet went tense. Her fists clenched, and she angled herself to Cinnabar with her feet knotted in the sand. Pearl set an eager hand to her forehead. Her eyes narrowed, spear at the ready.
Cinnabar did not draw her weapon. She blinked again, this time with genuine surprise trickling down her spine. She kept herself standing tall. Her arms clasped tightly over each other, hidden behind her back. Her mind whirled, recalculating, replaying her moves so far in search of where she could have slipped up.
“And now you’re trying to figure out how I could have known all that from the things you said.” Tourmaline moved forward, sandal digging deep into the sand. “I-I know a lot of things you don’t want me to know, Commander Cinnabar.” Tourmaline pushed their head forward. “You hate the Crystal System. No one in their right minds would want to be put in charge of the Crystal System—dead, indebted, war-torn section of space.”
Another step forward. Cinnabar reeled back instinctively. Tourmaline kept on.
“You’d have crawled your way to the top if not for this place—y-you think so at least.” Tourmaline’s face stayed impassive. “It’s all over your face. You’re constantly asking and taking, borrowing money borrowing troops borrowing resources. They hate you for it. They hate you. But you have no choice, because the Crystal System is a failure.” Tourmaline threw their one hand out. “But it’s all because of the previous Commander, not you! She let the System die like it did. She made sure it did! And now you want her to pay for it.”
“Shut up,” Cinnabar hissed. Her jaw clenched unnaturally tight, her eyes stretched wide.
“No one would fight Rose Quartz, not in their right mind. Even if you got her, you’d lose hundreds of Gems in the process. And Homeworld would hold you accountable: blood-thirsty, vain, petty—you know that’s how they’d see you if you ever tried that sort of thing.” The other Crystal Gems wrapped around Tourmaline like a shield. Cinnabar didn’t notice them; her attention didn’t move from Tourmaline’s cracked eyes. “And here you are, sitting on top of another failure. A lost ship, three lost Gems, all for an old dumb pet-project that no one has actually cared about in 5,000 years. Another mess you’d have to take responsibility for.” Tourmaline’s next step brought them onto Cinnabar’s steel walkway. Their sandals slid, sand-strewn, along its surface. “You thought this was just another failure. Until you got Jasper’s transmission claiming she’d captured the Rose Quartz gem. No losses, no damages, a-at first at least. But her ship’s in pieces, and she’s drowning at the bottom of our Earth’s ocean. Something went wrong. Something you don’t understand. Something you can’t figure out took that ship down, tore it to pieces, tore your Gems to pieces.” Tourmaline was breathing deep now. They poured all their energy into the tirade.
“Get off. Get away,” Cinnabar insisted. She swung an arm out, arcing it to her gem, which drew out a long, gleaming, symmetrical blade. She slashed it through the air, missing Tourmaline by a solid six inches. Tourmaline flinched back, but didn’t quiet.
“You came here because you wanted to find the Rose Quartz gem. But she’s not here. She hasn’t been here for a long time. Longer than I’ve been here! You missed your chance. There’s nothing for you here to take.” Tourmaline’s eyes flickered up to the ship’s innards, connecting with a tiny, started Gem attendant who’d popped her head out when the shouting began. The tiny thing squeaked and reeled backwards into the catacombs of the ship, hardly visible. Tourmaline moved their attention back to Cinnabar, who hadn’t budged. “And you’re angry now. About everything. And you’re going to try to make yourself feel better by blasting us to pieces.”
“That’s a lie!” The little Gem in the ship’s interior popped forward again, like a mouse. Her voice squeaked as she spoke.
“Howlite, leave.” Cinnabar spun and snapped at the thing. The little Gem flinched away from her superior, answering with mute, aggressive nodding.
“It’s not a lie,” Tourmaline continued. Cinnabar spun back to them, attention divided, frazzled. Her hair swept about her face in wild arcs and waves. Her lips curled away from her gritted teeth. Anger pulsed thick like heat from her eyes as Tourmaline pressed on. “It’s the truth. You want to kill us. You think you can get away with it. M-maybe you can. But you know….Jasper tried. Peridot tried. Do you know why they failed?”
Fear pulsed in thick with Cinnabar’s anger. Tourmaline focused on fighting it back. They danced around only Cinnabar’s anger, outrage, hoping to let it fuel the last of the rant that their two components would have cowed from. “We sank Jasper’s ship. We got Jasper chained to the ocean floor.” Tourmaline paused, reversing themselves on Cinnabar’s walkway, until their feet hit cold sand again. “And Peridot–” they turned their body, wound one foot up, and drove it into Peridot’s arms. The two metal stumps rolled over in a waterfall of sand and clanking metal, “—do you know how, why, we’re hauling around Peridot’s…severed body parts? In pieces? We…we destroyed everything you sent here last time. How do you know…we can’t destroy you too?”
Garnet stepped forward. Her gauntlets appeared in flashes on her fists. Pearl sprung up beside her, spear drawn. “I don’t think Homeworld will miss one more Gem, especially one so reviled as you,” Pearl added, pointed end of her weapon thrust outward.
“Stop,” Cinnabar mouthed. Her eyes darted about in wild bursts. She stood tall above the other Gems, body eclipsed in the black shadow of the ship.
Amethyst cracked her whip, delighting when Cinnabar flinched at the noise. Tourmaline’s anger was draining. They felt worry, anxiety, fear leech into place. They worked to shrug the new sensations off, smiling as the meaning of these new emotions sunk in.
“Vile, disgusting, barbaric…” Cinnabar was backing into the ship’s hull. Her face was twisted, a roiling ocean of hot emotion. Her sword quivered at her side. “Rot here. Keep Peridot and rot. Yellow Diamond will destroy this sad, cold, dead hunk of rock, and I’ll be sure to feed your cracked gems into the Refinery myself.” She spun in place, eyes set to the ship’s interior. “Howlite, start the engines.”
The steel walkway shot back into the ship like a whip; Tourmaline had to dance out of its way once more. The ship’s conical nose rolled back into place, leaving Cinnabar’s face in view just long enough for her to shout “Die here.” to the Gems before vanishing entirely. The engines roared to life, thin and high-pitched at first, before finding volume, gusto, weight. Their pitch beveled up and down, before settling into a cacophonous scream. Whirlwinds of sand kicked up into reeling columns. A blast of heat shot from the ship’s undercarriage. It singed along Tourmaline’s sweat-sopped face, evaporating the water instantly. The careening winds sent the Gems’ hair into fantastical dances. The world dissolved into a thick soup of mechanical screeching, blasting heat, and a maelstrom of salt-soaked, sweat-soaked hair. An inferno. An end.
Until it gave way to the swamping cold calm of an autumn day. The ship retreated into the sky, losing volume, like some shimmering fever dream. Tourmaline watched it go, their mind adjusting to the buzzing static of…nothing.
That was, until Amethyst tackled them from the right. She shrieked, and drove excited, playful fists into Tourmaline’s trapped body as Tourmaline squirmed. “That. Was. Brutal man! Who’d have thought something made of half-Steven and half-dorkcopter could be so fierce?”
Tourmaline wiggled about and shielded their face with their one arm, giving into a burst of chuckles. “I-it was mostly Cinnabar, actually. I was getting the anger off her. I-I don’t think I could do that again now. It seems…mean.”
“Darn tooting it was mean!” Amethyst answered, throwing one last mock-punch before rolling off Tourmaline into the sand. She spared a glance to Garnet and Pearl, who were coated in a fine layer of wet sand. Pearl was suppressing a smile. Garnet’s hair had been blown to almost cover her whole face. “Man…we’re a mess.” Amethyst glanced to Tourmaline, who’d managed to get the worst of the salt- and sand-whiplash. “You mostly.”
Tourmaline felt the sand coating their neck and laughed. They pushed themselves to a standing position on wobbling feet. “We uh…we should probably get cleaned up.” Their body felt light, washing through with a cold tingling sensation. They were alive. They were alive.
For…now at least.
“Nah, let’s stay all scratchy and gooey. It’s weird. I like it,” Amethyst mussed up her hair further, cracking a wider grin.
“No, we’ll track it all over the Temple. There’s no saying how much of a pain that would be to clean up,” Pearl answered. There was an unsuppressible edge of mirth in her voice.
Garnet came forward, silent, and dropped a palm onto Tourmaline’s head. Tourmaline accepted the gesture with a flush of embarrassment.
“We’ve uh…still got some important stuff to sort out,” Tourmaline breathed. They felt the instant drop in the atmosphere.
“….Aaaafter,” Amethyst drawled. “We just survived not dying! Let’s take like five minutes to celebrate, huh?”
No other answer came forward. Tourmaline resigned themselves to a nod, and watched as Amethyst danced off toward the Temple. Pearl followed close behind, eager to get clean. Garnet came next. Tourmaline moved in the back of the line, stepping carefully in the other Gems’ footsteps.
It was…odd, the emptiness that followed. They should have felt terrific. Incredible. Elated. Any of that.
Instead only worry wormed into Tourmaline’s heart. It was senseless, misplaced, unexplained. Tourmaline blinked, and swung their head to the side. Their eyes dropped to the abandoned prosthetic in the sand: Peridot’s right arm. They cut their course away from the Temple. Instead Tourmaline moved to the kicked arm, stooped to it, and yanked it out of its half-buried tomb. They dusted it off. It unsettled Tourmaline. It dredged up a thick, choking worry in their throat.
The other Gems had stopped and turned as well. They watched Tourmaline steel the limb against their knee, and prod their fingers into the forearm’s interface.
“Uh, Tourmaline?” Amethyst asked. Her eyes shot to Pearl and Garnet. “Whatcha doing with that thing?”
“Shh,” Tourmaline said. They spun a half-hidden dial, oscillating over frequencies, until solid white radio static pierced through the air. Muffled shouts and sounds echoed on the other end—Cinnabar’s end–too distant to make out.
The Gems didn’t watch the arm. They looked to Tourmaline, whose face had gone a bloodless white.
The mechanical arm dropped from their grasp, and bled its static back into the shoreline.
Cinnabar entered the control room with a presence larger than her physical body. She moved with a weight, a pulling, draining, sparking atmosphere that lit like a match in the minds of everyone else on the ship. They hadn’t dared to speak to her since she re-entered. They hadn’t dared to look at her.
Cinnabar’s twitching hand contracted, then loosened. Her blade dropped to the floor with a damning thock. Howlite stiffened at the noise. She kept forward, kept focused, keenly aware that she was the only in the control room: Cinnabar made it two. Howlite inhaled, braced herself, and thought of a greeting to issue her commander.
She quieted instantly as Cinnabar threw herself at the nearest shelf of supplies.
Digital notepads, quadrant calculators, and radio transponders crashed in waves against the floor of the ship. Cinnabar’s motions became wild, each swipe at her hapless attendants’ equipment earning another strangled cry. Her hair had been whipped in all directions, peppered with salt and sand and ocean spray. Little Howlite crouched in on herself as she struggled, unblinking, to focus on the path ahead. Her world exploded around her as Cinnabar tore everything to the ground.
There came a pause in Cinnabar’s destruction. Howlite’s heart beat fast in her chest, though she didn’t dare to breathe, as three seconds of absolute silence sat between her and her commander.
“Why was the Rose Quartz gem not there?” Cinnabar finally asked. She spun, swung her arm to her gem, and resummoned her blade. It arced out in Howlite’s direction, who only squeaked at the air’s harsh shing. She turned to face Cinnabar with her back pressed against the controls.
“She…” Howlite swallowed in a desperate attempt to refind her voice. “…cracked, I-I guess? Sometime. It’s been—we haven’t visited Earth in 5,000 years. Who knows? Who knows really?”
Cinnabar kept her blade out, pointed at Howlite’s nose. Howlite’s eyes crossed as she focused on the weapon in her face.
“Why would Jasper say she had it then?! Jasper’s a moron, but she’s not stupid enough for that.”
“W-w-w-w-we could try and—I mean she’s here. In the ocean. Maybe—we can fish her out? And ask?”
Cinnabar’s sword hooked another arc. It caught the co-pilot seat and tore thick threads of foam out of its backing. The space had grown hot, cramped, wet—a modest, semi-circular room with hardly enough room for Cinnabar to stand. One-way glass coated the front, blipping dials and levers speckling the rounded dashboard. A dim red light swallowed the room, robbing saturation from everything. A singular smoke detector signal beeped passively overhead.
“I don’t care about Jasper. I care that she was wrong.”
“Maybe it’s a good thing?” Howlite tried. “If Rose Quartz were here, she probably could have beaten u—“ Howlite watched her superior spin in wild aggression and immediately shoved herself back against the control panel, hands splayed, “Ope, nope, nope, not what I meant. I didn’t meant that. I didn’t—“
“Shut up for once!” Cinnabar hucked her blade against the warping window at the ship’s front. It bounced off with a beveling clang, and Cinnabar used her now-free hands to grab at her hair. “I don’t care what you think!” Cinnabar could no longer stand still. She paced in circles, military boots clacking at each step.
“And that’s an excellent opinion, ma’am.” Howlite cocked a salute, her large eyes darting over Cinnabar top-to-bottom. She nodded her head, her one large curl bobbing with the motion.
Cinnabar stared down at her. Her eyes were wide, pupils small and thin. Her lip twitched, revealing gritted teeth. “Shut…up.”
“Yes’m!” Howlite went stiffer. Her hand dug into her forehead in her maintained salute. Cinnabar passed another moment with her wide, acid glare on her underling before moving on. She stalked aimlessly, hands churning in the empty air.
“I have nothing. Nothing to show for this.” Her hands shot back to her hair, ripping through knots that had been twisted in by the ocean currents. “The cluster data? Just the cluster data!? That I was supposed to have four months ago.” She slammed her foot into the copilot chair. She spun with the motion, tearing its base right from the steel flooring. Howlite gave a strangled moan. “The ship is lost the Gems are lost like I could even return Yellow Diamond’s worthless Peridot now that she’s cracked to hell.”
Her fist swung around next. It connected solidly with the glass at the ship’s front. Nothing cracked; it was designed to hold up against the vacuum of space. Nothing short of an enemy lasercanon would shatter it. The light dusting of blue sky was growing thin. Blackness encroached, the vast boundary-less emptiness of space. Damning, infinite, dead.
“And I have to report it! Every time I have to.” Cinnabar threw her arms down and out. Howlite lurched to the right, losing purchase in her seat and falling out. “I have to tell Yellow Diamond I’ve lost her ship, lost her Gems. For nothing! That falls on me, Howlite!”
Howlite scrambled back into her seat, nodding profusely. “I-I-I know, Ma’am. It’s a shame, Ma’am. I know it’s not your fault, though! I know you work hard, and don’t deserv—“
“I don’t care, Howlite.” Cinnabar took to pacing again. She skimmed her right hand along the sloping ceiling. The floor clicked with her movements, pale red and flashing under the barrage of control lights. It flooded both Cinnabar and Howlite in a wash of cold, dying crimson.
Cinnabar turned away. She held her arms stiff at her side. Silent.
“Ma’am?” Howlite asked.
“…Am I scared, Howlite? Am I a coward?”
“I—huh? No ma’am!” Howlite shook her head frantically. “Ma’am you’re lovely: fierce and brave and strong an—“
“Then why did I run?” Cinnabar moved her hands behind her back. She crossed them over each other, clinging together, tense. She kept her chin angled upward as she stared into the pale gray door leading into the ship’s interior. The direction of earth, the direction behind the ship.
“You didn’t run!” Howlite insisted. She hopped out of her chair, coming up to Cinnabar’s side. Her head only reached Cinnabar’s waist, no higher. “It was strategy.”
“Strategy?!” Cinnabar didn’t move. Her pupils only shot to the bottom corner of her eyes, watching Howlite. “I left because a cracked, feral Gem got the better of me. She had me wrapped around her—aha!—her finger, one of the five she had left.” Cinnabar threw her head back and laughed. “I’m an idiot! I left because of a few empty threats!? Why? Because Jasper’s waterlogged and Peridot’s hacked into pieces. They are nothing. I am in charge.”
“Yeah, you’re way better than any of Yellow Diamond’s underlings!”
“What do you know?!” Cinnabar twisted on her heel and dug her palm into Howlite’s face as she passed, headed toward the control panel. “You fight with a slingshot. You don’t know anything about battle.”
“N-no I don’t know anything about battle, Ma’am! But it’s obvious you’re great! You’re so wise and strong and—what are you doing? Why are you touching that? Ma’am? Ma’am?”
Howlite twisted her hands together, drawn up to her chest as she watched Cinnabar tear through the controls.
“The ship’s laser—where is it?” Cinnabar demanded.
“Y-ya know, by interstellar treaty, we should have at least one authority signing off permission before we activate—“
“Where is it, Howlite?”
“Second panel!” Howlite answered, shielding her arms over her head. She kept her eyes shut a moment before glancing back to her commander. She had hardly a moment to prepare before Cinnabar spun the wheel 180 degrees. The entire ship rocked to the side, careening suddenly in a circle as its path redirected. Cinnabar wasn’t fazed by the shift. She threaded her fingers into the projected control, tearing through in search of access to the laser.
Howlite braced herself against the pilot’s chair. A slurry of beeping and screaming alarms sounded overhead. They bled together into one mass cry of distress. The red-tinted room exploded with an array of blipping lights. They flashed like strobes, screeching and shrieking and dousing the room in hot spurts of white light. Together, together, all at once, as the ship sensed its internal hijacking.
They flashed along Cinnabar’s face in glimpses. Like a stop motion film, her smile stretched wide over thin cheeks. Her eyes turned large, pupils pin-points. Howlite caught one last still-life image of her commander as Cinnabar readied the laser.
“Like I said…Die here!” Cinnabar announced, and clamped her palm around the trigger.
“What? …What?!” Amethyst trudged back through the sand. Her feet carved streaks in the beach, until she stood face-to-face with Tourmaline. “Earth to Tourmaline! What’d the hands say?”
Tourmaline only turned to her with glassy eyes. They spared a moment to glance to the sand, at the mechanical arm they’d dropped.
“…She’scomingback,” Tourmaline all but mouthed. Their whole body rocked with the raw wall of hatred and manic glee that had pulsed through the radio connection. They’d caught just a glimpse of Cinnabar—eyes wild, ship lights exploding in flashes, dredges of emotion from her one terrified underling—the sharp chills of it still tingled in their limbs. It turned Tourmaline’s tongue to lead.
“English, buddy.” Amethyst snapped her fingers in Tourmaline’s face. “Use your words.” Amethyst’s eyes flickered to the sky. They shot wide as the speck of the ship in the air whirled around.
“She’s. Coming. Back,” Tourmaline repeated. They turned, legs dredging through the thick, cold, wet sand. Aimless, aimless wandering back to the shoreline. “She’s angry—furious—wants to blast us to pieces a-and enjoy it. She doesn’t care what we might do. She’s past caring. I don’t… I don’t…”
It was Pearl at their side then, her thin arms steadying Tourmaline’s shoulders. Her head was cocked to a 90 degree angle, locked on the blooming ship. “O-okay. What else? H-how much time do we have? We can think of a plan. We can work this through.”
“Orrrrr we could high-tail it the hell out of here.” Amethyst danced on spot. Her legs hopped up and down in agitation. The sky was bleeding back to a steady hot red; the air started to ignite. “We can’t fight a ship. Not from here!”
“We cannot run. There isn’t enough time,” Garnet answered. Her gauntlets flashed to life along her hands, as if of their own accord.
“Tourmaline, come on! You’re the psychic! What’s Cinnabar’s weakness, huh? Where’s the weak spot on ol’ Death Star up there?!” Amethyst was at Tourmaline’s other side. She clamped her hand to Tourmaline’s shoulder, rocking it aggressively. Tourmaline only wobbled with the force. Tourmaline didn’t answer, not at first, as they shook their head.
“I-I-I-I-I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know…” Tears sprung up unbidden in Tourmaline’s eyes. Their breathing grew fast, shallow, overwhelmed by the sudden panic that surrounded them. Support vanishing, they crashed to their knees. Tourmaline’s head sunk low, eyes to the sand. “I dunno know I don’t I don’t We don’t have time she…” Tourmaline breathed in deep, slamming their fist down on Peridot’s dropped arm. It fizzled with a burst of static, a puff of smokey exhaust. “Her thoughts. I-I-I don’t want to see them. Stop it. Stop them. Please. Please.”
“Pearl, pick Tourmaline up,” Garnet ordered, though her instructions stopped there. She kept her feet spread, staring the ship dead-on. It bloomed larger, and a sharp green light ballooned from its tip.
Pearl nodded, crouched to Tourmaline, but drew her hands back when Tourmaline got up of their own accord. Tourmaline looked to Pearl, and the panic had faded entirely from their eyes. The new expression was brighter, calmer, meeker.
“Hey Pearl.” They glanced up to the blooming ship, eclipsing the sun. “So uh…I guess that didn’t really go right?”
Pearl watched, silent, analyzing.
“Steven?” she asked. Without waiting for an answer, she wrapped herself around the Tourmaline body, squeezing for all she was worth. She shut her eyes, pressing out two thin streams of tears.
“Y-yeah. Tourmaline needed a break. It’s me now.” Steven returned the hug one-handed. He let it last only a moment before he drew it away, placing the palm of his hand into the sand below. He pushed himself back into a standing position. It took him two uncertain steps to find his balance; Pearl released him.
“Yeah, so, are we running or what?!” Amethyst’s too-wide eyes shot from Steven, to Garnet, to Beach City. She paced a rut, hardly a foot wide.
“We don’t need to.” Steven’s voice was drowning steadily. The roar of the returning ship crescendoed, filling their ears, blocking out the sun. It whipped up a steady storm of sand. He glanced among the Gems with cracked eyes. “I thought of a plan.”
