“How many did we lose?”
Rose didn’t respond right away; she was silently weeping, tears running off her chin and onto Pearl’s knuckles. It wasn’t until her arm was wet down to the elbow that her hand swelled with white light, and the four bloodied stumps began turning back into fingers.
“Rose. I asked you how many we lost.”
It took her a moment to realize she was being addressed, but when she turned from her Pearl she couldn't quite meet Biggs' eye. “I... I-I’m not sure.”
Biggs knelt beside her and placed a hand on her shoulder, which seemed to calm her a bit. “I lost count after forty.”
“Forty...” Pearl repeated in a hushed voice as she clutched her stickied, healing hand.
With one hand on Pearl’s arm to steady herself, Rose found her footing and stood, but she didn’t seem nearly as tall as she had before the battle. As she tried to wipe the blood and grass stains from her skirt---which accomplished little more than just smearing the filth around---she said in as steady a tone as she could force out: “We need to regroup and get back to the base before dawn, but for now, those who have been injured take precedence. Speaking of which...” She glanced over her shoulder, her brows knitted with worry. “Sapphire, how is she doing?”
She was slowly caressing the ridge of Ruby’s gem. “She’ll reform within the hour,” she said with a little waver. “A-a crushed ribcage isn’t the worst injury she’s ever sustained.” Then she looked up with a faint trace of darker blue on her cheeks peeking out from under her bangs. “Rose, I’m so sorry. We didn’t mean to unfuse, it was---”
Rose just shook her head. “You don’t need to explain. This attack took us all by surprise.”
Still squeezing her new fingers to chase away the tingling numbness, Pearl looked around at what was left of their impromptu barricade. Some were in her position, cradling relatively minor wounds and either trying to heal themselves or waiting for their turn with Rose; some were fingering their cracked gems and letting out weird squeals and bleats as they struggled to keep their physical forms from surging out in crackling, spooling blobs. Most were either crying or being consoled. A few were wailing. Even though a light rain was spitting down at them, the air stank of burnt earth and molten rock. She nervously sucked on her teeth. She’d seen a lot in her day, but this was... new. It felt like she could absorb the emotions of the grieving around her, and it clung in the back of her throat. For the first time, she was beginning to understand why humans created gods to pray to.
When Biggs blared the horn, most of the survivors snapped to attention, and the ones that didn’t were gently pulled along by their compatriots. Rose waited until they were all gathered close enough to hear, and lit her gem, which made the rest quickly dim theirs---the rule was that outside of the base, no more than one could be alight at a time, lest they give their position away. In the panic, most had forgotten.
“I don’t need to tell you that tonight was one of the worst attacks we’ve seen yet,” she began, her hands spread. Tears were still fresh on her cheeks. “We all need time to grieve, but we have to remember that the fallen would want us to keep going. To survive.”
She paused as a murmur of agreement ran through the crowd, broken only by a few sobs.
“We need to get back to base while we still have the cover of dark, but first...” She did a scan of the survivors. It was pretty bleak. “Anyone who has minor damage, come with me. If anyone has been cracked or chipped, report to Snowflake; she’ll escort you to the fountain. I’ll need five to ten volunteers to aid those who can’t walk.” When she placed her palm on Pearl’s shoulder, she stood a little straighter. “Pearl will record the... the deaths.” She squeezed, and Pearl nodded, recognizing Rose’s subtle way of asking for her consent.
Snowflake was standing rigidly, her hands clasped behind her back. “Rose?”
“What about her?” She tilted her head towards Bismuth. “Would you say she has ‘minor damage’, or... is it something worse?”
Rose gave her a once-over, her eyes lingering a bit on her gem. It was still solid, but something was clearly wrong with the rest of her: she was sitting in a strange position, like a marionette with half its strings cut; her head was lolled to one side, and while her arms loose and floppy her legs looked like each muscle fibre was coiled up as tight as it could go. Her normally-lively eyes were dull and unfocused, her lips moving wordlessly.
“Kcht.” The sound had come from somewhere deep in her throat. She slowly brought her hands up and stared at them as if she couldn’t figure out whether or not they belonged to her.
“Oh stars, she’s shaking.” Pearl put a hand to her chest. “Rose, she’s been wounded.”
“Not physically,” she said under her breath.
“Stars...” She put a hand to her face, and then raked her fingernails down, drawing globs of inky blood from her skin. They spilled over her knuckles, but Bismuth just stared into nothingness, gulping air in and out of her throat. “Hhhnh. No. No. No!”
Pearl took a step forward, but Rose quickly clapped a hand on her elbow. “No,” she said with a glint of danger in her voice. “Stay back, Pearl.”
“She needs help!” she protested. “Look at her! She’s---”
“Stay back.” The look on her face softened a bit, and Rose loosened her grip on Pearl’s arm. Gently kneading at her skin, she added in a voice so low it tickled against her ear: “She’s in shock. Let her recover.”
“That’s right. She’ll need some quiet before she’s on the mend.” Sapphire rose gracefully and tucked Ruby’s gem into the neckline of her bodice, giving it a loving pat. “In the meantime, we should get her somewhere warm and try to get her to drink a glass of water.”
“Well, I think you just volunteered yourself, Saf’,” Snowflake called over her shoulder, halfway through her head count. “Call me a coward if you want, but I ain’t gettin’ near her when she’s gibbering like that.”
Pearl reflexively reached out when Rose’s hand slipped from her arm, but she pulled back when she realized there were others who needed her more. For a moment, she watched her leader as she left, heading towards what was left of their battalion with arms outstretched and face glimmering; then she reluctantly turned back to Bismuth. It didn’t feel safe to take her eyes off her for too long.
The shock hadn’t left her yet---in fact, it seemed to be getting worse. Bismuth had her arms wrapped around herself, her fingers digging into her skin; she was flicking her head back and forth, and what had previously sounded like attempts at words were now just frightened grunts.
“Um, Sapphire? Should we get her to the fountain? She looks like she needs more than a drink and a blanket.”
“Give us a moment, Pearl.” Sapphire sat herself by Bismuth’s knee and folded her petticoats around her. Speaking in a soft, even tone, she repeated her name until the blacksmith finally regained some control over her neck, lifting her head.
“I know you’re scared,” Sapphire gentled. “You’re probably feeling very cold, too. Would you like us to make you a fire when we get back to the base?”
She shook her head. Even though it felt like she was eavesdropping on something intimate, Pearl couldn’t look away.
“It’s important to remember that you’re safe now,” she continued. “Try to ground yourself. Just take a deep breath, and tell me three things you can hear.”
Again, she shook her head, that horrible, helpless look marring her face.
“It’s alright, Bismuth. It’s going to be okay. Please just try and focus on what you can hear, okay? Can you tell me three things you can hear? Just three things.”
Her mouth moved slowly, stiffly, but she managed to find her voice. “I can... I can hear... crickets chirping,” she said, faltering at each word.
“Good, good. Two more things.”
She pressed her lips together. “Your voice.”
“One more thing.”
“I... something... something cracking,” she groaned, squeezing her eyes shut. “