Pearl took to aggressive nodding. She summoned her spear and clamped it close to her chest. “Good, good, and?!” Her eyes flickered to the ship, barreling forward. It shrieked with the charging laser at its tip.
“We do the same thing we did last time. Duh.” Steven, in Tourmaline’s body, twisted his body to look at the Gems. His whole face was heavily contoured in shadow, the edges of his body haloed in the blooming white light of the ship. Tourmaline’s hair whipped around his face, and the horizon turned to blinding white light.
Steven lifted his only arm, toward the ship, head still turned to the Gems. He smiled at them, as Tourmaline’s shield appeared in a shrieking blaze. Rectangular, octagonal, stretching, beveling, coalescing at the center with tangling vines. It expanded far past its original barriers, until it covered all four Gems with ease.
“Are you nuts?!” Amethyst thrust her arms out, head shooting left and right. “Pearl, Garnet, c’mon. We’re running! Look at the ship. That’s nuts. That’s nuts. Steven’s gonna die.”
Two thin streams of tears eked from under Garnet’s glasses. They evaporated instantly in the maelstrom of sand and heat and sound. “…There is nothing else we can do,” she all but whispered. Her gauntlets vanished, arms going slack at her side. “We can’t run…”
Steven offered a singular smile, a wink to Pearl, who’d clamped her hands over her mouth. “So lemme try.”
Almost reluctantly, he turned his head back to the encroaching ship. He squinted against the blinding light, his face a mask of pure white and sharp shadow. The surroundings bled to green as the laser hit its peak charge, shrieking, careening, crying.
Somewhere, in the ether of emotion assaulting Steven’s body, he felt Cinnabar clamp her hand around the trigger.
The charged laser exploded off its hold on the hull. It shot down like an arrow, ripping hot red streaks in the super-heated air it split. Building, screaming, sharpening to a single precise point at the tip.
The thing struck the Tourmaline shield with the force of a falling meteor. The impact was deafening. The sonic blast split off in all directions, churning up sand ten feet deep. The ocean itself blasted back from the shore at the connection.
The shield didn’t break. Instead the laser blast exploded and split. It rolled like crashing waves over the surface of the shield. Electricity arced and sparked in all directions, and at that moment, the surface of the shield was on fire. White, blinding, hotter than the sun.
The rolling blasts hit the shield’s edges, whipping up, and found themselves paralyzed in the crackling air. It was a singular moment, a fraction of a second, where all sound vanished.
Until the blast was steadily, magnetically, gravitationally sucked back down to the surface of the shield. It was dragged in spindling, spider-web arcs toward the very center of the shield. The energy coalesced there, warping the very space around it, for just a moment.
The same exact sound split the air a second time. A second sonic boom cascaded outward, a second blinding flash of light. The anomaly repeated itself, not from the impact of the blast
but from its release.
It retraced its path perfectly, and like the vacuum of sound that exists before the burst of a firework, a breathless, dead moment followed as it shot out to space.
and connected, the sound like a distant, muffled gunshot.
The ship’s exposed laser screamed as it exploded. White flames first, then blues, then red spread along the ship’s hull. The machine dropped like a stone, like a flaming shooting star, to the beach below. It gathered speed, gathered ferocity, a sharp whine careening over its surface. The Earth shook as the ship crashed fifty feet to the left of the Gems. An explosion of sand coated it, dousing the flames, and leaving a halo of glassy spikes ringing the near molten ship, smoking, sputtering, dying…
And it was then that Steven, like the ship, dropped into the sand.
All three Gems shot forward, Pearl filling the ringing static in their ears with one strangled “Steven!” The air grew sharp with the stench of gasoline. It had spiked several-hundred degrees, and shimmered with the aggressive heat. The atmosphere crashed inward on the Gems like a vice. For sound, only a steady crackle remained: the noise of the ship’s residual molten burning.
It was Garnet who reached him first. She grabbed the shoulders of Tourmaline’s body, flipping the fusion over. Steven stared out at them through his cracked eyes, now half-lidded, and smiled. He shut his eyes as his mouth opened.
“That….was the coolest thing ever. Being a fusion rocks.” He laughed, before falling into a stiff, suffocating silence.
Garnet jostled him. Amethyst and Pearl collapsed into the sand beside him.
“Steven?!” Pearl asked. She wrapped a hand over his cheek.
“Yo, Ste-man. Come on! That was way too wicked for you to go passing out on us now. I didn’t even tell you how cool it was!” Amethyst spoke through unblinking tears. She didn’t look at his face. Her attention, along with Pearl’s and Garnet’s, stayed fixed on Steven’s exposed stomach.
Somewhere behind them, an escape hatch to the ship crashed open. None of the Gems turned. None of the Gems acknowledged it. They drank in the thrumming silence, eyes set to Steven.
The Rose Quartz gem, still tinged green in the fusion, bore a singular, deep, vertical gouge down its center. It pulsed and flickered, uncertain how to route its energy after the shield blew it past capacity. It fizzled out instead. Boots made contact with the beach, out toward the ship.
Sunlight found purchase on the beach again, and the overheated sand surrounding Steven sparkled with an explosion of tiny, splintered gem shards.
There came a strange vacuum of noise just then. It wasn’t that the beach itself had gone silent: Cinnabar’s ship still crackled and coughed with smoke. Fierce winds, stirred up by the unnatural fluctuation in temperature, still ripped across the beach. The gentle lap of the ocean returned to the shore. But those were natural, inanimate noises. They were rhythmic, mindless. This silence came from the three Gems, and most damningly, from Steven.
A thousand thoughts shot through Pearl’s mind, each as useless as the last. She wanted to speak. She wanted to fill the shuddering void their silence created. But she had nothing to say. She only kept her hands clamped tight over her mouth as she stared down the vessel that had housed Steven moments ago. Garnet had his head on her thighs, her hands pressed to both sides of his head. Her thin fingers wiped away the edges of tears still on Tourmaline’s cheeks—Steven’s cheeks. It had been Steven when the body dropped.
Amethyst jumped to her feet. She took enormous, unbalanced steps around the immobile fusion. Her fingers snaked into the sand. She dug out gem shard after gem shard—some thinner than splinters—and cradled them to her chest as she did. “Someone help me!” she snapped instantly, and her voice choked. “What if they blow away?! Or the ocean gets them?! We’ll get him to the Fountain. We’ll—“
“The bottle.” Pearl was on her feet before she could think. In a tear-stained daze, she crouched, and skimmed her hands over the beach. Something sharp jabbed her finger, and she grabbed it. …Only a sea shell. “We’ve got the tears inside! We just need his shards. He’ll be fine. We’ll save him. Rose trusted us. We can do it. Garnet. Garnet?”
Garnet hadn’t responded. She still ran her thumb along Steven’s cheek, gentle, warm, shaking. Her head dropped over him, and she planted a kiss on his forehead. On top of the headband, on top of Peridot’s gem. “Fusion…is supposed to be wonderful, Steven. I wanted that for you. I wanted you to know that…love, and comfort, and confidence. I’m sorry that this…that this is how…”
Garnet’s voice trailed off to silence again.
Amethyst gritted her teeth. She jabbed Pearl hard in the leg. “Forget her. Help me find all the shards! Use your head light thingy!” Amethyst spoke through gritted teeth, but the aggression dropped from her face as soon as she glanced to Steven, motionless on the sand. Uncertainty grabbed her then. “He’s still fused, so that’s gotta…probably mean he’s not dead right?”
Pearl twisted her fingers together. Raw grief bubbled in her gut; it clouded her mind; it numbed her tongue. “I-I don’t know that for certain, Amethyst. The Clusters—“
“Okay- whatever! Just hold these!” Amethyst dumped her collected shards into Pearl’s surprised hands. She cupped her palms together, and watched the greenish splinters clink together into a pile.
And suddenly, she was back on the battlefield 5,000 years ago. The flames licked hot around her. The clanking, crashing shudder of Gems in combat. Sticky, wet, loud, shards raising spikes underfoot. And she was small, weak, useless. Good only for protection, with those cold splintered shards in her hand. Rose’s gem. Rose’s gem. In her hands. Shattered. It was the same nightmarish vision that burned behind her eyes in every battle. It was real now. In front of her. In her own hands.
Pearl dropped then to her knees. Her whole body had gone numb with shock. Amethyst whirled on her, wide-eyed, and watched in silence as Pearl crumbled. Heat choked in her throat.
“Come on, Pearl!” Her imploring arms shot out. “Someone go get the tears! Someone help me! Garnet! Pearl! …Guys?” Her aggressive breathing lessened. Her shoulders dropped, body angling backwards. She pressed her palm back to her chest, Tension grabbed her fingers; they tightened, and dug into the shards she’d since gathered. Amethyst felt them tearing into her skin then, but she couldn’t stop. The pain was the only thing that felt real. “I-it’s not too late. It’s not.” She stepped backwards on the sand, in the direction of the house. “I-I’ll… I’ll go get the tears. Please…someone hold—“ Amethyst offered out her shaking fist, still clenched around the fragments. It trembled so hard she feared dropping the bits of gem back into the sand. Her offer went unheeded, unheard. “O-okay,” she whispered, “I’ll just g-go—“
Her tiny feet dug indents in the sand. She moved backwards. Her eyes were still set to Steven, as if he might vanish if she looked away. Amethyst drowned herself in it.
She didn’t hear the heavy, clunking footsteps that moved across the hot sand. She didn’t hear the choking breaths, and she didn’t smell the approach of singed clothing. The surroundings had turned to sensory overload, and it masked the obvious intruder.
It was the drawing of a blade that caught her attention.
Amethyst snapped at the noise and spun, her face a mask of wild, angry grief as reality sunk in. Cinnabar stood not five feet ahead of her. Even with her shoulders hunched, stance wide, and breathing heavy, Cinnabar had a solid three feet of height on Amethyst. Pearl glanced up, and a spark of understanding lit in her eyes. She set a hand to her gem. Garnet held Steven closer to herself as Cinnabar hobbled nearer.
Cinnabar glanced among the three, and a flicker of joy crossed on her face. Her hair had been singed, her uniform curling back over burned folds, her face coated in ash. A raw cackle built in her throat, a broken careening noise as she wobbled in place before finding her footing. Her fist clenched hard around the blade’s hilt. She slashed it in the air. Amethyst dodged in narrowly.
“Back away,” Cinnabar ordered. Her attention abandoned the three Gems. She stared only at Tourmaline—at whatever they were now. She still appraised the unmoving body with caution--eyes shut, mouth slack, face draining of color, gem shattered. “I want…to kill her.” Cinnabar slashed at the air with her blade again. She wobbled with the excessive force. “I will kill her!”
It was Pearl who jumped first. Her spear was at the ready. There was a raw, murderous rage contorting her face which hadn’t been there for 5,000 years. The flames from Cinnabar’s ship threw harsh shadows over Pearl’s face. They shrouded one eye in darkness, and lit the other ablaze. “I’d sooner die.”
Amethyst followed suit. She drew her whip and pocketed the shards into the collar of her shirt. She felt them chink down her skin and come to a rest at the elastic band encircling her waist. Cold, they alone were cold. Plucked from the hot sand, they were somehow so cold. “In your dreams. We’re gonna kill you. And fast. And then we’re gonna save S—Tourmaline. And then we’ll rip your ship apart and kill all your crewmates and grind their gems into our coffee!”
Cinnabar considered this, until a thin smile slithered across her face. She wobbled again, then threw her head back with a laugh. “No, you’re not gonna kill me. You’re not gonna do anything to me. You three are going to back away and grovel while I split that gem the rest of the way. And you are going to let me.” Her blade came up. “Unless, of course, you want all of Homeworld knocking at your door in search of me?”
Peridot pressed her fingers to the brim of her sunhat. It was large, bulky, unnecessary in every conceivable way. But the presence of…anything was better than it had been before. Her fingers trailed higher, finding purchase on a large, gaudy red bow. Steven had insisted it went well with her outfit—“like Christmas” whatever that meant.
Her hand dropped, and she glanced about. Broad, pale stretches of nothing ran in all directions. She could see edges fizzling out, she thought. Or it was her mind playing tricks. None of this existed, as Steven had insisted, so it’s not like she really knew one way or the other.
Peridot drew her knees up and rested her chin there. Her eyes dropped to the floor on her right, and appraised the abandoned pirate hat there for a few silent moments. A huge straw-like appendage was propped on top of it (a “feather”—and no, there wasn’t any reason for it to be there.) White atop the sparkling blue of the hat’s fabric. Its brim angled upward at both sides. The turned-up edges framed a single picture at the center. It was the defleshed, stripped-back core of a human. A skeleton, which apparently was all that remained of a human after death. It seemed morbid, but the Steven hadn’t been concerned. Humans were more open to dying, she supposed. They lived so short, they had to be.
She blinked, and prodded a toe out to the hat. It shifted across the floor. Its feather flopped over, and Peridot reached a hand out to right it. The brim of her sunhat dropped over her eyes.
Alone. Alone except for the company of Steven’s two hats. Why? What had happened on the surface? Peridot felt the beginning webs of anxiety crossing through her stomach. So she stood, hat pressed back, and tried to get a glimpse of the real world. She swiveled her head in search, but vast nothing bled through everywhere she looked. She snapped her teeth together and whined in frustration.
She’d disconnected her gem from the Steven’s back when she gave up on making it out of this alive. With her gem on the brink of shut-down, the Tourmaline fusion ran solely off of power from Steven. She shared his mindspace, but she didn’t share his gem, and that meant the outside world had fizzled out to a nigh-imperceptible nothing. It was Steven who always came back and relayed what happened.
But he hadn’t come back this time.
The possibilities bloomed, aggressive and many, in her mind. Tourmaline had been talking with Cinnabar right before Steven left. Maybe that discussion was still ongoing, but she swore she’d felt Steven around for that. Not here, not with her, but a part of the same consciousness. Something had shorted that. Peridot pressed a hand to her self-projected gem.
Her gem. In reality, it was on the brink of destruction. It was whole in the mindspace only because Steven had wanted it that way. Maybe it had just finally shattered, and it was her who was fading out. The thought was almost nice—nothing she felt hurt. It was a soft, quiet, painless death, if this really was her end. Her hand went further up, the weight dropping atop her hat, and she sat back down. Almost childishly, her fingers curled around the two sides of the sunhat and pulled down. It smushed her hair, encompassed her whole head. The straw smelled like lilacs.
“Good try,” she spoke aloud. It was quiet, maybe just for herself as she folded inward, “but I told you right from the start that I was dead.”
She breathed in deep, let the silence work its way through her body, and shut her eyes.
They snapped open instantly at the crack that broke through the air. Her head jerked to the left, and she watched Steven’s body hit the floor with enough force to shake the mindspace. The sight of him bred new anxieties inside her. She dropped her hands from her hat and used them to crawl across the fifteen feet that separated them.
“Steven?” With her newly reformed arms, she took Steven by the shoulders. She dropped him the instant she noticed the shattered bits of his gem clinking down his body. Peridot’s eyes watched them, mesmerized, as they spilled in a halo. It was as though the space adopted its own vexing gravity. Steven fell flat on his back, but the shards scattered in an even ring around his tiny body. (We look how we remember we look!) Her attention shot back to his face, teeth gritted. “What?! What happened?!”
Steven lifted his head to glance at her before laying it back on the semi-real floor. He shut his eyes, which were red-rimmed and dull. His arms and legs splayed out like a starfish; rips and tears raked over his clothes, the most notable one a slit over his stomach that revealed his shattered gem. He was dirty, and bruised—damaged, but in a human way.
He seemed to catch her wandering eyes, and responded with one small laugh. “I went for a walk is all.”
The noise offended Peridot. There was a weakness she didn’t want to exist in his raspy voice. She was the damaged one, she was the fading one. And he was gonna see her through it. She didn’t want this, not any of it.
“No you didn’t! You took control I know that!” Peridot hopped to her feet. Her eyes shot wider. In a fit of disgust she ripped the sunhat off her head and threw it to the ground. It offended her too: its cutesy floppy bow, its comforting scent, the way it’d let her shield herself just now from reality. She hated it, and she spared only a second to glance at it before it dissolved—unremembered--back into the nothing. “I mean what happened out there?!”
Steven gave a shrug. “I might have used Tourmaline’s shield too much.” His head rolled to the side, half-cracked eyes looking directly into Peridot’s. She crouched down to him on instinct. Her eyes looked into his, which were cracked in a different way. She couldn’t explain it, and it terrified her. “You shoulda seen, Peridot. It was so cool…”
“No, no no…” She drew her head back, crawled a few feet away. She could only sit there, washes of panic and uncertainty flooding through her. Peridot reached a hand out, and her fingers clamped at the nothing in the air. When she glanced around, she found an edge had entered the mindspace. It was a crawling, crackling blackness. Rolling inward, with Steven at its focal point.
Peridot shook her head. “What about me? What happened to me?! What happened to us? I don’t feel—“ she pressed one quivering hand to her gem, “—I didn’t feel anything.”
“That’s fine.” Steven gave a slight nod. “Don’t try to. You wouldn’t like it.”
Peridot backpedaled further, as if staring down something infectious. “Why?! It—what happened?! Steven—“ Peridot quieted, glassy-eyed, as a wave of feeling rocked past her. She felt the ground shake beneath her, and choked on the tumult of memories.
This caught Steven’s attention. He glanced to her with a spark of concern in his eyes. His hand reached out, and the edges of his fingers had fuzzed into the unreality of the mindspace. “I said don’t try,” he repeated.
Peridot only took to rhythmic shakes of her head. “No. No no no no. No I knew it. We’re dead. I’m dead. Dead all along. That’s it I’m dead—“ her eyes flickered to Steven, suddenly hurt, “—and you are too.”
Steven passed along only a sympathetic smile, though his body didn’t move. His hand trailed to the ring of shards around his body. He clamped one in his hand, fingers exploring its glinting edges and contours. Somehow, Peridot knew it was cold. “Nah, the Gems’ll figure this out. They always do. We gotta trust them.”
The ship. The laser. The shield. Crashing, burning, fiery comet. Peridot shook her head as if to tear apart the shared memories. “No, Cinnabar will roast us for what we did! Dead! Dead dead dead…” Peridot blinked, and she got to wobbling feet. Her eyes drifted, almost unwillingly, to the shattered gem uncovered from Steven’s torn shirt. On reflex, she pressed her hand back to the gem on her forehead. “She…did roast you. Already. You… you…”
“Aw come on, you’re not focusing on the right thing.” Steven lifted his arms, spread them wide in the air, and opened his fists like tiny explosions. He made a throaty, quiet bwooossh noise. “It was so cool. You see it now, yeah? I sent the whole thing back, and the ship… Like….fireworks,” Steven’s voice trailed. His eyes drifted shut for a few moments, arms dropping down again. “You’d like fireworks, on Earth. That’s another great thing. Even better than hats…”
“I’ll show you sometime. Just wait til New Years.”
Peridot bared her teeth, inhaling deep through them. Her head still shook, arms quivering. Her eyes dropped to the sequenced pirate hat resting abandoned in the ether. It had aged. Its edges decayed to black, wilted, until tiny pieces blew off like ash into the approaching darkness. Peridot looked away. “That’s stupid! That’s stupid and pointless- just tell me how you did that gem-fixing thing, huh? I don’t wanna…I don’t want to look at you like that!”
Steven considered this. He nodded, just a small motion. A vacuum of sound set in between them as the deconstruction of their endless sanctuary rolled in—now so small. “Come over here then.”
And she did, one hesitant step at a time. She felt the edges closing her in. The feelings from Steven washed over her; they invaded every crevice, buried her, drowned her. She kept a hand pressed over her gem. She wanted to go back to forgetting—she wanted to forget everything real until they both cracked through completely. She wanted to die in ignorance. She wanted to break in peace. She wanted the stupid, tacky, floppy, pointless hat back.
“Okay, here I am. Right here! In front of you. Tell me what to do.” Peridot thrust her arms out, arms she had because of him.
Again, Peridot complied. She dropped to her knees beside Steven. Pain prickled along her gem, clamped in her chest, sent cascades of fear and fuzziness through her mind. The boy was an open floodgate, and she was suffocating.
“Yeah, okay. Now what?”
Steven didn’t say anything this time. He only lifted his arm, hardly an inch off the ground, and turned it palm-up. Peridot glanced to it with uncertainty. She waited for a command, until Steven jostled the waiting hand in the air.
“Take my hand.”
With trepidation, slow and shaky movements, she did. She put her hand in his, and he wrapped his fingers around it.
The effect was instantaneous. A storm of memories crashed through Peridot’s mind then, too many to sort out, too many to focus on. Sticky sweetness of weekend breakfasts and the gentle grip of a Gem’s hand in Steven’s and the feeling of breathing in the warm salty breeze of the beach with toes scrunching in the sand. The whole-body assurance of tight hugs and the excitement of choosing outfits for Gems who had no need for external clothing and the pride of seeing your drawing of all four of you tacked on the fridge. Hot itchy lawn chairs in front of the car wash and the sopping-suck of watermelon in your mouth. Brisk, callous nights heeded off with a dense fire and scalding hot chocolate and over-cooked marshmallows and ghost stories that Connie told so well, with hand gestures and a lilt to her tone and a flashlight contouring her face from beneath.
And the cold fear of the clanking, echoing, hollow Kindergarten, the ache in your heart seeing someone you love crying over everything she is. Hot guilt over the person you’ve taken away from them and the queasy uncertainty of whether or not she loves you as much as she loved her. And the bleeding, shattering, insecurity of seeing the strongest among you break down over an act of war you don’t understand. And terror, like a thick dark mud, that blooms in the twilight hours of invasion. Crushing self-doubt and a mad love and a desperate need to survive because above all those feelings, above anything else in the world, you care.
“NO!” Peridot shrieked as she yanked her hand away. She rocked in place, as though she’d been electrocuted. It spasmed up and down her body. It clamped in her stomach. It echoed in her mind. Closing in, blackness, all around.
Steven smiled up at her, eyes shut. He dropped his hand, at peace as the eating edges of blackness swamped hungrily over the gem shards that circled him. “Tag…you’re it.”
Peridot scuttled to her feet. She looked down at Steven, and blinked in a desperate attempt to unsee what she’d seen. She looked up, and found the sky had opened up to the outside. An inferno lighted on the skyline—screaming, shrieking, clashing chaos. She felt numb. She felt cold. She felt sick.
Peridot dropped her head. She clamped her arms over it as if to stop the flood. “No!” she cried. Her eyes screwed shut, but it only brightened the flashing memories in her mind. A sob wrenched from her throat. “I hate your feelings!” She scrambled another few feet backwards. Her heel slipped over the crawling black nothing, and she pulled it back as the sensation of falling flashed down her spine like ice. She could only look up, to the world, or down, to Steven’s fading form.
“I hate you!” Peridot cried. And it came with a harsh crack in her voice.
Steven didn’t respond. His hand went limp against the floor, and the tension about his closed eyes loosened. The little flicker in his gem extinguished itself, and not even his chest rose and fell. Still, silent, nothing.
Peridot grabbed at her hair. She spread her feet and stared, wide-eyed and unseeing, at the floor. She didn’t want to look. She didn’t want to know. She didn’t want to think…
“I…hate you…” she declared, just before another harsh sob worked past her throat. She blinked out the tears that bloomed suddenly in her eyes. They dripped, hot, wet, uninvited down her cheeks, coalescing at her chin and dropping. Her last few moments, and somehow he managed to go first. She’d done nothing—useless, worthless, Refinery fodder, she was. A wasted, pointless, empty life she’d lived…
She shut her eyes.
…But, she wasn’t dead yet.
Peridot clamped her mouth shut, eyes sharp in that instant. Her arms were stiff at her side, and she stalked forward. Peridot spared one glance to Steven. He gave no sign he heard her, no sign he was even there. Whatever choice she made now, he’d likely never know. Peridot breathed in deep.
“Dumb…stupid pointless planet. Pointless mission. Pointless war.” Her voice was a monotone. The tears had dried up instantly in her eyes, and she looked only to her flexing hand. “…Pointless life. I…hate all of it.” And with a final glance to Steven, she looked forward.
Her breathing came deep and steady. She angled her head upward, and welcomed the painful storm of reality that waited at the surface.
Pearl lashed out. She swiped wildly with her spear, feet digging into the super-heated sand. The crackling, residual heat evaporated her tears as they fell from her eyes. Hot anger exploded from her grief, and she gave one more arcing swipe of her spear.
Cinnabar jumped back from the assault. Her eyes darted among the three Gems. A twitch entered her lips. “No, I want to kill her! I—aha!—I already did! Look! Look! She’s dead. Dead for what she did to my ship!” Cinnabar thrust the sword out to the shattered gemstone on Tourmaline’s exposed stomach, her blade shaking with the effort.
“No!” Amethyst’s voice cracked alongside her whip. It shot out to Cinnabar, who avoided it with a quick backpedal. “You didn’t!”
“I did!” Cinnabar declared, and her voice was like a mocking second grader. “She’s not moving! She’s broken! She’s dead!”
That vacuum of sound was back. It sat among the Gems, thick as mud, and fed off the stalemate that bloomed there.
Every head snapped to Tourmaline’s face. Their eyes had popped open, dripping with malice. Gone was the firm anxiety of Tourmaline, gone was the kind understanding of Steven. These were cold, harried, murderous eyes. Cracks threaded across the whole body, and whole pieces dropped to the hot sand below as they pushed themselves up from Garnet’s lap.
These eyes only had interest in Cinnabar. They were mad, glinting green things possessed with a suicidal desperation to die with reason.
Their mouth opened again—not Tourmaline, not Steven, but Peridot this time. “Because I’m still here.”
(Note for clarity: Peridot is in control of the Tourmaline body. No unfusing has occurred.)
“Because I’m still here.”
The fury leeching off the cracked Gem was palpable. Cinnabar stared back, wide-eyed and mute, as her hair lashed across her face with the churning winds. Embers raked across her cheeks.
It was Pearl then who stood center in front of the Tourmaline body. She moved with a fluid grace to her body. Her back was firm, arched. Her spear twirled outward with the intent to kill. She spared only a moment to glance at the fusion, to consider the weight behind the distinctly un-Steven words. But these words, regardless of who had spoken them, lit a manic spark inside her. She was still on the battlefield, air hot and slick and salty, but her leader wasn’t dead yet.
Garnet took the opportunity to stand and snap on her gloves. She moved forward with Peridot, trailing by a scant few inches. One arm stayed low, ready to catch the wavering body if necessary. Amethyst only let out an excited holler. She cracked her whip into the molten sand, and unleashed a stinging shower of rock and pebbles.
“I knew you wouldn’t go down so easy, man!” Amethyst barked another laugh. Her tear-stained eyes scanned the fusion up and down, smile flickering. “Tough as nails, C-cinnabar! It’s what we are. Deal with it!”
Amethyst was answered with a building chuckle. Cinnabar, who’d been frozen moments ago, allowed a fit of laughter to rack her body. Her blazing eyes trailed up and down Tourmaline’s body in one gloating motion, and she brushed back her wind-blown hair. “And this…changes anything? You’re hardly standing!” Cinnabar swung her sword in an emphatic arc; its silver blade glowed red with conducted heat from the beach. “And not for long, at that.”
A thick silence followed this, an uncertain stalemate. The brief joy in the air had trickled out to renewed paranoia. In increments, the scene was made clear to Peridot. The observations hit her in acidically nervous waves, shared understanding with the Crystal Gems surrounding her: Steven’s gem had shattered into a halo along the uneven sand. Muted rosy splinters stuck out like thorns and glass; patches of the ring were missing where Amethyst or Pearl (Those were the Gems’ names…) had gathered the gem shards up. Peridot caught glances of herself through the others’ minds: half-composed, eyes wild and wide in the flood of pain and noise, body dropping jagged, cracked pieces into the sand.
Peridot—the last voice in the Tourmaline body’s echo chamber—responded to the silence with a grin to match Cinnabar’s. “You’re right. You’re totally right. I’m hardly even standing. HA! I’ve been just about dead so long I’m getting used to it!”
She raised her single arm to point to Cinnabar. The thumb snapped off with the motion, and tinkered unnoticed into the sand below—a part of the Tourmaline body that hadn’t come from her, cracking along with the Rose Quartz gem…
Cinnabar dropped her smiling face to the ground, and savored the moment that she drove her toe into a loose gem shard. “Wouldn’t it be better for everyone if you just let me put her down? We do this with Gems in the Refinery all the time. It saves them the agony of dying.” Cinnabar flashed her eyes to Pearl. Her smile had vanished, and the line of her mouth was firm as stone. “Unless you want to die with her.”
“Why don’t we save everyone time and just crack you through, huh?!” Amethyst swung her whip out with a forceful thrust. Cinnabar slammed her blade down, like a meat cleaver into a thick cut of flesh, and severed the whip clean. Amethyst froze, another flash of terror rippling off her body. She took a step back and drew a new whip from her gem in silence.
Garnet angled her head toward Amethyst and spoke through gritted teeth. “Pearl and I can handle this. Get the tears. We can’t let Cinnabar waste our time.”
As if on cue, Cinnabar drove her blade deep into the ground. Its red-glowing tip shot to blue, and she swept it through with a single swipe of her arm. A curtain of licking red flames lashed out with it, curved and arced. It swung around behind Amethyst and Garnet. Amethyst snapped her whip in closer to prevent it from getting cleaved again, at the expense of finding herself on the concave side of the flame wall. Cinnabar stepped inside the ring just as the leading end reconnected with its tail. It made a perfect circle, sealing the Gems inside with Cinnabar.
Cinnabar lifted her red-hot sword, and planted it gently on her open palm. “Sorry, it sounded like you planned to leave.”
Amethyst twisted. She squinted her eyes against the towering moat of flame now blocking her path. She gritted her teeth, lip curling up. “You go get the tears, Garnet. ‘s fire. Not like I can get through it.”
“What about the shards?” Pearl hissed backwards. She kept forward, eyes set to Cinnabar who broke into a wider and wider grin as the buzzing panic among the Gems became apparent. “They’re buried under the flames.”
“Okay, so…what then?!” Amethyst wasn’t looking at Pearl or Garnet, not even at the fusion. Everyone’s eyes had trained to Cinnabar, watching her like a spider that might slip through the confusion. Cinnabar drank in the undivided attention she’d earned, and cocked her head to the side.
“So let me crack your friend,” Cinnabar answered simply. “I might even let you Gems out.”
“We don’t have time for this,” Garnet muttered, and the words were soaked in poison. She moved like a bullet, churning up pillars of sand in her wake. The vision struck Peridot like a lightning bolt.
Garnet, split in two. The memory hit Peridot from two angles. Once from the side, washed in only mild irritation over Jasper’s overzealous need to fight. And again from behind, beneath, with the hot spasm of panic and pain over watching a loved one die.
Steven’s memories, Peridot realized with a tightness in her throat.
And now, she saw it again, as a twinkle in Cinnabar’s eyes…
“Destabilizer!” she shouted, and watched wide-eyed as Garnet dug her feet into the sand just as Cinnabar thrust out the destabilizer she’d slipped from her belt. The Commander’s eyes were wider now, a huff to her breathing, as she stared dead-on at Garnet. She glanced to her destabilizer, then Garnet again, then Tourmaline. Cinnabar took three purposeful steps backward, back near the edge of her fire ring. Her head was haloed in flame.
“I’m getting…somewhat tired of you countering everything I do.” A flash of fire hit her eyes, pinpricks staring into Peridot’s—Tourmaline’s—face. “Just crack already!”
The whole world beat in on Peridot then—loud and hot and painful. It throbbed in her head and licked at her burning feet. The two cracked gems felt as though holes had been bored in the body with acid. And even against the torrent of stimulus assaulting her body, the most noticeable to her was the silence left in the wake of the dumb human’s voice. Leaving her here, alone, to deal with this.
Peridot’s lip curled. She breathed in deep, and with her single borrowed hand she shoved past Garnet. She stopped dead in front of Cinnabar—within striking distance.
“I will,” she answered simply. Cinnabar met her stare with a hint of confusion at the seeming surrender. Peridot kept on. “I bet you I will. It’s about goddamn time I died. But once, just once,” her eyes flashed sidelong to the other Crystal Gems, then back to Cinnabar, “before I die, I’m gonna get my say.”
“No,” was Cinnabar’s definitive answer. She dropped the destabilizer into the sand, and moved both hands to her sword. The other Crystal Gems jumped when Cinnabar lifted her blade, but Peridot didn’t flinch. The blade hung there, just shy of the cracked gem (Steven’s gem) on her stomach. The glinting, hot metal stayed there, trapped in stalemate. Cinnabar’s eyes had stayed to Peridot’s, and grew wide with suspicion.
“You’re not gonna kill me– yet,” Peridot responded. She pressed the heel of her palm to Cinnabar’s blade, and pushed it over. “Because this is too easy. It’s a trap, any moron with half a brain could see that. Why would I be standing here willing to have you kill me if it wasn’t?” Peridot took a step forward, and delighted in the sight when Cinnabar matched her with a step back, shoulders to the flame wall. Peridot’s face, cracked and splintered, glowed manically in the light. “We gotPeridot somehow, didn’t we? We got her and we cracked her and we kept her shackled like an animal ready to die hoping to die.” Another step forward, matched by another step back. Like shale, pieces of Peridot’s forearm sloughed off onto the ground. The decaying body revealed an arm, soft and fleshy. “And Jasper. And Lapis. And Peridot’s ship. And yours now. There’s gotta be sometrick, huh? And you don’t want to gamble anymore…”
Cinnabar’s face curled with murderous rage. She dug into her stance, and drew her sword back. Disheveled red locks dropped over her eyes. Peridot responded with a step backwards, one arm thrown wide. She had her body exposed, vulnerable, and pieces of her collar broke off into the sand.
“Well here’s the deal: there isn’t one. No trick! I’m good as dead. So do it.” Peridot shut her eyes, angled her body inward again. “But who cares what happens to me anyway? You don’t. Homeworld doesn’t. What good is killing me?! What good is it when you should be a lot more concerned about yourself?”
A spark of anxiety shot through Cinnabar’s spine at this. She clamped her hands around her sword hilt again. Her legs were spread, tense, and digging into the crackling sand. Her eyes shot among the four gems she’d trapped in the fire ring with her. There came a shift in her mentality, an uncertain rocking between warden and prisoner in her situation.
“Let me make a few things crystal clear to you about what happens to you after I crack straight through.” Peridot swung her arm wide, and something like a delirious laugh broke past her lips. “One: Peridot dies. We crack her straight through—not that you care about her—it just leaves no one to fix your ship.” Her eyes flickered to the burning wreckage. “And yeah, I do know you didn’t bring any technicians with you. It’s written all over your face.”
Cinnabar swung her sword out. Peridot hopped back from it, finding the other three Crystal Gems immediately at her side with weapons drawn.
“Empty threats! I can fix the ship myself!” Cinnabar shouted.
“No you can’t,” Peridot answered with certainty. “Fourteen other Gems were on board with you, and no technicians. They’ve been downsizing you. You had to borrow Peridot directly from Yellow Diamond because the warp pads were down and you had no one to fix them. You can’t fix a ship.”
Cinnabar curled her hands around the hilt of her blade. “The Diamonds will notice my absence. I only have to wait. And I need to kill you anyway, since you plan to kill me. I’ve got nothing to lose.”
A cruel smile pulled the edges of Peridot’s lips—abnormal on Tourmaline’s gentle features. It splintered out with cracks along her cheeks. “No. No, Garnet, Amethyst, and Pearl aren’t gonna kill you.”
Peridot could feel the ripple of confusion—hot anger even—that came from the Crystal Gems just then. She’d made a promise in their name, one they didn’t endorse. But they had enough uncertain hope vested in Tourmaline’s intuition to not voice this aloud.
Cinnabar responded with a level stare. “How hospitable of you. I’m wiping away tears of joy.”
“I’m serious. They’re not gonna kill you once I’m dead. No, they’re gonna do to you what they did to Peridot.” Peridot arced her arm out, displaying Tourmaline’s body. “You never asked! You never bothered figuring out what happened to Peridot, huh?! Are you interested at all? Do you want to know what happens to Homeworld Gems who get abandoned on Earth?! I’ll tell you!”
At this, Cinnabar stuck the tip of her sword into the sand. She leaned on it, exerting an air of fake calm. Rage still burned hot underneath her mask, but a sort of morbid curiosity had set in. Not concern, not dread—just curiosity.
“Fine, humor me. I’ll put all the juicy details in my report when Homeworld asks why I killed four Gem natives.” She gave the group a once-over. “Not that they really care.”
“They don’t care,” Peridot answered. “You’re right. They don’t. Not about anything you do, not about anything that happens to you. ‘The Diamonds will notice my absence’?! Ha! Like they noticed Peridot’s?”
“She was disposable.”
“And you’re not?”
Cinnabar bared her teeth. Her fingers twitched along her sword. “I’m in charge of an entire System.”
“Yeah, the Crystal System.” Peridot laughed. “A festering, abandoned garbage dump. They’d sooner forget it even existed.”
The insult flashed through Cinnabar’s mind, like an oil fire catching light. “They trusted me with it because I alone could handle it! I’ve proven myself for millennia!I’ve been nothing but loyal to them!”
“And Peridot wasn’t!?” came Peridot’s response, and her voice cracked as she spoke. Her single arm grasped at the air. “She did everything that was asked of her! Without question, without hesitation. She lived and breathed and worked for the glory of Homeworld. And they left her here to rot.”
“You four attacked her!”
“Yeah and we—she attacked first…at Homeworld’s orders. And when the mission failed, what did Homeworld do?”
Cinnabar didn’t answer this time. She only maintained her level gaze which moved periodically to the other Gems.
“They left her! On a barren, hostile, Gem-independent planet. She hid herself away in caves while the organic life on this planet stalked her and ripped at her—wet, hot, filthy things. And she sent out message after message, requests and notices and pleas for rescue. Every day for months. And they did nothing. They left her to oxidize in this planet’s atmosphere and lose her mind and senses and decay like an obsolete machines rusting away in the Kindergartens! …And that’s when we found her, already so panicked and unstable and broken, and then we cracked her, and tore off her arms, and locked her away, and dangled her life in front of her face every moment every second until she was begging for death.”
Cinnabar gave no immediate response. She considered the words, wide-eyed, and shrugged. The tension that held back her shoulders kept her stiff. “I’ll borrow a new Peridot then if this one’s so broken.”
“That’s not the point Cinnabar, and you know it…” Peridot drank in the Commander’s form. An edge of claustrophobia rippled down Cinnabar’s spine, locked in with her own flames. “No one cares about Peridot. She’s nothing.” Peridot glanced down to her broken body. The sand around her was littered with shattered bits of…everything. Leg, arm, torso, piling up like shattered glass, ripping from her body as the fibers holding the fusion together were pulled loose. She looked back up to Cinnabar with a new fire in her eyes. “But she’s yourpredecessor. And we’ll do to you everything we did to her.”
Cinnabar shook her head. “As if you could capture me…” she responded with a bite. Cinnabar pressed a hand flat to the fire barrier she’d erected around them.
“Run then. Run like Peridot did. Let the elements break you down first!” Peridot swung her head in wild arcs. Tourmaline’s head. Steven’s head. At the brink of complete shattering. “Go ahead and learn for yourself how much Homeworld doesn’t care. Go learn how much of nothing you are to them! Refinery fodder! Replicable, worthless, Refinery fodder—no different dead than alive.”
“I am not…Refinery fodder,” Cinnabar lashed back.
“No? Peridot didn’t think so either.” Peridot motioned backwards, toward the house. “I wish you could see her! Wish you could see what we turned her into. Limbless and shattered beyond recognition! Just for a second…let you feel that kind of self-loathing we put in her.” Peridot moved forward. Cinnabar’s blade didn’t even flicker to attention. “I’ll be dead soon. Don’t worry. I know. But the three behind me are more than capable of doing all of that. And they care a hell of a lot about this gem you just shattered…they’ll pay you back.”
Cinnabar’s attention shifted to the ship behind her. She swiveled back around with renewed vigor. “My crew! It’ll be fifteen against three. We’ll crack you all easy! I’ll be fine!” Cinnabar countered.
“Your crew?” Peridot answered with an incredulous lilt to her voice. “You didn’t bring warriors with you. You had to borrow Jasper from Yellow Diamond… No, your little crewmates’ll get cracked through, and you’ll get to watch everything in this world that ever maybe cared about you die! Can you picture it? Living with the fact that the very last thing that ever cared about you is dead cold gem dust?”
“Shut up,” Cinnabar answered, and her voice had shot to ice. The flames licking behind her had dropped to ankle-height. The anger on her face had bled out to something like worry. Peridot caught a mental flicker of the tiny black-and-white gem that had appeared with Cinnabar. Howlite, that was the Gem’s name. Lost in the wreckage of the ship somewhere… “Just shut up already. Shut up and die.”
Peridot doubled back when Cinnabar swept her sword out. It didn’t connect, but the motion released a shower of gem dust to the sand below. Garnet was in front of her instantly, Pearl and Amethyst too with weapons drawn. Cinnabar took one more step back, stepping over the lowered barrier of her flames.
“Why does any of that matter huh?! What does it change?!” Cinnabar thrust her head out. Her loose hair swung with the motion. “Either you kill me or I kill you! And I choose to kill you!”
“Or you choose the third option,” Garnet answered with weight to her voice. All attention shifted to her. “You back off now. You let us tend to Tourmaline’s wounds.”
Cinnabar’s eyes flickered from Gem to Gem. For a split second, she looked behind her, and absorbed the weight of the crackling ship. The horizon was backlit with the licking flames, a few small Gems—mere shadows–scurried around the hull. They gathered pieces and checked systems and spoke in clipped, panicked tones to each other too quiet to carry across the shore.
“Why? What do I get out of it?” Cinnabar demanded.
“You get Peridot.”
Garnet’s words hung in the air, unanswered. Cinnabar backed up another step and raised her sword.
“Why do I care about Peridot?”
“She has the capacity to fix your ship.”
Cinnabar let out a sharp laugh, face twisting in frustration. “You told me yourself she’s cracked! Cracked and almost dead! Wasn’t that the basis of this monster’s threat or did I miss something?”
“Yes, Peridot is badly cracked. But she’s alive. She can instruct your crew in how to fix the ship.” Garnet moved forward, letting one hand trail over Peridot’s (Tourmaline’s, Steven’s) shoulder. “You have no one else who can.”
Amethyst’s whip cracked into the sand. “Sounds like a pretty sweet deal if I’m being honest,” she responded, glancing to Peridot. “All that junk Tourmaline said about Peridot? Pretty nice way of saying we utterly wrecked her. Like I’ve been cracked before—aint fun—but all that junk we did to Peridot? I’d probably’ve killed myself halfway through just be done with it all.”
“Make your decision,” Garnet said. “If Tourmaline dies, Peridot dies. That is a promise. You lose any chance of returning home.”
“Unless, of course, you still have an ounce of faith in Homeworld coming for you?” Pearl said with a note of mockery to her voice. She crossed her arms, and let a smile pull at the corner of her mouth. “Do you know how many Gems they abandoned here back during Rose Quartz’s rebellion? They disowned them for failure.”
Cinnabar flickered her eyes over all of them. Her mouth hung open half an inch, and the dying flames sapped the fury from her face. Options buzzed in her mind, dead end after dead end, until the tension loosened from her forehead. She gave one last glance back to her ship, to the tiny panicked Gems mulling about in the hot sand, before looking back to the Crystal Gems. Defeat pulled her eyes wide, and crushed hard against her soul.
Peridot felt the answer before it passed Cinnabar’s lips.
“Fine… I accept your offer.”
She dropped her blade into the sand, falling to her knees, and the loose, littered gem shards dug in against her uniform.
Garnet supported Tourmaline’s limp body. She kept their arm draped over her neck, body hugged tight against her own, as she made the slow trek toward the house. She moved with a deliberate fluidity, as if the slightest bump might rock loose the last bits of the Rose Quartz gem that held it together.
Amethyst and Pearl trailed by a few feet. They had swept the whole beach after Cinnabar extinguished her flame fence. Pearl ringed herself with at least 40 bubbles, each housing a gem shard smaller than the last. Amethyst only cuddled a few slivers close to her. They were the ones she’d managed to pick up before Pearl. The vast majority had been swept up by Pearl; Pearl didn’t use her sand powers much (and when she did, it was usually to model simple things on a living canvas) but she’d upturned tons in a few short minutes to ensure they’d gathered every last piece. It’d left the beach jagged, hot, and churned up.
In the meantime, they could only trust that Cinnabar would make good on her agreement, and wait by her ship until they dragged Peridot out. The Gems knew in the back of their minds that there was no way they could guarantee her cooperation, but the chance to save Steven reigned above all else.
Garnet paused when she reached the stairs. She toed the lowest step, considering. How much would it jostle Tourmaline to carry them up? Her mind strayed to calm, warm nights with Steven asleep on the main couch. She would lift him, cradle him, carry him up the stairs to his bed without so much as a stutter in his breathing pattern. She always knew how to be gentle enough with him. Steven was a heavy sleeper, though, and the thought wasn’t comforting at the moment.
With care, Garnet took the first stair. Tourmaline moved with her, unaware, and without any indication of further gem shattering. Whatever—whoever—had been in control of the fusion during their confrontation with Cinnabar had since slipped away. Or else, they made no show of being conscious anymore.
Amethyst watched ahead. She paused, tense, as she noted the hesitation in Garnet’s step. She glanced to the house, which sat immediately to their left now. Far now from the flames of Cinnabar’s ship, it looked all but normal. Unaware of the damage that’d been done. Amethyst refocused on Garnet, who hadn’t dared to climb the first step to the deck. “Ya know, I can go get the tears. They’re right inside! I can free up one of my hands. You don’t have to try to get them up—“
“We need Steven to unfuse. It cannot be anywhere in sight of Cinnabar. He needs to be inside the house.”
Amethyst nodded aggressively, unseen. “Yeah, yeah I get it. I can shapeshift—you know—like a ramp or something?”
Garnet responded with silence. Steadily, she moved her foot to the next step and followed through with the motion. There was no clear response, positive or negative, in Tourmaline’s condition.
Garnet took the next step, then another. Sand tracked on her heels. Ordinarily she’d have rid herself of the sand and salt and water from the beach with a sharp snap of her body. The thought now was unthinkable. So she climbed, sand clinging along her body and against her shades, with Tourmaline pressed right against her. Pearl and Amethyst followed behind in the exact same silent manner. Pearl, who’d been coated worse than any of them in her violent sifting of the beach, didn’t make an effort to get clean.
At the top of the deck, Amethyst scurried ahead to open the door. She moved all her shards over to one arm as she ran, and opened the door with enough force to rattle its hinges. It rebounded on itself and warbled as Garnet ducked through it. She kept Tourmaline as still as ever.
“Pearl, get the tears.”
“Y-yes, Garnet!” Pearl answered in outburst. She was a strange sight: her body moved fast, fluid, and anxious as 40 levitating pink orbs followed. They circumscribed her like well-trained dogs.
She lifted the bottle from the counter. Its underside bore a simple coating of flour, as did most of the kitchen. Patches had been cleaned where Pearl tended to them. Otherwise, syrup soaked deep and hot into the mush that remained of the pancakes. Pans were still soaking through, their coating wearing away with the dishsoap bath. The air’s sticky sweetness had grown more pungent in their absence.
When Pearl turned, Garnet was laying Tourmaline on the couch. Her movements were so small and deliberate, so unlike the average rough-and-tumble style Garnet usually favored. She’d trained herself to be gentle; she learned it when Steven was just a baby.
“I got these shards!” Amethyst voiced. She hovered over Garnet and Tourmaline, stepping in agitation. She thrust her share forward as if it might be forgotten otherwise.
Pearl came closer in silence. She held the bottle coddled against her chest. The bubbles moved too, meshing into each other like rows of vehicles in a car wreck. They moved seamlessly into each other though, and they coalesced into one enormous bubble at the center. Pearl uncapped the bottle before easing one hand out. Her hand rested, palm up, right beneath the bubble. It popped with an audible clap, and released a shower of gem shards into Pearl’s waiting hand. Her fingers curled ever so slightly around them.
Amethyst glanced down to her own coddled pieces. She pressed them tighter to herself. Grains of sand ground against her skin. She glanced back curiously to the door. It swung with the beat of the wind, and three distinct trails of sand spread across the floor. “So uh, do we gotta jigsaw him back together? Or can we just shove everything back in and let the tears handle it?”
“We are not going to take haphazard risks with Steven’s life, Amethyst,” Pearl bristled in response. There was a brittle edge to her voice, like glass. It was firm and unbending, but threatening to shatter at any moment. Pearl turned away from Amethyst. She seated herself beside Garnet, who now had Tourmaline’s head resting on her thigh. Pearl leaned over to get a better look at the body. She fidgeted where she sat. “We can figure out the exact construction of his gem from these pieces. It won’t be terribly difficult. Just find which shards form exact pair-bonds with other shards.”
“Yeah, well, that’s gonna take an eternity! And we don’t have a lot of time, Pearl. And the tears are magic! Maybe they know how to shuffle everything around all normal and we don’t need to bother.”
“There are three of us we can figure it out—“
“Amethyst is right,” Garnet said. She tore down the argument with her single addition. Amethyst and Pearl grew deathly quiet. Amethyst didn’t take to gloating; she only nodded, along with Pearl. The two were well-tuned to the inflection in Garnet’s voice when she made a decision based on future-vision. It was a hard sound, a forced control. It wobbled ever so slightly with held-back emotion, leaking from whatever bad path Garnet had been forced to witness. No one argued with Garnet’s future-vision. In most situations, Amethyst thrived on winning arguments with Pearl from Garnet’s verdict. There wasn’t any joy in it this time around.
Amethyst waited for a cue from Pearl. She received a short, directed nod, and she moved her hands over Tourmaline’s stomach. With excessive care, she released her gathered shards into the open cavern of Steven’s gem. They clinked gently. Pearl followed suit; she lay down more shards with even less noise. Pearl moved the bottle of tears into position.
“He’s alive, right Garnet?” Amethyst found herself whispering. She pressed a hand against her own flawless gem. It felt cracked beneath her fingers, when Steven had saved her, when he’d broken down at the thought that he couldn’t. The idea of dying had been so surreal then. The idea of watching Steven die now was too damningly real. “Like, we’re just gonna drip this stuff on him and he’ll pop up, good as new, yeah?”
Garnet glanced to Amethyst; at least, she probably did. The slight twitch in her neck implied it. Her next words were directed to Pearl.
“Be gentle,” Garnet told her.
Pearl nodded. She hid her eyes from view, but her whole body shook as she tilted the bottle.
Peridot withdrew into the mindspace completely focused on recreating her undamaged, unbroken form. Weight grabbed her. It pulled her down, and made her feet collide hard with the poorly-defined floor.
Quiet. Cool. Gentle. Soft.
Peridot let out one deep sigh. A shudder of relief racked her body as she collapsed onto all fours. Tears sprung in her eyes, and she felt a few sobs break past her lips. The pain was gone. The fire and noise and maelstrom of intent–gone. She was back to nothing, back to peace, back to a fading calm.
Until she cracked her eyes open, and remembered the creeping black void that edged in from all sides. It wasn’t like space, which was littered with small lights and signs of activity, life, work. The black was vast and all-consuming. It was an end. It was an absolute. Peridot knew that from the terror it raked through her gut at the sight of it. It had encroached closer than before, and left her alone with—
“Steven…” she muttered to herself. Almost against her will, Peridot glanced behind her. The boy lay there, spread-eagle, with the same ring of gem shards around his body as before. His shirt was hiked up above his stomach. It displayed the cavernous gem for all to see. It looked worse even to Peridot than her own. She glanced back to the void as edges of their mindspace chipped off. Instinctively, she scrambled inward, toward the body.
“Hey uh, so good news (for you): your lame family isn’t about to get roasted by Homeworld. Not right now at least. So you’re welcome, by the way.”
Peridot crossed her arms (both her arms, whole and attached to her body) and looked down at the motionless boy with distaste. The gentle smile on his lips bothered her. “As for me, I now get to die out in space instead of here. Maybe. I get to be Homeworld’s puppet one last time before Cinnabar hucks me into the Refinery. That’ll be fun.”
She sat down, curled her legs up to her chin. It was lonely again, the mindspace. “So yeah, thanks for nothing. You didn’t save me. How’s that make you feel?”
Her eyes drifted to him again, the looseness about his face, the gentle smile. Small and soft and kind—she could almost picture the kind of panicked, baselessly optimistic gibberish the boy would be spitting if he were around.
“Yeah, and I didn’t ask you to try. Remember? You coulda just left me therein the Kindergarten. I’d probably have hobbled off 50 feet before your Gems returned and shuuunk,” Peridot curled her fingers in, thumb pointed out, and jabbed it toward her gem. She stopped just shy of actually hitting herself. “And you’d be off playing…human games. Or engaging in mindless disorganized work until you died. Unless Cinnabar shattered you…” Peridot turned away. She leaned her cheek against her knees. “Whatever. You humans die anyway. I’d die eventually once they decided to shuttle me off to the Refinery. We all die. So who cares what happened here?” Her legs loosened, knees dropping forward somewhat. Her feet edged closer to oblivion, where the formless nothing fell out in cracks. She watched it intently. “Who cares whose fault this is? Not mine…”
Peridot considered it. She considered stretching just a bit farther, and letting the nothing disintegrate under her. The mindspace broke down to ashes once it fell, she probably would too.
And she wanted to go before she watched his body slip into the black.
“What’s the point of having a body here if you’re dead, huh!? I thought our bodies didn’t exist.” She spun then, facing Steven head on. He only lay inside his gem shard halo, motionless. “Oh what do I know!? You’re the only losers desperate enough to fuse. Yellow Diamond would crack me on spot if she knew I’d fused! I don’t get any of this.”
The transferred memories spun in her head just then. For the ones she and Steven shared, she felt a strange, unsettling dual response. It was an intrusive thought just then, how much the fusion had been terrifying and new to him as well. Sweaty palms and a racing, terrified mind and an overwhelming commitment to…
…keeping Peridot alive.
Peridot slammed her fist down into the ground. She laughed too, a forced, desperate sound. He wouldn’t even know he failed.
(He wouldn’t even know she’d failed him.)
Peridot straightened up. She felt a strange tightness in her stomach then, a laughable flood of something like guilt. She let out a chuckle–something wrong and twisted. She’d failed him on what? She hadn’t promised to protect him, or keep him alive, or any of that. He’d made every decision so far. She’d even triedto help him in the end. This had been Steven’s fault, through and through.
(That’s a funny lie.)
“Shut up,” Peridot snapped into the nothing. The noise didn’t echo. No voice answered back. She had only the nagging thoughts in her mind, slipping in and out of the light like roaches, to plague her. The ship. The laser. Jasper. Using him as a human shield. Every memory burned sharp in her mind, and split along a parallel. They were all simple tactics to get what she wanted. They were all mindless, bloodthirsty attempts to kill everyone who mattered. Her memories, and Steven’s…
“Why…do I still have your memories?!” she asked aloud. Her head shot to him then, eyes sharp and accusing. She swept her hand out to him. Nothing. “You’re dead. You’re dead.” And his last memory flashed through her mind then—a bleary projection of herself, leaning anxiously over his body. The memory bled off with hope, and trust, and pride in what he’d done. What he’d done for her.
Peridot drew her hand back, and felt the tears welling in her eyes. “You’re…dead. And it’s my fault.” She moved slowly, cautiously along the floor until she closed in on his body. “Yeah, are you happy now? This is my fault. You got me. You did it—all your dumb guilt-tripping techniques—got me. You really think I’d be screaming at Commander Cinnabar if I didn’t feel…”
Her eyes roved over him. She noted the sparkling shards, some of which had slipped dangerously close to the black. Others lay glimmering, unaware of their impending destruction. Steven had grown paler, and in a way she couldn’t explain, he seemed smaller.
“What if I remember how you looked normally? What’ll that do, huh?” she challenged the body. Her eyes flitted over it nervously. Nothing.
Peridot let out a frustrated noise. She swept her arms out and grabbed at the gem pieces. She moved on her knees, careful to not disturb the crumbling mindspace, and gathered the remaining shards into her hands. She turned to Steven’s body and dropped them all on top of his gem. The looked like the broken bits of a vase, stacked atop each other. Peridot screwed her eyes shut then. She focused on digging up every memory she had of the boy’s gem intact.
“I’m giving you one chance to not be dead. Take it,” Peridot growled. She opened her eyes a fraction. Her lip curled up at the sight of the boy still lifeless. Broken, broken, broken…
…like she was.
Peridot laid her hand on Steven’s shoulder, resigned to acceptance when it snapped off. Because in reality, she wasn’t whole. It was Steven who’d kept up that illusion, Steven and her own willingness to lose herself to unreality. It didn’t matter if she could will his gem back to wholeness in the mindscape—it changed nothing in his real body.
In turn, her second arm clunked to the ground. It severed at the shoulder, and she winced at the sharp disconnect. It sent torrents of pain across her chest. And she bit back the cries it brought on. Her forehead throbbed. She let her illusion shatter under the acceptance of reality.
She would have been responsible for killing him during the invasion; that was reality.
Crack. Her visor let out a plastic snap as it split long the middle; reality.
She’d nearly thrown his life away after he tried to protect her; reality.
Clink. A rain of shards rolled down her visor, cracking with a hot burn to her gem; reality.
He was dead now because of her, because of Homeworld, because of everything she’d brought on; reality.
Peridot opened her eyes against the shower of gem shards. A strange light had entered her vision, a glowing around the boy’s gem. She looked at it first in awe, then confusion, then utter disbelief. She let out a rocking laugh at this. She was letting reality in, so what business did the gem have healing itself in fantasy?
Through the throbbing pain in her mind, the connection clicked—because maybe, in reality, the boy was healing. “The fountain tears…” she muttered. Peridot turned her head then to the sky, which was rocking with the steady deconstruction of the fantasy world Steven had erected for her. Cracks bloomed along her cheeks, across her eyes, up and down her legs. The world came in violent and loud and real.
A stir. A soft, pained noise. Quietter than everything—louder than it all to Peridot. She swung her head around then. She watched his body, inched toward it, crouched over the form. He cracked his eyes open, looking blearily to her, then to the vast expanse above: the house’s living room, the Crystal Gems, Pearl anxiously pouring the bottle of tears over the Rose Quartz gem.
“…What happened?” Steven asked. He pushed himself up on shaky hands. His eyes dropped to his stomach, and he patted the strangely healed gem there. It glowed under his touch. His eyes widened in amazement.
Until they turned to Peridot. Peridot, who watched him mutely. Peridot with the edges of tears in her eyes. Peridot, with her arms gone again and cracks crawling along her shattered form. “You’re broken again,” he whispered with a child-like pain, and he reached a hand out to her.
She watched the hand reach for her. For a split second, she considered letting him touch her. He was alive, so who cared what he did in her last few moments?
She didn’t though. She batted it away. Terror beat in hard against her mind; it was pain, light, noise, everything from the real world somehow leaking directly into their mindscape. And it terrified her more than her own death.
“Forget that!” Peridot barked. His hand retreated, and she felt the cut of guilt in his stomach. She bit it down, and motioned her stumped arm outward. “You’re seeing that too, right? Reality? What’s happening in here? Why is that crashing in?”
Steven looked up, considering, then nodded. He blinked out confusion from his sleepy eyes, which grew steadily more concerned as they came back to reality.
“Why do we both see it, huh? Who’s in charge: you, me, no one?!” Peridot kept her terrified eyes forward, to the encroaching room, and swore for a second that the Gems reeled back in response to her.
“I think it’s both of us…”
“Why?! What’s it mean?!” Peridot’s whole body shook as her real-world cracks and injuries reemerged in full. She watched her own legs decay as the world above became clearer.
“It happened with me and Connie before…where we’re suddenly both in charge.”
“Tell me what it means,” Peridot insisted. The rot in her own body terrified her.
Steven stared out, watching the motionless Gems who seemed all too attune to the conversation. He turned then to Peridot, and his eyes were fresh with new fear.
“It means we’re splitting apart.”
Cinnabar dragged her sword through the sand as she moved. It drew meandering tracks, detouring around stones and clanking along sea shells. It was a passive thing, and it bent to the will of the terrain. Cinnabar could have released it back into the nothing. She could have held it firm rather than let it sputter and clank against the terrain. Cinnabar didn’t want to; she found a strange comfort in its dragging, catching weight.
The ship swelled larger as she approached. Its nose was half-buried in the sand, and its hull bore rows of shreds and scratches that caught loose light. The air spiked with its heat, but most of the spitting flames had been extinguished. Her weighty eyes surveyed the scene: a dozen small Gems scurried around its hull like ants. They stomped down on embers and barked high-pitched orders at each other. They ran with small emergency kits banging against their knees.
Cinnabar put a soft hand to her head. The brittle chalkiness of burnt hair met her touch. Strands disintegrated to ash in her fingers. It spiked the air with a smell like gasoline. She spared a glance down at her own outfit. A muted shame welled in her gut to see burnt, chafing patches of black peppering her uniform. Everything that had been spared from singeing was coated in a fine layer of smoky ash. Cinnabar dragged her hand down to her cheek. It drew away wet, hot, and trailing soot. She was small, she realized, standing entirely in the ship’s shadow.
A break in the mulling—one of the little Gems had pivoted midstep when she recognized Cinnabar. The Gem took to shouting greetings and culling the others’ attention. Cinnabar watched it passively; she didn’t remember that Gem’s name. Not at the moment. A small bronze thing, with her hair pulled back in a tight braid and sharp almond eyes lighting with recongizition. Her bangs curled up black and ashy.
“Commander! Commander Cinnabar, Ma’am! You’re back, Ma’am!” the Gem chanted. She took to hopping in place. The patching kit in her hand dropped into the sand. “Do you have any orders for us? We’re doing our best to repair the ship. If Pyrite can find a connection to Homeworld she can have a repair manual transferred over—“
Cinnabar had stopped listening. Her eyes wandered over the smoking rubble. The ship’s frame and paneling at least seemed to be in tact, but even tiny fissures in the hull could mean the ship would combust mid-flight—and it took her only moments to spot half a dozen of them. It looked suddenly like a skeleton then—a colossal corpse—despite being almost entirely whole. It was a murdered thing, which she’d led to its own death. And if they couldn’t bring it back to life…
“—found the sealant, and it’s warp-approved by Homeworld standards. Just need to be careful to use it conservatively or—“
“Where is Howlite?” Cinnabar asked. Her attention had shifted away from the ship to the scuffling Gems. They made up a rainbow of busy activity, a dozen of them, all dark and desaturated in the ship’s shadow. They glowed a pale red with the remaining embers.
“Hmm?” the bronze Gem cut herself off. Her head swiveled back to the ship, singed braid swinging with the action. Both she and Cinnabar watched the stewing chaos in silence. “Oh, s-somewhere I bet. We haven’t done a head count yet. Trying to put out the flames first—“
Cinnabar pushed past the Gem then. She dropped her sword into the sand, stepping on the hilt as she moved. Cinnabar made herself tall, and she moved with purposeful strides. A tension clamped at her chest like a vice.
The bronze Gem scurried after her. “Ma’am, you can just tell me! I’ll pass on any orders to Howlite when I see—“
“Howlite!” Cinnabar called. The ship bounced her voice back at her, then swallowed up the silence. Working Gems froze in instant, simultaneous response. It took them only a second to snap to attention. They dropped pieces and kits and manuals into the scalding sand now that Cinnabar stood in sight. They were like statues, unblinking in the shaded darkness. The twelve haunting stares burned into Cinnabar then. She took a single step back, teeth gritted, fists clenched.
“You dropped your blade ma’am!” The bronze Gem scuffled up to Cinnabar. She extended the weapon, hilt in one hand, broad side of the blade in the other. Cinnabar pivoted and looked at her.
The bronze Gem froze. Her eyes were wide, and the blade slipped from her hands. She didn’t dare blink as she stared eye to eye with Cinnabar. The whites of Cinnabar’s eyes, her shaking pupils, her curling lip. Silence. Silence. The bronze Gem shrunk back down on herself, flushed white.
“Ma’am! Ma’am Ma’am Ma’am oh thank goodness you’re okay Ma’am! I knew it of course. You sorted this all out expertly I’m sure! What—what did you sort out?”
Cinnabar spun then. Her eyes shot instantly to the ship’s hatch buckling open. She caught sight of Howlite crouched there, peering out the growing opening. Howlite carried a few dozen packets of something in her arms—bland gray tear-packaging on each. She set a careful foot out to find purchase on the beach. The hatch normally wasn’t ground-level, but the nose of the ship had dug itself deep enough in the beach to just reach.
Cinnabar didn’t notice when the bronze Gem scurried away. She only moved toward the ship, unflinching attention forward. Howlite glanced down self-consciously at the packets in her arms.
“I found resin mixes in the storeroom. They’ll need half an hour to set once applied but then anything they patch should be okay for flight. Of course we shouldn’t mix them all now. They’d set before we caught everything. I figure a full system inspection—“
“We’re getting Peridot back. She’ll know how to fix the ship.”
Howlite shut her mouth. She craned her neck up to look at Cinnabar as she moved forward. Tiny cracks riddled her visor. “Oh! Oh excellent Ma’am! Smart thinking! Of course I knew you’d find a way to fix this. That’s why you’re leading this mission! You know the right decisions to make.”
Cinnabar stayed silent. She picked apart the tiny Gem’s appearance—singed bits of hair and uniform blended in with the black-and-white scheme. They were almost unnoticeable. Only a few smudges of grease and ash across Howlite’s face stood out, the slight dishevelment of her curl.
Howlite shrunk down on herself a bit, frantic eyes dropping to her hands. “O-oh, oh I’d be saluting you M-ma’am, but my hands—I’m holding—hang on.” Howlite shifted the fifty-some odd resin mixing packets to her right arm. She jammed the edge of her left palm against her temple, stiff, breath held and cheeks puffed.
Cinnabar looked to Howlite’s cargo, then to the salute. She felt her jaw tighten. “You’re saluting me with your left hand.”
Howlite gave a fast nod. “Yes’m! Thought I’d…switch things up a bit. It’s new!”
Cinnabar only nodded. She let her dead eyes rove over the scene once more before moving past Howlite, toward the ship.
“They’ll bring Peridot down here. Keep an eye out, and intercept them. Then come get me.”
“Yes’m!” Howlite answered with a huff.
Howlite held her position stiff until Cinnabar moved into the ship’s interior. She waited a few more moments before letting the tension escape from her body. She sighed and rolled her stiff shoulders as her salute dropped. The packets shifted back to equal dispersion across her arms, and Howlite moved forward toward the nose of the ship. She’d already noted a few scars that would need attending.
She let her attention drop to her right hand then. Glimmering light thrown by the embers reflected off the oval gem, embedded in the back of her hand. Howlite could almost pretend she didn’t see the single, spiderweb fissure at its center.
Howlite puffed her chest out instead, hoisted the packets and angled her body forward with fresh purpose. The ship needed her; Cinnabar needed her.
“Who’s in charge: you, me, no one?… I think it’s both of us… Why?! What’s it mean?!…It happened with me and Connie before–where we’re suddenly both in charge… Tell me what it means… It means we’re splitting apart.”
Pearl listened to the muted exchange with a fresh spike of terror in her heart. She held the bottle of tears in a death grip, still angled over the Rose Quartz gem. She’d stopped pouring though. Her eyes were locked, large and unblinking, on Tourmaline’s—which had cracked open just a fraction.
“…Steven?” Pearl whispered too quiet to even hear. She felt her body clamp tight like a vice. A thousand terrifying thoughts shot through her mind and erased her voice.
“Garnet…Garnet, is this good? Is he okay?” Amethyst kneeled on the floor. Her hands clawed tight at her thighs. Her leggings bunched up in her grip and threatened to tear. She looked to Garnet, stricken. “That’s Steven talking? Yeah? Yeah? He’s alive he’s alive isn’t he- he is, isn’t he? Hes gotta be it’s gotta be him it’s gotta.”
She silenced herself. The mutterings faded out to nothing. Tourmaline’s dim, half-lidded eyes flickered then. A spark ignited there, and they snapped to attention. Entirely too aware.
“They’re gonna break. I-I’m not—“ Tourmaline stuck their one hand against the cushion and tried to push themselves out of Garnet’s lap. The couch cushion only gave into the pressure. Their movements were weak, pathetic. Wild fear played behind their eyes, and they gave up the effort. “It doesn’t—I don’t feel right. His gem’s rejecting me.”
“Tourmaline, is Steven alive?” Pearl cut in. Her hands were like claws around the suspended bottle, her voice like a razor. Eyes that didn’t dare to blink probed against Tourmaline.
“He—“ Tourmaline swallowed, shaking. “Yeah. You and Peridot—got him back. It’s forcing a split now. Cutting itself off to protect–I-I don’t think Steven can overpower it. I can’t. I’m—“ A spark of anxiety lighted then in Tourmaline’s eyes. They put all their strength into sitting up, succeeding this time, and grabbed Pearl by her stiff left arm. Tourmaline leaned forward as they spoke. “Cinnabar’s still going to kill Peridot. Once the ship is fixed. Please…”
Their grip loosened, a weariness long overdue grabbing their whole form. They took only a deep breath, tension leaking from their body as their eyes dropped to the couch. “If you could just…maybe…”
Silence met them, thick, and all awareness ebbed out of their eyes. They slouched there, unknowing, for all of a second.
“Well can you stop it?… I dunno how! You try… I’m not in charge of anything!… I can’t—make it…I-I can’t…”
The last mutterings dropped from Tourmaline’s lips as a white light built up over their entire form. Their silhouette bled to nothing, indistinct against the shelves that bordered the couch. Brightness swamped their form into a hazy ether. The headband dropped, unsupported, to the cushions below, no more than a limp ribbon. Two gems appeared like dark islands in the wash of white,
Then fractured entirely through.
The light dismissed itself like smoke, and in its wake, it spit out two solid forms. The tiny one landed with a soft bounce on the couch.
The other was thrown to the floor.
Steven Universe—11 years old, half-Gem, clothed in a simple starred pink shirt and blue shorts—cracked his own eyes open for the first time in more than a day. They were puffy and pained, and scanned over the Gems with only a dim awareness. He flexed his own tiny fists, and offered the slightest of smiles to the three anxious faces that stared down at him.
“That…oops,” he muttered. And it was all he could mutter before Garnet gathered him up in his entirety and clutched him close. Gone was the gentleness she’d used to carry Tourmaline; gone was her stiffness. There was a warmth about her body that Steven had never noticed before, and a softness he loved. He gave himself entirely to the embrace. Garnet had clutched him from behind—her thigh supporting Tourmaline’s head only moments ago—and Steven shut his eyes as he leaned back into her.
There came the distant clink of a bottle being set down on wood. Softer, thinner arms clamped around Steven from in front, somehow tighter even than Garnet’s.Pearl. These shook with their vice clamp. A third body moved into the cluster.Amethyst. These arms shoved their way in and grabbed at Steven as though he were their last tie to reality.
The silence was broken in a few breathless moments. It was Amethyst who started crying first, and she did so with gusto. The noises were deep, long, and broken with the bottled up pressure inside her. She pressed herself against the huddle with all the strength she could muster. Her staggering breaths were hot and damp. They sent pleasant shivers through Steven’s body. Amethyst grabbed at his warm skin and soft hair, clenched him against her palms, and gave herself into the building wail in her chest.
Pearl broke down with more composure. It happened with a few staggered sobs and a breathless mantra of ‘thank goodness’. She’d made herself small, wrapped her whole being around Steven’s tiny body. It wasn’t befitting for a knight, but it was befitting for a mother.
Garnet alone didn’t make a noise. She only trembled as she held Steven tight against her body, and let tears leak unbidden from beneath her visor.
Something cracked then in Steven, something that unleashed a flood of tears and shuddering breaths and whole-body trembles. He could hardly breathe beneath the mound of bodies holding him, and he didn’t care. The suffocation was welcome—the support and love and shuddering outpouring of emotion that hit from every side, hot and wet and shaking and living in one moment of being miraculously alive. He gave in to it entirely. He released himself, and if only for the moment, stopped fighting to be strong. He blubbered and sobbed into them like a scared, 11 year old child.
“I’m sorry. I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m sorry,” he murmured into them. The sturdy, strong reassurance of Garnet’s body pressed to his. Pearl’s overbearing form tangled against him. Amethyst, wide and soft, walling him in against every bad and painful and wrong in the world. They heard him, answering only in tighter grips and fiercer rocking. At that moment, nothing else existed.
Then, through the cluster of bodies, he cracked his eyes open. And he made eye-contact with her. Peridot, tossed to the floor, used all her strength to push herself upright against the coffee table. She’d shoved it backwards, and her brokenness was chilling in the warm afternoon sunlight. Her crumbling body sat there, unmoving, unspeaking, as she watched the breakdown unfold in its entirety. Her wide eyes were locked on Steven then, and for the first time in what seemed to be an eternity, her feelings were entirely closed off from him.
Amethyst eased back just slightly, just enough to cut Peridot off from Steven’s view. She stared him in the eyes instead, making no effort to hide the tears leaking from her own. Her matted hair swept wild and relieved around her streaked face “Steven Universe…first of all, you suck. Second of all, that blast was the coolest thing I’ve ever seen. Third of all, you suck.”
The images of Peridot faded hazy in his mind. He saw only Amethyst then, slipping back into the safe embrace of the Gems. His body was flush with relief; it rung in his ears. “But…it was cool, so that’s what’s important.”
“What is important…is that you’re alive, Steven,” Pearl corrected breathlessly. She eased back too, and fought down the hiccups in her breathing. Her eyes were warm. The smile that pulled at her lips trembled. “You scared us, you know…”
“I know,” he answered, and he pulled her back in with one extended arm.
“And we have been scaring you,” Garnet responded. She didn’t pull away from Steven as she spoke. She still held him tight. “…We’re so sorry, Steven.”
“Hey, it came in good use!” Amethyst cut in. She gestured a hand to the door. “We’ve got Cinnabar running for the hills. Probably crying to her Homeworld mommy about how mean these Earth Gems were to her!”
At this, Steven went stiff. His head swiveled to the door—as best it could under the Gems. Slats of sunlight cut through the screen. The deck was washed in lazy sunlight, the distant beach sparkling with the rolling tides. Normal, save for the spiraling column of smoke that spun its way into the sky. He wiggled against the bodies holding him, fighting to sit upright. “Wait, what happened? Where is Cinnabar?” He shot imploring looks to all three Gems. “Is she still trying to attack…o-or?”
Amethyst returned his gaze, her pupils shifting from his left to his right. She chewed on her lip a moment. “You uh…you don’t remember?” She paused as Steven shook his head. “Okay well, maybe that makes sense. I mean you were pretty…dead, until like four minutes ago.”
Steven shrugged himself free. His head swung around, heart beating uncomfortably fast. “What’s she going to do?”
“Nothing,” Amethyst shut him down in an instant. The small smile on her mouth dropped. She drew back, and gave an apprehensive glance behind her before turning back to Steven. “That…rant…just now at the beach…”
Steven looked to Pearl, then craned his neck around to Garnet. “ I-I don’t know what you… I gave Peridot control. That’s the last thing I remember.”
Amethyst crossed her arms at this. She slouched in on herself, uncomfortably. “Yeah…I guess that makes sense…Considering all the–”
She didn’t complete the thought. In the silence that followed, all four of the Crystal Gems looked to the floor. Warm light washed over the wooden flooring. A few scattered, mismatched toys beat across the scene. The coffee table, angled away, sat passively, as did the Gem pressed against it. Peridot didn’t dare break the silence. She only pulled her legs up a fraction closer to her body, watching through wide, hunted eyes. Broken gem, broken body, broken everything. She returned the stare to all four of them, but to Steven most of all.
Amethyst shrugged against the weighty tension. “Eh, well it was pretty badass. You nearly had Cinnabar peeing her pants. You coulda fooled me with all that.”
“…I didn’t make any of that up,” Peridot answered after a beat. She waited, breath held, in case the Gems reacted to her comment.
“Make what up?” Steven asked. An edge of anxiety worked its way into his voice. He looked Peridot up and down again: arms gone, face cracked (now visorless), uniform torn at the edges and legs crawling with split seams.
“…Yoouuuuu should really get to sleep, Steven,” Pearl answered. She slid her arms past Garnet’s, and Garnet relented. Pearl lifted him as though he weighed nothing, and Steven didn’t have the strength to struggle. “We’ll call Greg first to let him know you’re alright, and then you can sleep as long as you like.”
“What? No!” Steven wiggled against her grasp. His head spun to Peridot, and he drank in her decaying form. “What happened?! What’s Cinnabar doing!? Peridot—we need to heal Peridot! She’s not gonna hurt us! We gotta!”
A moment of hesitation followed, broken by a sharp noise of distaste from Amethyst. She looked to Garnet, then Pearl as her lip curled. “Really? We’re gonna not tell him? Have we learned nothing from this?” Her voice broke as she spoke, incredulous. “News flash: that’s why we’re in this mess to start! Lying to Steven! So let’s just be straight with him for once, huh?”
“Cinnabar has agreed to leave us in peace so long as we hand Peridot over. That is assuming Peridot can instruct her crew in ship repairs.” Garnet stood from the couch, her attention dropping to Peridot.
Steven blinked at this. He followed her gaze down to the cracked Gem. Unease washed through him. “So Peridot gets to go home?” He twisted in Pearl’s grip toward the kitchen, searching the spattered mess for the pile of green gem shards. “We—we still gotta heal her though! We still gotta heal her and then send her home so she…” Steven stopped; he turned back, breath held, and scanned the Gems’ faces. Garnet’s betrayed nothing, but Pearl and Amethyst looked away in avoidance. “…What are you not telling me?”
“Cinnabar knows Peridot’s cracked six ways from Sunday, Steven.” Amethyst took in Peridot’s appearance as she spoke. She sounded unsettled by her own words. “That’s like…the whole basis of our ‘Get off the planet or we’ll mess you up like we messed Peridot up!’ threat. Cinnabar’s gonna call our bluff if Peridot’s fine.”
Steven watched only Peridot’s face. He waited, hoping for some sort of reaction in her deadened eyes. She avoided his gaze, and did not speak. “Can’t they…doesn’t Homeworld have hospitals? Can they help her?”
“Well, we haven’t been to Homeworld in 5,000 years,” Pearl answered with a lilt in her voice. “It’s possible they’ve developed care facilities since we—“
“Pearl knock it off,” Amethyst cut in. She threw her arms out to Pearl. “I don’t wanna hurt his feelings either, but cool it with the lies.” Her eyes softened as she refocused on Steven, and she moved forward with caution. Steven, still in Pearl’s grip, shrunk away from her approach. “It’s way easier for Homeworld to just grind up broken gems and use them to power junk. That’s what they do. That’s what Cinnabar’s gonna do with Peridot. Tourmaline told us.”
Steven stopped fighting against Pearl then. He went slack entirely, attention glued to Amethyst. There was a glassiness in his eyes, a tremble in his lips then. Devastation ate slowly across his whole face, and he looked then to Peridot. She turned her head away from him just as the shine in his eyes coalesced into tears.
“No…” he whispered. “No no no no. That’s all wrong. We’ve…we’ve got the tears! We can save her. We gotta. We gotta save her. We’re so close…” He quieted then, and there came a crack in his voice when he spoke again. “Peridot—“
She flinched at the address, but didn’t turn to him.
“Peridot, please! Tell them you can’t die. Tell them please! We worked so hard. We’ve got your gem shards! W-we can talk to Cinnabar. I won’t…..I-I won’t hand you over just to die! You gotta help me. You gotta tell them…Peridot…”
Her head twitched to him then, and annoyance burned bright in her damaged eyes. “Tell them what exactly? That I don’t wanna die? Or you don’t want me to die? We don’t always get the stuff we want.” The gusto dropped from her voice. She seemed to choke on her own words. “You tried…so thanks. Now just…go to sleep.”
“No! No I’m not tired!” Steven shouted. He banged his fists uselessly against Pearl’s grip.
“Well I am,” Peridot answered. She pressed the stub of her arm to the floor in an attempt to stand. It was Garnet then at her side, hoisting her by the waist into a ragdoll slump. Pearl moved then with Steven to the stairs. Garnet and Peridot passed by too, but they didn’t cut at the stairs. They kept on in a slow, dead-man’s march to the door.
Numbness crawled through Steven’s body, like bleeding static. The world crashed around him, and he watched Garnet open the door as if from outside his own body, surreal. “This can’t–…You can’t–…Please, Peridot.”
“Bye, Steven,” she said, and she didn’t turn to him.
Then she was out the door. A small gust of stale air moved with them—Garnet and Peridot—as they passed.
and Peridot was gone.
It was a relief, almost, to be dragged out across the beach. Peridot’s toes carved two shallow rivets in the hot sand. They clunked on imbedded rocks and scratched against the jagged edges of shattered sea shells. The heat radiated up still, peeled at her skin, but she was cracked to the point of numb. Almost, anyway. Everything had been so hot, so loud, so real and painful when she’d dragged herself to consciousness in the fusion. Now, as herself, the dissociation was a far nicer way to exist.
Her head sagged down, in part because she didn’t have the strength to support it, in part because it was easier that way. She saw only the grainy topology of the Earth, not him, and not anything around her.
As she got farther from the house, it became easier to give in to the distant thrum of static in her mind. Hoping had taken too much of her energy, and fear was too powerful to maintain. Now that she was alone in her mind, she could comfortably bury guilt along with all those other feelings. Hope, fear, guilt, rage—they were nothing under the exhausted blanket of apathy. It turned her mind into a wash of impassive nothing. Peridot had never slept, but from Steven’s memories, she imagined this would be how it felt. She could die this way, and maybe it would be fine.
Peridot’s body lurched. She let out only a small huff as the fusion ground to a stop. Garnet, Peridot’s shared memories filled in the name. Garnet, fusion of Ruby and Sapphire, a strong and loving and warm thing in Steven’s life. She was taller in memory, fierce in an admirable way, gentle in a fashion that didn’t seem possible with her strength. The memories were laughable, almost. Fake in their entirety. Peridot let out a bemused snort. Garnet was a monster, and Peridot knew that.
Peridot lifted her head when the movement didn’t resume. She blinked for the few seconds it took her eyes to focus. Garnet had stopped about fifty feet shy of the crashed ship, and she’d frozen at the sight of a tiny grayscale Gem waving them forward. Peridot flinched as Garnet yanked Peridot’s stumped arm tighter around her neck. It seemed intentional, the aggression in it. Peridot didn’t dwell on it—she only spared a moment to be thankful that she couldn’t feel the others’ emotions, and returned to her mute slump.
“Oh! Oh that must be Peridot. Yes! This way! No don’t worry—we won’t attack! I’ve got orders right from Cinnabar saying not to!” The voice was shrill. Peridot hated how it broke through to her mind. She missed the silence that had come of Garnet marching her out. She missed hearing only the whispering hiss of sand against her feet. “I mean—well I’d probably say something like that even if I was gonna attack you. But I’m not a warrior Gem! I’m just a Howlite. No need to worry you can just bring her forward!”
There came a silent moment of hesitation before Garnet picked her pace back up. Peridot tilted her head up again; a dozen or so Gems had stopped to watch her, a litany of colors. They all clenched tools in their tiny arms or manuals unfolded to four feet long. She hated them all in that instant: their hungry eyes, the morbid curiosity in the amazed horror on their face. It made her feel herself again. She mentally picked apart her missing limbs and cracked face and decaying uniform. A display. A curiosity.
And some part of her seethed. Because the Gem that had done this to her now carried her, disaffected, to turn her over to her death. Peridot didn’t trust a single one of Steven’s memories at that moment: there was no way that this fusion was anything but cruel.
“Okay good! You know what, let me go get Cinnabar. She’s right in here. Be back in a jiffy.”
Peridot watched the ship now. With thousands of years of repair experience under her belt, it took her a single pass of its exterior to make a hundred different judgements on its condition. It was a standard Y-Diamond 54th Class Starstreaker. She’d helped build several of them in the past few centuries. In that time, she’d repaired even more. This one was shredded and burned at all points of its exterior. The glass in front was cracked, but not beyond repair. It dragged out a grim satisfaction inside her to realize, for once, she’d played a hand in destroying one.
Maybe she’d play dumb. Maybe she wouldn’t fix a damn thing, and she could cling to life long enough to watch Cinnabar and the Crystal Gems exterminate each other—both stranded on Earth.
In that same moment, her mind dredged up the image of a small, velvety pirate hat, a halo of pink gem shards, a soft voice making empty promises about life and love. The gleeful, vengeful thought vanished in a wave of self-loathing. She didn’t let the feeling linger; Peridot packed it deep into the back of her mind and took instead to mentally mapping all the fissures she could see in the hull. Emotionless. Distant. It was a mechanical, uninvolved process. Her own feelings meant nothing; she didn’t have time for them, because she was a machine for repair. It was the sort of thing she’d done for millennia, and it was the sort of thing she could relearn. The next task in a long life of endless, boring, emotionless tasks.
The last one, she supposed…
It hardly registered to her when Cinnabar stepped out onto the beach. The Commander had cropped away patches of hair that had singed in the explosion. Bits of her uniform had been scrubbed, still bearing the off-white stain of ash and soot. She’d wiped her face clean, making her the only Gem present whose skin was free of the dark chalky residue. Peridot blinked at the thought—no, she was clean too. It had been Tourmaline’s face that took the brunt of the embers and ash. She was clean. The sun was steadily dropping below the ship, and long shadows crawled across the beach, consuming them.
Peridot’s half-lidded eyes drifted to the tiny black and white Gem that padded along on Cinnabar’s heels—Howlite, this one. Cinnabar stopped directly in front of Garnet, hands crossed behind her back. Howlite sidled up beside her. She stood directly in front of Peridot. Slumped as Peridot was, the two Gems could almost see eye to eye.
This one, Peridot decided, she hated the most. This one stared at her in a way the other Gems hadn’t—it wasn’t morbid curiosity on Howlite’s face, not gawking intrigue. This little Gem looked on with wide, wide eyes. Her face was drained and her pupils trembled. Her jovial attitude had dropped completely for ashen silence.Terror. This Gem was terrified to even look at her.
Peridot felt her own decaying body then more than ever. She had traces of Steven’s memories to remember exactly how she looked: a corpse, hacked apart and torn up and shattered like very few living Gems ever were. She pictured the craggy, jagged splinters of her gem—visorless now, in full display—and her ripped up eyes and shredded face and missing body pieces. She indulged herself in it for the moment, and fixed Howlite with an unblinking glare. If Howlite wanted to look at her, she’d give the Gem a show.
Howlite flinched. Her tiny legs shook, and she immediately cradled her right hand in her left. She moved it then to her chest and hugged it close. Peridot’s eyes shifted then to the Gem’s visor, tinted gray. She noted the horizontal crack across it, and suddenly the Gem’s terror wasn’t entertaining anymore. And so she looked away.
“You get Peridot to repair your ship. Then you leave our planet alone,” Garnet said. She hoisted Peridot a little higher. Cinnabar’s eyes fell on Peridot then, and Peridot only spared a single glance upward.
“How familiar are you with these ships?” Cinnabar asked.
A superior, asking about Gem technology. Normal. Normal…
“Plenty,” Peridot answered. It came as instinct. “I’ve built and repaired plenty of them.”
“You really cracked her gem.” The address had shifted now to Garnet, and Peridot was an object once more. “She doesn’t look like she’ll last long.”
“Then get started,” was Garnet’s emotionless response. She shrugged Peridot over like a rag doll. Peridot only watched her own dangling feet; tiny scraps of metal littered the beach.
“Howlite, support her. Do not let her crack more.”
The little thing came under Peridot then. She took Peridot in with her left side, and she trembled slightly under Peridot’s weight. Or maybe it wasn’t the weight that caused the Gem to shake… Peridot couldn’t tell.
“What are you waiting for? Take her to the ship!”
Howlite trudged through the sand with huffing breaths. She moved with purposeful strides, more jarring than Garnet had been. Peridot tried to ignore it. She ignored all the painful sensations pulsing through her body at every step. She saw only the ship, only the mission.
“Standard issue resin is in the store room of every Starstreaker. One-to-one mixing ratio, patch all tears less than one centimeter with two coats. Anything larger requires three coats or welding with spare sheet metal. Consult me first.” Peridot hardly heard her own words. She just poured out the information that had made her useful as a Gem of Homeworld. Howlite nodded and responded with something; Peridot wasn’t listening.
“You are free to leave now.” Cinnabar’s voice rang out from behind. Cinnabar was still turned away, speaking to Garnet. Absolute silence met her; Garnet didn’t answer, and she didn’t move. To Peridot, the moment was filled only with Howlite’s tiny fast breaths. “…Or, you can remain. We’re not planning on betraying you. Do what you want.”
Garnet didn’t answer, and she didn’t dare budge from her spot.
Soft streaks of sunlight threw themselves across Steven’s comforter. They washed his stuffed animals in warm, desaturated light. Dust clung gently to his television screen and hung in the air, fixed by the streaming rays. It was a warm day for fall, a sleepy, quiet afternoon.
Steven wore his pajamas. They were striped, soft. Fuzzy, comforting fabric against his own skin. They felt like a betrayal. He sat on his bed, legs crossed and hands pooled in his lap. He kept his head angled down and away.
“Steven… I know this isn’t perfect, but we’re very…lucky with how things turned out.” There came a gentle weight on the far end of the bed. Pearl lowered herself there, and Steven curled into himself further. “Tourmaline’s plan worked! We’re all very proud of them.”
Amethyst sat on the top stair. Her feet rested one stair below, and she twisted her body around to face Steven. He didn’t look at her.
“Yeah, and it’s not like we’re hogtying and gagging Peridot to do this. She just…went, man. ‘s not our fault. …’s not yours.”
“I don’t care about that,” Steven whispered. He bunched his hands up in his pajama pants. “I care that we’re just gonna hand her over to die. I care that we’re not trying to find some other way to fix this.”
“Steven, I dunno exactly how to say this buuut…I kinda think Peridot wants to do this.” Amethyst twisted around in the other direction. She squirmed when Steven’s glistening eyes moved to her. “I mean I know you weren’t around to hear her rail against Cinnabar but like…man, Peridot hates herself. Like you got way inside her head, Steven.”
“That doesn’t make me feel better, Amethyst,” Steven muttered. He pulled his legs up to his chest, arms folded over his knees and face resting in them. Amethyst stuttered.
“Nah nah you didn’t let me finish. I mean sure she hates herself, but she doesn’t hate you.” Amethyst looked to Pearl, then back to Steven. “She said this thing to Cinnabar. She said something about…having to watch the things that care about you die…and how awful that it. And she—I mean it’s not like she was talking aboutme ya know? Or Pearl or Garnet or Homeworld or any of that junk.” Amethyst stared down to the floor. Her eyes trained on one of Steven’s stuffed animals that had been knocked from the bed. “And you just…it was right after you got shattered. And I didn’t connect it at first but like, it was definitely Peridot saying all that junk to Cinnabar. And she wasn’t saying it because she was trying to be tricky—she just wanted to scream and complain before she died. And she wanted to scream about you being dead, Steven. A-and—“
“What Amethyst is saying is this is okay with Peridot,” Pearl cut in when Amethyst faltered. She scooted up higher on Steven’s bed to rest one palm on his knee. “This isn’t about us involuntarily cracking her anymore. This is a decision she’s okay with.”
“But I’m not okay with it,” was Steven’s whispered response. He curled in smaller on himself—it was how he felt: small. Powerless. Useless.
“You…can be proud of her, Steven,” Pearl said hesitantly. She lifted her hand from his knee. Only silence met her. She threaded her fingers into each other instead. “Because…I think we all are. You uh—you made us see a lot of things, Steven. You made us understand a lot. We’ve been so focused on staying alive and on protecting Earth- it became so easy to lose sight of anything that wasn’tus. But not you, never you…”
Pearl looked up then. She caught the small leaking tears in Steven’s turned-away eyes. Her hand reached out, and she used her thumb to brush them away. “You scared us, Steven, but you scared us into listening. I want to listen, now. I want to understand. I don’t want to blindly agree to decisions anymore. I never want to be weak like that again.” She pulled her hand away from him. “I think, maybe, I can understand it…having a mission and caring only about completing it. It’s how Homeworld functioned for millennia. And it’s because of you that Peridot was able to see things differently… We’re proud of you, Steven. We’re proud of her…”
Steven rubbed furiously at the tears in his eyes. The warm room, his soft pajamas, his healed gem all filled him with a crushing sense of guilt. “But she only just learned. And now we’re gonna let her die. I wanted…I wanted to show her Earth. I wanted to let her see all the things that make everything so great, so she’d understand too, and wouldn’t–…a-and we have the fountain tears. We’re choosing to let it happen this way…because we’re too afraid for ourselves.”
“We’re doing what we gotta do to stay alive, Steven.” Amethyst filled in the guilty silence. “There’s not…anything wrong with that.”
Steven’s head snapped up at this. His eyes were wet, red, and angry. “That doesn’t make any sense, Amethyst. Because that’s exactly what Peridot was doing when she poofed you guys at the Kindergarten! And that’s what she was doing when she took control of Tourmaline. And that’s what she stopped doing when I made her realize how much she was hurting us. Those were all—“ Steven threw his arms out, “—those were all things she did because she was trying to stay alive. So why is it only okay when we’re doing them?!”
Pearl’s arms were around him then. She held him tight. When she spoke into his ear, her words were stained with tears. “I’m not saying any of this is fair, Steven. But if we go against Cinnabar now, we’re risking the destruction of everyone. We’re risking the death of everyone Rose fought so hard to protect. Us, your friends and your dad, everyone… I’m sorry, Steven. I’m sorry we put you through this. I’m sorry we couldn’t save Peridot. But she’s helping us save…everyone. You can be proud, Steven, and you can be sad.”
“I don’t want to be proud or sad! I wanna save Peridot.” Steven squirmed against Pearl’s grip, but she held him tight.
“I lost friends in the battle for Earth. Our side lost Gems that I miss every day, Steven. And I am proud of them, and I am sad, but mostly I’m thankful. I’m thankful that they gave up their lives for us. And that’s all I can be.”
“No…” Steven answered. He stopped struggling. In an uncertain fit, he loosened his arms and slid them around Pearl, returning her hug. “That’s not fair.”
Amethyst pushed herself to her feet. She walked with purpose to Steven’s bed, and raised herself up with one knee on his comforter. She wrapped herself in the hug as well.
“Sorry, Steven. They’ve got us in a corner. You did good, though. You and Peridot both… Better than the rest of us.”
The silence that hung between them was thick and tainted. It was locked in with the warm sunlight, until Pearl eased herself away. She wiped the tears from her eyes and spared a glance to the kitchen, to the mess. She let out a small laugh.
“I uh, I suppose we should call Greg. He’s got to be worried sick. I’ll bet he’d like to talk to you.” Pearl glanced back to Steven just as Amethyst disentangled herself too. Steven met her gaze for all of a moment before easing himself onto his back. He spread his arms and legs wide, looking first at the ceiling before rolling onto his side.
“Actually…I think I am tired right now, Pearl. Is it okay if I sleep first?”
Pearl hopped off the bed in a single, instantaneous motion. “Oh! Oh of course, yes. You must be exhausted. I mean you—even more than any of us. This was very inconsiderate of us. Amethyst—Amethyst, get off the bed. Steven needs to sleep.”
“Hey hey I am!” Amethyst answered defensively. She stuck both hands in the air as she shifted her weight back to the foot on the floor. She took a few extra steps backwards for emphasis. “Letting him rest, got it.”
“S-sleep well, Steven,” Pearl said as she moved toward the stairs. Amethyst followed in tow. “We…we love you.”
“Heck yeah we do,” Amethyst added, though she watched Steven with obvious anxiety on her face. He rolled toward them, looking back for only a moment before letting his eyes slide shut.
“Me too…” he said, and nothing more.
Pearl’s feet made hardly a sound as she descended the stair case. Only Amethyst’s clunking gave away that the Gems had moved at all. An intentional silence filled the house then. Light footsteps paced about on the main level. The kitchen faucet turned on a few times, though silence always returned when one pot or tray banged just a bit too loud. Pearl attempting to clean—probably. Long gaps of sheer white fuzziness followed. How long, Steven didn’t know.
“…I don’t like that Garnet isn’t back yet,” came the first spoken words in fifteen minutes. It was Pearl, and her voice was scarcely audible. “You don’t think something went wrong, do you?”
“I dunno. I’m not the one with future vision, Pearl. I’ve been here with you this whole time.”
“I mean intuitively do you think something could have happened?”
“I aint Tourmaline either, Pearl.”
“Ameth–!” Pearl sucked in a breath for composure. “Keep an eye on Steven. I’m going down to the beach to make sure nothing’s gone wrong.”
“Uh, no offense, but if this is something Garnet couldn’t handle, then I dunno what you’d do about it P.”
“And do you think you could handle it instead?”
“No, dummy, I mean bring me with you.”
“What about Steven?”
“He’s asleep, Pearl! We’re not doing any good here.”
“Fine, fine, just keep behind me and watch my back once we get close to the ship.”
“I’m not your backup.”
“You—guh! Fine. Do as you like. Just lock the door behind you.”
“Yeah, wouldn’t want all the evacuated people of Beach City sneaking in on Steven.”
“Why do I even try to hold conversations with you, Amethyst?”
Amethyst answered with only a self-satisfied laugh. Their footsteps moved to the front of the house, and the jagged peel of the door being dragged against its frame split the air. It was no longer a perfect fit in the frame, not since it had been torn off and refitted so many times. Its orientation had changed so often that it no longer had any proper fit.
And it shut, latched, and fell to silence as the Gem’s footsteps faded away. A moment of pure nothing passed. A moment of emptiness.
Steven cracked his eyes open, and he swung his bare feet to the floor beside his bed. It was cold, each step he took. He didn’t get socks, though. He didn’t even get shoes.
Pajama-clad, shoeless, and with heavy bags of exhaustion beneath his eyes, Steven moved to the stairs descending from his loft. His heart beat fast in his chest, and his eyes scanned the first floor of the house for the things he wanted.
Howlite carved out a rut in the beach. She paced with high, cautious steps. The sand was cool in this section, the sky blotchy and pink with the impending sunset. It was quiet here, calm, with a salty dry wind rolling over the sand dunes. The steady lap of the ocean should have been soothing, but Howlite’s mind wouldn’t let her relax.
Her movements grew faster and more agitated as she glanced down at her boots. They bore lightning-shaped streaks of sand, filling up cracked seams which hadn’t been there before. They climbed upward, toward her, and for the moment she could imagine them consuming her entirely, breaking her down to tiny mineral shards. She clamped her hand to her chest and resumed pacing.
“Ma’am,” she said to the empty air. It earned no response; the ship was too far away for any of the hustling noise it generated to carry over. It smoldered, seemingly in silence, a few hundred yards off. The Crystal System Gems’ base sat an equal distance away, but in the other direction. It was silent too, unmoving, and dark. Howlite had all but removed herself from the world. “Ma’am,” Howlite ventured again, “I have a favor to ask you.”
She paused, quieted. A cold whistling of wind blew loose strands of hair across her face. She didn’t open her mouth again while the wind churned. She fixed her eyes instead on the System’s sun, which dropped lower in the sky.
The wind stopped, and Howlite brushed her hair away.
“Ma’am, as I’m sure you’re aware, Homeworld Standards of Conduct require that all cracked Gems be reported…and, and that…they—“ She faltered. Her toes dug furrows in the sand. “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…”
Howlite shook her head. She let her chin drop against her collar bone and pressed her hands to either side of her head. “Ma’am, I’ve looked into it. Yellow Diamond recently ordered a batch of 40 new Howlites from the Beta-Phi System—top notch polishing tactics on those Gems, guaranteed for 7,000 years of active duty. I’m sure Yellow Diamond would…be kind enough to provide you with one…”
Howlite dropped down into the sand then. She pooled her hands in her lap, surveying the thin fissure on her gem. It cracked through more than halfway in depth, building an opaque wall when viewed from the side. It exhausted Howlite; it sent shivers of numbness over her body.
“It would be a mission hazard, quite simply, if I were kept on active duty! It’s in the Handbook Ma’am—no cracked Gem should pilot any craft unless in a state of emergency. It’s on…page…” Howlite ran her gem-less hand through her hair, huffing. She let out a small laugh. “Ma’am, now I think we can all agree that the crash was no one’s fault. I am very glad we will all be returning to Homeworld safely. However, I will be taking myself to the Refinery along with Peridot when we dock. I just need you to sign…the release.”
Howlite quieted then. The cool sand felt good; it abated the hot flashes of static that roamed over her body when she put pressure on her gem. Howlite invested herself in it then; she studied the zigzagging splinters along its surface. Her left thumb pressed down on the crack, as though it were only a bodily bruise, and braced herself against the hot sting it sent raking through her core. “Oh…oh gosh…”
Howlite released her gem. She plunged both hands into the cool, malleable sand. She swept them together, building up a mound, a castle. She stared at it as she drew her hands back. “I…I’m sorry Ma’am, but I’ve failed my mission. Whoever replaces me will do an upstanding job, I promise. Please just…sign the release…Ma’am.”
Carefully, Howlite lowered herself backwards into the sand. She spread her arms and feet wide, and scrunched up her nose, which was still black and sooty. She didn’t know if she should clean it—Did the Refinery have cleanliness regulations? Would it gum up the gears if she walked herself into it without cleaning off her gem? How long would her body exist once she was inside—long enough to matter whether there was soot on her face and sand in her hair? Howlite didn’t know. She’d only ever seen dead-eyed Gems enter. The only Gems who’d seen the inside of the Refinery never came out.
“Commander Cinnabar will be fine without me,” Howlite told herself. She held her hand up in the sky, eyes set to the cracked gem embedded on its back. “I’ll be used to power something…important.”
Crack, some noise small and sharp shot out from Howlite’s left. Howlite spun and rolled then, startled back into reality. She scrambled into a sitting position as her eyes swept back and forth for the source of the noise. Another breath of wind shot out, and dustings of sand rolled down from the dunes in thin blankets. Howlite listened intently, but only the wind answered.
“I heard…whatever that was! Present yourself! I’m here in the name of Crystal System Commander Cinnabar!” Howlite shouted, though she didn’t bother standing. She remained sitting and rubbed self-consciously at her arms and uniform. Her whole body was coated in a layer of cool sand.
Her eyes flickered to the left. A row of tall, grassy plants trembled in response. They built up bushes with long stringy blades, which slumped under their own weight. After a moment of hesitation, two patches of grass split from each other. They produced a creature, which used its hands to brush the plants aside. It moved slowly, and carefully.
The thing was just a touch shorter than Howlite, and wore of uniform of white and gray stripes. Its hair was bushy and black, its body stocky. It bore skin the same color as the sand that surrounded it. This creature was soft, by the looks of it, and rather weak.
“Oh, hello,” Howlite said to it. She pushed herself to her knees, cocked her head, and held her gemless hand out. It drew back just a touch. “Oh you’re cute. What sort of alien are you?”
The thing blinked in response. Its eyes were lined with puffy, dark bags underneath, and its whites were tainted with a touch of red. It took a moment to process the words.
“No, you’re the alien,” it said.
Howlite sat back on her haunches and considered this. “Huh, yeah I suppose I am. I’m an alien to you…how weird.” She moved her gem-laden hand behind her back, removing it from sight. “Oh but you understand words! What are you? What’s your name?”
“I’m…I’m a dog. Earth has dogs.” The dog rubbed its hands against its soft sleeves. “I’m—this is what a dog looks like.”
Howlite nodded at this. “I’ve only ever heard of humans. We were looking for one before—a half-human, half-Gem actually. Never found it.”
The dog puckered its lips at this. “That doesn’t sound like it makes any sense. It’s probably fake.”
Howlite responded with another nod. She pushed herself to her feet and approached the dog, left hand out in offering. When the dog didn’t back away, she flipped her hand and patted the dog’s fluffy hair. “Yup, it was fake. We triple-checked the ship’s gem detector, and everything’s accounted for. We’re actually going home now. It was nice meeting you though!”
The dog’s wary eyes looked Howlite up and down. It opened its mouth wide and yawned, but not intentionally it seemed. The dog quickly covered its mouth with a hand and fixed Howlite with a wide purposeful stare. “Hey uh, what are you guys gonna do with that Gem? That one that just got back to your ship?”
“Who, Peridot?” Howlite glanced instinctively to the ship. It was a dark, skeletal thing in the background. Tiny Gems moved around its exterior like worker ants. “Do you know her?”
“I…um…I’m a pet?” the dog answered. It spoke with a sudden spark of anxiety in its voice. “Of the Crystal Gems? Do you know…what a pet is?”
Howlite placed her hand low and horizontal to the ground. “Oh yeah, some cute little creature you keep around for fun. I knew a lot of them before I was assigned to the Crystal System. They always liked me…” Howlite looked up to the sky before dropping her attention back to the dog. “Do you do tricks? What did they name you?”
“I—uh—I’m Lion,” the pet answered, hands twisting in its shirt. “And tricks—maybe later. Can you tell me? What’s gonna happen to Peridot?”
Howlite stared hard into Lion’s eyes. The gears in her head turned, before she snapped her fingers in revelation. “Oh! They kept Peridot in your crate. The Amethyst said she was in a dog crate. And you’re the dog!”
“What’s gonna happen to Peridot? Please!” Lion took a step forward. Its feet were bare, and the soles were coated in sand, turning blue. Lion shivered with a fresh burst of wind, and Howlite felt a certain stab of wrongness in her chest.
“She uh—She’ll be sent to the Refinery, where all cracked Gems go. It’s normal. Don’t worry.”
“What’s that mean, though?” Lion persisted. It took another step forward. “What happens to her there?”
Howlite wrung her hands. She avoided looking at the pet. It suddenly…wasn’t so cute. “I, uh…I-I dunno. Her gem gets…ground up? Oh dear. Uh, no—I mean I don’t think it’s painful. I don’t…I don’t know that for certain, actually. No one does. Gems don’t…come out of the Refinery.” Howlite clasped her left hand over her right; they buzzed with numbing static. She twisted on her heels. “I’ve got to get back to the ship. Cinnabar needs—“
“Wait!” the dog protested. It threw a frantic hand out, before taking to stuttering. “No…No I need. I uh…No, no no no no no…” It looked over its shoulder, back to the brush it’d popped out of. “Hang on please.”
It kicked up sand as it ran. Lion dunked its arms back among the reeds, brushing them back until something scratched, dented, and heavy appeared. Two somethings. Lion took the things in its arms and moved with hobbling steps back to Howlite.
Peridot’s arms, Howlite at least guessed. She knew the prisoner was missing arms, and these seemed…close.
“Would you…I-I mean if nothing else—please, these are Peridot’s! She needs them. Maybe—I mean. I can’t—can I go see her?” Lion asked, and its voice broke as it asked. There were tears now in its eyes. Those wide, shiny things. They possessed Howlite to move forward.
“I uh…I don’t think I should. Take you there, I-I mean. I’m not supposed to be out here. I was just practicing—“ Howlite swallowed her words. Pangs of guilt shot through her stomach as she looked at the frantic pet. “I uh, I can bring the…arms on board. I mean, they probably should be recycled anyway?”
The words seemed to terrify the little dog. Its eyes went wide, and its face went whiter. It shook its head.
“No, no please give them to her. She at least…deserves…” the dog faltered. It dropped its eyes to the sand. “You really—I can’t see her? Not even for a little?”
Howlite took to methodical shakes of her head. She stepped forward, and eased the arms out of the dog’s grip. “S-sorry. I mean, I’ll give her the arms. If you want. They—well I dunno how she’s gonna carry them when she’s got no arms. But uh—do they…reattach?”
The dog ignored Howlite’s question.
“A-and when you give them back to her, would you please…tell her I’m sorry? Tell her the arms are from me. It’s all I could do.” the dog had turned to the ship. Howlite twisted to follow the line of sight. The tall Gem which had brought Peridot out to the beach still stood there—obvious with her height. But now the other two uncracked Gems flanked her, the Pearl and the Amethyst. Howlite did a once-over for Tourmaline, but the Gem wasn’t there. She hadn’t expected anything different; Cinnabar said Tourmaline had been cracked beyond saving.
Howlite hoisted the arms higher in her grip. They were heavier than they looked, and the crawling numbness in her body threw off any sense she had of how tightly she was holding them. “Sure thing, doggy.” She moved forward, and twisted her body around. She freed her left hand from the arm stack and used it to pat Lion on the head. “And don’t you worry, Commander Cinnabar always knows the best thing to do.” Howlite twisted back to the ship. Her eyes lingered on the three Crystal Gems who’d gathered to watch the rebuilding. It filled her with unease. “Do you…maybe want to go see your owners?” she asked.
The dog didn’t answer. When Howlite twisted back around, the dog had vanished.
Check the tank pressure gauge—third dial from the left. Make sure it’s between 50-100 psi… Well then pull the hatch for “N2 inflation” until it is between 50-100… No that doesn’t—just make it 50 okay?!…
No, ignore the scratches. We don’t build these ships out of garbage. Just seal the cracks that go through the hull. I’d be dead long before you finished if you got every little scratch…
Did you run the Systems check?… Run it again. Yes, again. I don’t care how long it took the first time—Are you gonna trust your life to one reading? God, Yellow Diamond would have ground you up ages ago if you were me. …Yes I know you’re not a technician Gem. That’s why you’re listening to me. Now do it…
Peridot watched the last in a long stream of tiny Gems hobble off, arms full of equipment she clearly didn’t know how to use. Years of active duty prompted Peridot to stand and go investigate every piece of machinery herself, but it took every bit of strength she had left to even remain sitting. The apathy it had brought on was welcome, but the physical handicaps were an inconvenience to say the least. She could only trust the blueprints in her mind when the Gems came to her with problems.
Peridot’s attention shifted as a distinct hum rang out from the ship; it grew into a full, shuddering, thrashing rumble. The harsh grate of the engines roared at full volume for a solid five seconds, before cutting to a near silent purr. The air vibrated with new gusts of heat. A green Gem this time appeared at the open hatch, grinning ear to ear. She swung her arms about in the air and hopped from foot to foot.
Cinnabar moved with a forced calm, hands locked behind her back. She’d broken off mid-sentence with another underling to go meet the green Gem by the hatch. A short, near silent conversation followed, and Cinnabar spun to address the rest of the shore.
“The ship is operational! Jade is running one final System Check, we’ll be off-planet within half an hour. Be ready.” Her sharp eyes flickered to Peridot. “Peridot, are there any other issues we should be aware of?”
Peridot stared back at the Gem Commander—a mere hazy red blur now. Peridot shrugged as best she could. “If we blow up mid-flight, we’ll know.”
Cinnabar held her composure, but Peridot indulged herself in imaging what string of curses had just fired through the Commander’s mind. If she were still fused, she’d be able to know exactly.
The thought caused a rolling sense of dread to move through her stomach, and so she blocked it down. She focused instead on the cool sand beneath her, a nice contrast to the hot stinging bursts that shot through her gem at odd intervals.
A new movement caught her attention. Garnet had finally shifted—Pearl and Amethyst too, since they’d joined. She didn’t know what they’d been doing at the shore; she wished she didn’t care. Peridot had spent the last half hour internally hoping they’d leave. But of course they wouldn’t be the Crystal Clods if they ever left her alone—even to die.
She gritted her teeth now as it became clear that Garnet was moving in her direction. The two other Gems followed in tow, Pearl sweeping behind with hardly a mark on the beach and Amethyst plodding with deep furrows left in the sand. Peridot averted her eyes from them, but she didn’t have the balance nor the strength to twist herself away entirely.
“We uh…we hope you have a safe trip,” It was Pearl spoke, and it was with an irriating uncertainty. Peridot gave a fast guffaw, and she reveled in the discomfort that radiated from Pearl. “It was…a figure of speech, sorry.”
“I think what Pearl meant is uh…thanks for being such a sport? You know? I mean you definitely did try to kill us like…more than once. But this is pretty cool of you. We respect that.” Amethyst eased herself behind Pearl’s leg, sheltering herself.
“Steven is…very upset, with the turn of events.” Pearl clasped her hands together. She kicked back slightly against Amethyst. “It is remarkable that you, as a Homeworld Gem… Well that sounds bad–I mean to say… I uh…hmm.” Pearl’s head twitched then, her eyes trained on Garnet.
“You’re going to die, Peridot.” Garnet moved forward. She blocked out the other two Gems. “Die proud of yourself, for Steven’s sake.”
Peridot felt her lip twitch. Hot anger hit her then, but she didn’t have the energy to maintain it. “Yeah okay, now get out of here. Your breath stinks,” she muttered back, staring forward at the ship.
Garnet responded with a slight, near-silent laugh, and she turned away. Pearl and Amethyst watched her for cues. Peridot held her breath as they all turned away, moving farther, becoming smaller. She found her mouth opening of its own accord before the Gems were more than a few yards away.
“A-and tell Steven—“ Peridot cut herself off. The Crystal Gems turned to look at her, though they didn’t say anything. Peridot only stared down into the sand. She drew her legs in, but they pushed back out with the unstable sand. Annoyance pulsed through her veins “—tell him whatever you want. Tell him I lived or something. Who cares.”
“Steven is smarter than that,” Garnet answered.
Peridot laughed. “Well he was dumb enough to care about me.”
Peridot fell silent as footsteps approached. She didn’t need to look up to know it was Cinnabar—she was the only invading Gem big enough to make a sound as she moved across the beach. The Crystal Gems all cleared a space for her. Her shadow moved over Peridot, blanketing her and blotting out what bit of the sun peeked past the ship. When Cinnabar spoke, her words were directed to the Crystal Gems.
“We’re leaving now. We won’t be back. Thank you for returning Homeworld property.” Cinnabar glanced over her shoulder to Peridot, and her face was a mask of pure disdain when Peridot glanced up to meet the address. “Yellow Diamond will be pleased.”
She placed one hand out, which Garnet met. For the thousandth time, Peridot counted her blessings that she was at least rid of Tourmaline’s intuition. The tension may have cracked her gem straight through, then and there.
“Ma’am! Ma’am Ma’am are we leaving?”
Peridot couldn’t turn, but she knew it was Howlite approaching from the other end of the beach. A clunking beat came with the Gem’s steps.
“Yes, get on board.” There was a pause in Cinnabar’s words. She twisted to look down at Peridot, then back to Howlite. “Are those—“
“Peridot’s…arms, Ma’am. Yes.”
Peridot’s head snapped up at this. She dug her one stumped arm into the beach to twist as much as possible. The little black-and-white Gem tilted backwards to support the two clunky, dented pieces of machinery. The two made eye contact, and Peridot watched Howlite survey her body, as if searching for a way to hand them off.
Peridot forced down a yelp when Cinnabar’s left arm wrapped around her midsection. Cinnabar lifted her into the air, as though weightless, and sent new thrumming pulses of agony through her cracked gem. Peridot clenched her teeth, shut her eyes, and forgot for the moment about everything but her own gem.
“You three can leave now. My condolences to Tourmaline.”
The world shifted—Cinnabar had turned, moving now in what Peridot assumed was the direction of the ship. Peridot cracked her eyes open, but the world remained dim. Only dark, faint shapes now passed under her eyes. The moving beach, Cinnabar’s sharp-toed shoes.
“Ma’am?” a shaky voice spoke from behind. The steady clunk clunk clunk suggested it was still Howlite, huffing forward with Peridot’s arms in her grip. “Ma’am, there’s something important I need to tell you.”
Cinnabar hoisted Peridot higher as she started to slip. It spun the world around Peridot, who gritted her teeth harder. “What, Howlite?”
“It—I… I um…s-something happened, on this mission…that you should know about.” Howlite’s voice wobbled, volume dying. Peridot could sense Cinnabar’s arm tighten around her.
“U-u-uhhmm.” Howlite fell silent. Darkness filled Peridot’s vision as they climbed inside the hull of the ship. The interior was cold, and the Gems’ footsteps took to sharp, echoing clacks. “I…I um…I met a very friendly dog, Ma’am. It’s an Earth creature. It was very cute.”
The sharp clatter of a metal door sliding along its tracks filled Peridot’s ears. The breath escaped her lungs as she was thrust forward. Cinnabar released her, and she landed in a tangle on the cold metal floor. The same sliding met her ears—the door shutting now, composed of metal bars in vertical alignment. “Fascinating.”
Howlite lingered when Cinnabar turned away. Through bleary, fading eyes, Peridot could see the way the smaller Gem hesitated by the door.
“Uh, Ma’am? I-I was going to give Peridot her…arms back.”
“What’s she going to do with those? Get to the Control Room.”
“Y-yes’m,” Howlite answered with a clumsy attempt at a salute. She turned entirely away from Peridot, silent as her Commander receded down the hallway. “I’ll um…h-hang on to these, for now, Ma’am.”
Howlite gave one last terrified glance to Peridot over her shoulder. Peridot couldn’t read the expression, but for her own gratification she pretended it was apologetic. Her mind conjured up the devastated expression on Steven’s face the moment she was dragged out the door. Peridot shut her eyes, shut out her surroundings, as she pressed herself against the back wall.
“We’ll uh…we’ll come get you if there are any technical difficulties during the flight,” Howlite said. Peridot pretended not to hear. “Y-you’re still important. …Cracked Gems are still important.”
Peridot buried herself deep in her own mind. She dismissed the image of the black and white Gem, and mentally transplanted Steven in the vacant place.Cracked Gems are still important. It seemed like something he’d say. She reimagined it in his voice, and felt some of the tension ease out of her chest.
The little Gem’s footsteps receded. It was a cold silence that followed, broken thirty seconds later by the sound of the engine firing up.
Within the minute, the stuttering, jagged upwards acceleration marked the ship’s lift-off. The pressure in the ship mounted, artificial, and a battery of trembles and shudders rocked the ship. Harsh white noise assaulted her ears.
Peridot cracked her eyes open. She watched the metal grated floor as it shook beneath her; she looked to the bars containing her—a holding cell. They hadn’t even activated the Gem shield.
Her eyes drifted shut again. It took too much energy to keep them open.
And it took too much effort to care.
FINAL CHAPTER. Epilogue to follow.
Greg had drawn the plastic woven blinds over the windows of his van and fallen into a fitful, anxious, spinning half-sleep. He edged in and out of consciousness repeatedly, as every slip was met with images of gruesome, shattered fusions tearing out of Steven’s skin and the icy nostalgia of seeing Rose for the last time. He’d sweat clean through his tanktop and took now to staring blankly, exhausted, at the dark roof of his van. He’d made a bed out of winter clothes, and parked himself on the side of a gravelly back road about 15 miles out of Beach City. The air had grown stagnant, hot, but Greg found himself too paralyzed with fear to move.
There came a shrill noise, a default ringtone, that fractured the stuffy air. Greg felt his heart jump into his throat as it snapped him to attention. He fell off the musty pile of clothes he’d fashioned into a bed. His trembling hands pawed in desperate arcs for the cell phone.
“Hello? Hello hello hello I’m here,” Greg wheezed into it. He crushed it against his cheek. His chest fluttered with pitiful attempts to breathe.
“Greg? It’s Pearl.”
“Yes yes it’s me what—what’s happened? You’re alive! What—where—please—I-is Steven?”
“Steven is okay, Greg. He’s healed, and he’s resting. I think he’d like to see you. Amethyst is calling up Mayor Dewey right now to bring everyone back into Beach City.”
Greg didn’t answer. His vision vanished in a flood of tears, and the phone slipped clean from his grasp.
The first desperate sob wrenched out of his chest. Then another. Greg buried his face in his hands and cried. In his dark, musty, shade-drawn van pulled over to the side of a ditch, Greg sobbed. The noises shook through the entirety of his body, which had gone numb with relief.
“…I’ll…give you a moment, then. Take your time…” the phone buzzed with static, and Greg cried.
His son was alive,
and the thought only made him sob harder.
[So for the story, I was thinking. What if Rachel and Angela were secretly in love with each other and not Brad? And that’s why they faked Angela’s death. So theyd be together. It’s like Ruby and Sapphire]
[Steven!? Steven oh my god are you okay?! Is that you?! Please call me. No I’ll call you!]
[Okay. Please tell me what you think of my idea.]
Peridot had shifted to the corner of her holding cell. It bled cold and hard against her fractured body, spread the numbness faster. It protected her, at least somewhat, from the bursts of turbulence that rocked the ship. She kept her ears tuned to the sound of the engines, the hums and thrums of working machinery, without knowing exactly what she’d do if they did start to malfunction. She’d be able to instruct them in any needed repairs (probably) but it’d be nicer to die in the icy vacuum of space than in the Refinery.
Maybe, once they docked, she could plead for her life.
Maybe she could beg.
It probably wouldn’t help. Homeworld didn’t heal Gems. The most she could probably barter for would be permission to be tossed in a Homeworld landfill, and live out the rest of her days there until her gem cracked of its own accord. It probably wouldn’t take long.
Peridot pulled her legs into herself, curled into a fetal position. They were the only protection she had, and she hated herself for how primal it felt. Just a few hunks of body and metal, half-shielding a decaying form and a dead gem. She’d accepted death. She had. But Homeworld was approaching, the Refinery was approaching. It was an enormous, walled-in monstrosity on the outskirts of Central. The churning gears inside were normal, distant background noise to the city. And you never openly acknowledged when the sputtering, grinding hum from inside rose to a rocky fever pitch. It was business, productivity. The Gems who entered were, essentially, already dead.
And Peridot had been dead for quite some time.
She let out a sharp huff when the entire ship jolted upward. It coalesced into a cry of pain, and when Peridot cracked her eyes open, she was looking at a few grains of gem glittering on the grated floor. She held her breath and listened. The engine had stopped.
But, so had the ship. And a litany of small cheers echoed from the closed off halls. Peridot closed her eyes again. She rolled onto her back and tried to normalize her breathing. They’d…landed. She’d made it home. Months stranded, she’d made it home. As hardly more than a prisoner.
The floor and walls echoed with the clacking of tiny boots on metal. Little bursts of voices and noise cut through the air. Gems grabbing this and that, Gems disembarking, Gems giving orders. No doubt one was already running through the streets of Central, head swiveling around for the Main Repair Hub. Peridot had worked there once, a lifetime ago, before she’d been reassigned.
A pneumatic hiss broke the air. Peridot pretended not to startle at how close the noise sounded. She only rolled further, nose pressed to the wall, when she heard two sets of footsteps enter.
“Crystal System Peridot, we’ve docked. Some of the sealant tore away on the hull, but no terminal damage. Your repair work has performed to expectations–”
Peridot cut Cinnabar’s voice out. She wondered instead what would happen if she slammed her head forward at that moment. The wall was thick, firm, cold. She could hit it gem-first, and maybe shatter herself through. And then no one could send her to the—
“—Refinery. The request has cleared. See yourself there.”
Cinnabar’s words raked through Peridot’s mind then. It sent thrills of coldness and panic down her spine. She turned, scrambling upright, and fixed the Commander with a wide-eyed stare. Cinnabar had been looking down at a green screen projecting out of a device in her palm. Her eyes flickered up, almost surprised, to meet Peridot’s. Howlite, who’d been standing at Cinnabar’s side, backed up a few feet.
“Did you hear me, Peridot?” Cinnabar asked. She glanced back to her screen.
“I—But I uh…I-I belong to Yellow Diamond…” Peridot stuttered. She felt the watered down weakness of her own words.
This got Cinnabar’s attention. Her jaw was set, confusion drifting to annoyance. “Yes, Howlite’s cleared you from Yellow Diamond’s directory, not mine. I’m not an idiot.”
“I mean…it’s up to Yellow Diamond…what happens to me.” Peridot had stopped looking at Cinnabar. She swung her head around, hot with anger at her own cowardice.
“This is not a personal decision. Cracked Gems get sent to the Refinery. It doesn’t matter who orders it.” Cinnabar took a step closer. She bowed at the waist, her face slashed by the holding cell’s bars, and she stared eye-to-eye with Peridot. Cold, thin red slits, her eyes were. “I don’t know what changed in you on Earth to make you think you have a say in this, but it’s an order. Follow it.”
“I’ll uh—Ma’am?—I’ll escort her. That’s—I can do that.” Howlite had peeked her head around from behind Cinnabar. Her curl bobbed with the motion. She’d stuck her right hand in the air, index finger raised. “Really it’s no problem! Someone needs to carry her arms anyway. They make bridges out of that metal. It’s good for the environment to recycle them.”
Cinnabar stood tall then. She turned and fixed Howlite with a stare that Peridot couldn’t read. Peridot only pressed herself farther against the wall and fought to hold back the clawing panic in her chest.
“Fine. I want you back within half an hour. Yellow Diamond needs my reports as soon as possible—better start sucking up now if I want any chance of keeping…anything.” Cinnabar had her eyes set back to the main hallway. She moved forward with fluid steps, glancing back once at Howlite. “You’re better at that.”
“I-I uh…Ma’am I…” Howlite wrung her hands, trailing off. She shooked her head then, and cocked a stiff salute with her right hand. “…Y-yes’m. I uh…I…”
Cinnabar was gone though, the automatic doors hissing shut behind her. Darkness crawled back over the holding compartment, and Howlite went slack. She dropped her arm and exhaled, glancing back to Peridot with much less vigor in her eyes.
“Come on, we’ll go together.”
Howlite pressed her tiny palm against the scanner. The bars unlatched with a firm click, and Howlite clasped them in her free hand. She swung them forward. They grated sharp against the cold metal floor, the bottom of the door scratched away from an imperfect fit. Howlite only shoved it harder as it stuttered, eyes fixed to Peridot.
“I uh…I need to get your arms. Can you stand?”
The numbing static hand spread to Peridot’s entire body. She watched her own feet to judge their motion. The slid inward, sole to the grated metal flooring, and she pushed herself standing by using the wall as support. She wobbled once, but kept her feet beneath her.
She took one step forward. Then another. Howlite scooched to the side, and spun backwards to the door which opened at her command.
Light poured through, blinding then, revealing the hustle of a crawling city stretching dozens of miles over the horizon. Bright, loud, enormous—everything Peridot was used to. She moved forward on swaying legs. She teetered, hobbled, moved with three times as much effort and focus as any normal Gem.
But she didn’t fall.
Steven was entirely too warm, but he didn’t care.
Greg sat in bed with him, his large right arm draped around Steven’s shoulder. It was large enough to wrap back around to Greg’s own stomach. It felt like a cocoon—a soft, squishy, warm cocoon. Steven wiggled himself against Greg’s body in response, and Greg held him closer.
Connie sat cross-legged to Steven’s right. The mattress hardly even buckled underneath her. She kept one hand in the lap of her jeans and the other one gripped to Steven’s arm. The undersides of her eyes were dark and blotchy, and she fought down yawns every few minutes—a matching set with bleary-eyed Steven
“Okay, so, tell me if I have this all right. Cinnabar came down on shore, and Tourmaline convinced her that you didn’t exist and that she was better off leaving in peace. Then she changed her mind and attacked anyway, and you deflected the blast and uh…got shattered. But then Peridot took control and scared Cinnabar enough to leave for real, because her ship was busted and if she made peace with you guys, you’d give her Peridot who could then fix the ship. And now you’re healed, and she, Peridot, and the ship are all gone.”
Steven yanked one hand free from Greg and swept it through the air. “And that’s what you missed last time on ‘Under the Fusion’.”
Connie pressed her fingers to her nose, suppressing a smile. “No…No Under the Knife references right now, Steven. You almost died.”
“Yeah but…I didn’t.” Steven dropped his arm. He shrunk in closer to Greg then, eyes averted from Connie. “So there’s no reason to talk about it. You promised we’d work on your Under the Knife fanfiction after this was all over.”
Connie didn’t answer immediately. She glanced out the window, watching the calm darkening beach. Her face was unreadable. “…That idea about Rachel and Angela actually being in love? Brilliant, Steven. Angela’s father is a Catholic priest, and Rachel mentioned in the season 2 premiere that her mother campaigned for Nixon in the sixties. It would make sense for them to keep a lesbian relationship a secret, not to mention all the scenes where they fight over Bradford? At least one other hospital worker is always present. I checked on the ride over.” She turned then to Steven, with a knowing smile pulling at her lips. “This is going to make the Brangela and the Radford shippers furious, but it is a story that needs to be written.”
“I uh—is this a show you two are talking about?” Greg shifted under Steven’s weight. “Also my leg is falling asleep Kiddo.”
“Oh and it—well sort of. Under the Knife got canceled after its third season, so the writers were forced to throw together a loose and ambiguous ending. A lot of the fans are unhappy with this, so we’re theorizing possible true endings. I’m the writer! And Steven is helping with ideas.”
“I used Garnet for inspiration!” Steven glanced over the loft. He saw Garnet tilt her head to him, but only for a moment. She returned to staring forward, silently, arms swung over the back of the couch. Steven pressed his lips together, dejected but not hurt. He knew Garnet was busy scanning all the futures she could see, double-checking that they were safe.
Connie followed Steven’s line of sight. Her attention trailed farther, until she had a bird’s eyes view of the kitchen. Pearl was sweeping through it—clearing plates and scrubbing away syrup stains and dumping soggy pancakes in the trash. Connie went bright red.
“Oh my goodness, Steven–the mess we made!” Connie rocked forward until she was on her hands and knees. She gave the kitchen a once over from here. Pearl looked back, and waved with a soft smile on her face. Connie only went redder. “Pearl I’m very sorry! We didn’t clean anything up. (Oh that’s been there almost two days now). Don’t tell my mom! And please let me help!”
Connie made to scramble off Steven’s bed, but Pearl waved her off. “I have this under control, Connie. Just stay with Steven.”
“Are you sure?” Connie answered. She made her voice loud, and it echoed just slightly.
“Entirely. I enjoy cleaning anyway.” Pearl turned back to the sink. She scrubbed at eaten-through pans and took now to humming a soft tune. It carried back to the loft crystal clear.
“What…did you tell your parents anyway, Connie?” Steven asked. He bunched up his hands in his pajamas.
“Well I certainly didn’t tell them Beach City was evacuated… It’s a good thing this town has so few people; otherwise the empty streets might have been suspicious.” Connie sat back down with a fwump. The bed springs bounced and eeked with the motion. “I uh…I told them you have a very bad bike accident and broke your leg and now you needed a friend. My mom almost tried to come in here herself to examine you so you’re lucky I convinced her not to.”
Steven smiled at this, though he lowered his eyes to the mattress. “More like a tandem bicycle accident…I guess. That’s almost right.”
Connie looked away too. Her eyes strayed to the window, and her fingers folded into each other. “So uh…what happens to Peridot now? Is she…is she okay now?”
Connie glanced back to Steven. She didn’t dare speak as Steven kept himself closed off from her.
“You know Steven, a lot of people are alive right now because of you.” Greg tightened his arm around Steven. “Cinnabar was on her way to earth regardless. She was just filling in for Peridot’s mission. If you’d never saved Peridot, we probably wouldn’t have known anything about Cinnabar until it was too late. Who knows how many people she might have killed? Or what she might have done to you guys. …You saved lives, and most importantly to me, you saved yourself.”
“I just had to scare you half to death to do it, huh?” Steven asked.
“Well, Tourmaline did most of the scaring, to be honest. Not that they meant to.” Greg eased away from Steven as Connie scooted in under the covers. She rested her head on Steven’s shoulder, allowing her eyes to drift shut. “I’m proud of them, Steven. And I’m sorry it had to end like this for them… but you’re alive, which means Tourmaline’s still half alive, at least. It’s better than nothing.”
The front door banged open. Steven didn’t (well, couldn’t) turn to look, but he heard the jabbering mix of Amethyst’s and Mayor Dewey’s voices. They were arguing about something to do with constant town evacuations and how badly it reflected on the mayor’s approval rating. A small smile pulled at Steven’s lips as he listened to Amethyst dissolve into mocking blah blah blah noises, much to Dewey’s annoyance. There came a shuffling from the couch, the sound of sharp, heavy footsteps, and an audible eep from Dewey.
“Steven is trying to sleep. Go. Away.”
“Y-yes Garnet. We’ll—I’ll uh—talk to you about this later?”
“No.” The door shut. A silence followed, broken only by the sound of Amethyst rubbing sand off her body.
“Amethyst, I am cleaning.”
“Yeah, which you love. I’m giving you more to do.”
“No, do that outside! I’ve already wiped down the floor and the coffee table and the counters! I don’t need—huh…”
A moment of silence. Steven’s eyes felt suddenly too heavy to keep open. Maybe it was Connie’s rhythmic breathing, maybe it was Greg’s soft heat, but sleep pulled Steven under. His eyes slid shut, and a welcome darkness filled his vision.
“…I thought…on the co…?”
Exhaustion won out, and Steven fell into a dreamless sleep.
Homeworld Gems weren’t meant to acknowledge each other in passing; this was common knowledge. But what Peridot felt as she hobbled through the streets was like nothing she’d ever experienced before. She was used to disinterest; she was used to forward gazes never meeting her own. This…was not that.
This was catching the momentary glimmer of pupils directed to her own—there and gone in the split second. And it was seeing the full-body change her appearance prompted in others. These Gems stiffened, faces falling to a tight, intentional blankness as the averted eyes sparked with fear and curiosity and interest. It was gazes burning into her back as she passed. She wanted to be mad; she wanted to lash back, but a sickening pit in her stomach knew she’d been guilty of the same hundreds of times before. Cracked Gems stood out on the streets, and their dead man’s march always turned heads.
Peridot forced herself to keep pace with Howlite. The little Gem looked back at her constantly, her steps slowing as Peridot’s grew heavier, more labored. Peridot drove herself forward. She worked herself into a tunnel vision. Tall, sleek skyscrapers towered over her. They buzzed with gem-generated energy arcing over wires and churning gears. Crafts sped by overhead with harsh shrieks and vacuums in the air. It was a hot day, Peridot assumed. Her body felt thick and padded with numbness, but the weather had been warming up when she left. She could only assume from the three bright balls of red crawling through the sky that the heatwave had swept over most of Homeworld in the meantime.
All other Gems blended into dark streaks of color. Some marched in procession—twenty of the same Gem type—on their way to complete some unknown mission. Others docked at high-ceiling metal terminals, ready to board. For a moment, Peridot wondered how many of them were off to invade some lesser planet. She wondered how many of them would be committing murder today.
Then she and Howlite turned left on the next avenue, and they were gone from her mind.
These buildings dropped lower. They shined with a muted luster, and the fissures in their walls went unfixed. The street too had been beaten away with chips and splitting seams. The Gems who ducked through the walkways were shorter, smaller in their entirety. They kept their heads bowed. Clear fear twisted on the faces of those that dared to look up. Peridot couldn’t focus well enough to identify any of them by gemstone. Her attention drifted to her other senses; a harsh smell like rot and gasoline hung in the air. Waves of stagnant air rolled over her body. Moisture bled out of cracks in the walls and dripped in steady rhythm, coalescing into puddles below. The liquid was thick, and tinged green. Wastepipes, unattended.
In another lifetime, it could have been her duty to redesign the piping system. Not here, not in the outskirts of Central. These streets were allowed to decay.
It came first as one distant rumble; like lightning. Then it chugged through the air again. Louder, clearer. Peridot felt certain that the ground vibrated underfoot. It beat out in thick waves, warbled, shook the steel beams of buildings until they chattered like teeth. Peridot scrunched up her nose at the hot, heady smell of coal and ash.
Howlite said something then. She didn’t hear; she didn’t want to. Peridot only lifted her head to the construction that grew out of the skyline. The buildings had thinned along either side of the street now. A few huts of crumbling rubble peppered the edges. Small, battered Gems shot in and out of the periphery like rats—Gems who’d been decommissioned in the heat of war and civil unrest. Gems who would have been sent off to the Refinery in a time of order. Gems who’d wandered off half-broken and directionless into the slums where the toxic air and construction fumes eroded them to scarcely-sentient shadows of their former selves. Peridot knew about them, but she’d never seen them before. She’d never come close enough to the Refinery.
Even these Gems faded to nothing as the Refinery crept closer. The torn down huts and rotting fences thinned out. Black, desolate soil spread out from the street, which had come to a complete halt. Only a tinged orange skyline and black sodden ground stretched forward, meeting in the center as one massive powerhouse: the Refinery.
Peridot moved with caution as she transitioned into the mealy, acrid soil. It stung against the soles of her feet. Howlite let out a tiny yelp as she stepped over onto the black ground, but otherwise didn’t slow her pace. She only pulled herself in closer to Peridot. Her breaths came in fast huffs as she adjusted the weight of Peridot’s arms in hers.
A gate. It stretched ten feet overhead, and its barbed, yellow-crackling wire top had been splintered and gnarled. It pitched inward to the Refinery—designed for keeping Gems in, not out. Peridot blocked out the unwelcome images her mind summoned of how the wire had incurred its damage.
Peridot looked to her right. The gate stretched hundreds of feet off. It disappeared at a vanishing point in the horizon, at which point it cut left to wrap around the rest of the Refinery. It swirling wire ran the same track, all electrified with yellow energy. Peridot glanced left too, met with the same sight.
Hhhhshunk. Hhhhhshunk. Hhhhshunk. The noise beat an even rhythm. Something falling. Something pounding. Over and over and over. It was complemented with hissing undertones. Crackles and clanks and high-pitched shrieks. Peridot tilted her head back and stared over the gate. A large, dark obelisk dominated the horizon. A chute rose into the sky, completely covered in dark metal, but rumbling.
Beep. Peridot startled at the high pitched noise. She spun left, finding a guilty-looking Howlite raising her badge to the gate lock. She fixed Peridot with a terrified stare as another click followed, and the massive gate unlocked at its center.
Howlite hobbled back to Peridot, green dented arms clasped tightly to her body.
“I uh…I don’t think I should go in,” Howlite said. Her eyes were wide, unblinking. They sent thrills of discomfort through Peridot’s numbing body. “Please, uh, y-you think you can take your arms? I mean you’ve got…half of one. Just try—here—if I can fit…”
Howlite inched forward. She stuck one mechanical piece between Peridot’s stumped left arm and body. Peridot tightened the stump against her chest, and it just barely held in place. Like a game of Jenga, Howlite placed the second one on top. It wobbled, but managed to not fall. Peridot’s stumped arm shook with the strain. She couldn’t find a reason to resist though.
“You uh…you should get going. Those might fall. They’re heavy—your arms. They’re very heavy. The right one especially. Wouldn’t want to drop…” Howlite nodded to herself and backed up. She stared hard at Peridot, then the arms, then Peridot. “Well uh…bye. It…I’m…” Howlite only took to quiet stuttering. She backed away, and Peridot felt a new wave of loathing for the gem rock through her.
She looked forward instead, peeked through the gate which had opened a crack for her. Peridot held her breath, steeled herself. Hot anger flashed through her stomach as she worked her right shoulder (what remained of it) into the opening, and moved through it.
Refinery Gems: Enter Here
The sign blazed over the singular opening to the dark monstrosity that had been contained inside the gates. Peridot could see into it now. She caught the glittering edges of teeth—thousands of teeth—decorating rolling pins. These moved in steady rotations, the belt beneath then rolling through. Behind them, a rectangular mallet oscillated up and down. When it slammed down, it twisted, grinding, and rose back up with steady clacking of its chains. The air beat down on her hot andthick. It gummed up in her nose, the stink of grease and lubricant assaulting what was left of her sense of smell.
The whole belt, hundred and hundreds of feet long, and at least twenty wide, rose up through the caged-in chute. It hit a precipice at the top, and dove down. Peridot couldn’t see into it, but the fierce red glow that ebbed out told her everything she needed to know about what lay below.
She blinked, surprised to find tears dripping from the corners of her eyes. She’d started shaking. Whole-body trembles racked her, as well as small strangled sobs. It wasn’t real. It couldn’t be real. She didn’t feel like herself. She didn’t feel like any of this could actually be happening to her.
She put one foot forward, and toppled. Her arms flew out of her grip and clattered into the mud. Her face hit the ground, and soaked in the oily, dripping residue that had ground out from the machine. The grease of ground-up Gems long past. She lifted her face, and found herself staring into the two scattered arms that had once been hers.
She pushed herself to her knees—all she could manage—and crawled to the first arm. She gathered it against her chest and kept moving. The second arm wouldn’t scoop up now that she was supporting the first. It bothered her more than reason would allow. She cried out, and slammed her stub into it.
The arm flipped over, which Peridot expected.
What she couldn’t explain was why it rattled.
Even once it stopped moving, the tinkering noise of settling objects echoed in her ears. She stared at it, dumbfounded, and dropped the arm she already held. Peridot dragged her knees through the mud, and slouched over this arm.
With her stub, she moved its thin conical opening into view. The inside was dark, black, and somehow bore the textured shadows of things. She gathered it up in her half-arm, opening to the ground, and shook it with a few twists of her torso.
A jangling, a rattling, an object. Four of them.
One was a letter, and she slammed her stub down into it first as a gust of wind threatened to carry it off. It had been folded over twice on itself, and it took contorting both half-arm and feet to smooth it over its creases. She would have felt like a fool in any other situation, right foot and left stub jamming a piece of paper down into the muck to read it.
I’m really really really sorry about what happened. I really don’t want you to die, and for some reason that’s still okay with you. If we had more time, I was gonna show you all the really cool things on Earth. We could have been really good friends I think. Because you’re not evil. You just didn’t know why you should have cared about us, and I think you know that now.
I can’t keep you on Earth though. I don’t think I can save you either. But I’m trying really really hard.
I said really a lot in this. So I’m just sorry. I’m sorry.
–the smallest Clod
Peridot’s eyes trailed down the paper. More writing followed, but this was done crudely with something like soot-stains. The handwriting was only barely legible.
I usually have to confiscate these things. Except I might have borrowed some of it. Sorry! I was just grabbing stuff and accidentally figured out what the bottle does. I put a bowl in here though! It folds up so it fits. I think that’s helpful. Maybe it makes up for it.
I deleted the Refinery request and used Commander Cinnabar’s signature to sign you back on to active duty with Yellow Diamond. Please do not tell Cinnabar! If you ever see her again, pretend to be a different Peridot.
If this all works out, then you should turn around right now and see that the Refinery gate is still open. I’m gonna not latch it behind you (haha oops!) that’s against orders though so also don’t tell Cinnabar. I can’t tell you this out loud because my uniform is audio-monitored. I hope you figured it out. P.S. the dog is very cute and very smart! Also it is sorry.
The letter concluded with a crude, cartoony drawing of Howlite’s face, bearing a bright smile.
Peridot moved forward, a being possessed. Her stumped arm drove the letter into the muck, and she didn’t care. Her eyes drifted over the other items:
A baggy, the “pretzel” baggy Steven had tried to tempt her with when she first regenerated. The packaging was littered with swollen spikes, suggesting it held a litany of sharp, splintered objects inside.
A bowl, Homeworld standard, made of something dull and very thin. The center of it was creased from being folded to fit inside the arm, but it still bore enough of its original concave shape to be useful.
A bottle—filled about a third of the way with tears.
Peridot’s single arm trembled as it reached outward. She hooked it into the bowl, and dragged it toward her. She sat on her knees, and rested the bowl directly in front of her. Next she raked the pretzel baggy forward. Its opening had been rolled over itself. Peridot lowered her face to it, grasping it with her teeth. She worked her jaw to unroll the top, then shifted her bite to the bottom of the bag. She raised her head, lifting the baggy upside down, and heard the tinker of gem shards drop into the bowl.
Then her arm knocked over the corked bottle. It didn’t roll freely in the mud, so she had to coerce it with sharp pulls of her arm against its back side. Once to her body, Peridot opened her legs a few inches. She pushed the bottle upright against them, clamped it between her knees, and used her teeth to tear out the cork. It gave with a single, squeaking pop.
Her teeth then moved to its neck. Delicately, with all the focus her numb body could manage. She lifted it. She righted her head over the bowl, and held her breath as the tears sloshed out and drowned her gem shards. She lowered the bottle to the muck again once empty.
Peridot held her breath then, heart pounding.
And dropped her head into the bowl.
The water touched her gem with a maelstrom of sensation. Her neck almost snapped back, but she forced it to remain steady. It was like fire at first, hot and strong and everywhere as it coursed over her body. She let out a tiny yelp of pain into the water, but didn’t dare move. A brightness flooded over her shut eyes. Movement tickled across her noise as the contents of the bowl shifted.
The fogginess edged out of her brain. The seams retreated into her skin. She felt a heaviness, a wholeness, pull against her forehead. Bright and clear and present and right. The pain washed away with the seconds. Feeling pulsed back through her legs, grabbed at her body. It overwhelmed her. Being whole, being everything. Beads of light streamed over her right shoulder and rewove the missing arm.
And then, silence. The glowing light retreated, and every prickle of pain had vanished from Peridot’s body.
She yanked her head out of the water and gasped. Hot air raked down her throat, through her lungs. Hot and wholesome and incredible. She sucked in the ashy, toxic air with a happiness bordering on delirium. Peridot let one rocking sob escape her body. Then another. She fell over onto her side, curled her legs and arms close, and indulged herself in the echoes of her relieved manic cries.
She sang a chorus with the pounding, grinding Refinery equipment.
Peridot opened her eyes, and stared in wonder at the floating fingers that had reappeared at the base of her phantom arms. She sat up, and scooted on her knees to the first arm. The fingers from her left hand moved to the bowl, which she dragged around in her mind. Her fingers held it over the limb and tilted the bowl, which spilled out a stream of tears. The tears and seams and dents down the arms vanished. The shape buckled back out, whole. She plunged her right arm stub into the piece, and found it clicked exactly into place.
She repeated the process with the left arm. It clicked too, reconnected.
Her eyes shifted across the ground, and caught the nearly-transparent object she’d missed on the first pass, or objects, she supposed. It was her visor, cracked apart into seven different pieces so that it could be jammed inside her arm with the rest of the objects. She grabbed up the pieces greedily, and dunked the into the bowl of tears. Intent possessed them; they moved and flowed with the liquid, until the tears aligned them back into place. The cracks zippered over themselves, as if never there. The lifted the article from the bowl, and pressed it gently to her healed face, her healed gem. The visor fit perfectly.
Peridot looked down at her body. It glowed. Flawless streaks of green polished to a shine. It made her tremble; it made her mutter wet, thankful whispers into the empty air.
And then she dropped the bowl of tears, kicked a mound of dirt and muck over it. She repeated the process with the pretzel bag and the empty bottle. For the letter, she bent down and gathered it up in her hands. Gently, she folded it back over itself, and tucked it into the opening of her right arm.
Peridot turned her back on the Refinery then. Its rhythmic noises bled to nothing. Her eyes fell only on the gate, which had remained half-cracked as promised. She didn’t run for it—she raced. She pumped her fully-functioning legs against the soupy ground and didn’t dare look back. She shot like a bullet through the gate, and fling her fingers back to shut it in her stead.
The slums of Homeworld loomed ahead of her; the ratlike creatures of gems half-cracked and long abandoned. She didn’t spare a moment of thought for them. Peridot only flew forward, huffing and wheezing and bursting with occasional cackles of girlish joy as the hot hot air swirled around her.
The slums vanished behind her. The streets grew bigger, buildings taller and better-kept, the crowds denser. She was a sight among them. A careening, whooping, anomaly in the stream of silent and asocial Homeworld workers. She earned dozens of stares as she passed, until she stopped entirely on one street corner, bent at the waist and huffing.
She looked up then, and saw Homeworld. Homeworld. The place of her waking dreams and distant pleas and tortured cries, the place she’d have traded life and limb to return to. The place that wasn’t Earth.
The…place that hadn’t come for her.
She straightened then, feeling a wash of discomfort spread across her whole body. She swallowed, and looked about, in vain search of the place she’d known it to be. The empire she gave herself for, the society that she dedicated her life for.
The place that was cruel enough to leave her.
Her breathing returned to normal. She stared in silence at the tall-crawling buildings that ate into the orange sky. Her eyes flickered over the stuttering streaks of electricity that shot street to street. She noted the washed, glassy windows and the thrumming ships weaving through the city like rats in a maze. The day was hot, it burned against her body, but the world felt cold right then. And it was dark, compared to Earth. More efficient and sleeker and crueler in its progress.
Peridot dropped her eyes to her hands and stared at them. She could see the ghost image of Tourmaline’s there—the thing Steven had created with her. Hands that worked to protect, to save, to care. She realized almost as an afterthought that the fusion was still alive—neither she nor Steven had died, and it meant the fusion was saved as well. With all their naïve faith in the good of others’ hearts. Peridot could almost hear their voice as she reimagined Tourmaline’s single hand over her own: thick and gloved and gentle.
These…these with the floating fingers and the buzzing matrix. These were her hands alone. These worked only to serve.
Peridot looked forward again. She dropped her hands to her side and twisted left. An alley, fading out with shade met her. It was a shortcut she recognized, leading straight to Yellow Diamond’s headquarters—where she was expected to return now that Howlite had signed her back in to active duty. Peridot followed the line of sight. An enormous, rising building on the horizon—its edges were sharp and its exterior glimmered in boast. It rose as three upside down pyramids, stacked on one another, and it reflected back all the light that it gathered from the three dim suns. The sky bled out orange behind it: cloudless, but choking with smoke.
It felt surreal, how familiar the sight was to her, and yet how alien it had become. Her place of work for 4,000 years now, altered almost beyond recognition in a few months. She would be able to walk right back in, and no one would think of her any different. They wouldn’t wonder where she’d been, they wouldn’t wonder how she felt returning. That wasn’t their job, and so the other Gems who’d worked alongside her for thousands of years simply wouldn’t care.
That was how Homeworld functioned, after all, by simply not caring.
And, in her moment of hesitation, Peridot found herself moving forward. Her eyes were glued to the large, glimmering, glassy building. She drank in its sharp edges and then lifted her right hand in front of her face. Her fingers spun into a screen, which exploded with thousands of missed messages in her absence. Like nothing had changed.
She would go there. She would resume her work. Her legs moved, arms swinging at her side, body resuming the mute, focused indifference of all Homeworld Gems. It came on instinct, the thoughtless buzz of a dedicated worker. She scrolled through her missed messages at lightning pace—most things had since been taken up by other Gems in the department. But fresh orders still spilled in by the dozen. They coalesced in her inbox, trusted to her, on the faith that she would execute them all exactly as Homeworld wanted.
She would return to work. She would serve. She would be a good Gem to Homeworld.
Peridot swept her eyes across the influx of messages with a hand clamped to the hidden letter inside her right mechanical arm, and—as a good and loyal and inconspicuous Homeworld Gem—she wondered, on the low down,
-A malfunctioning core of Injectors on a J-System planet. A new Cluster project that needed monitoring on Alpha-4. A request for repairs to a 54th Class Starstreaker from the Crystal Cluster-
how much saving she could manage to do too, how much sabotaging perhaps,
and she wondered just how easily she could get away with it
(very easily, she imagined)
because Homeworld didn’t know anything about her
and Homeworld couldn’t possibly know that Peridot cared.
Chapter 24: Epilogue
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: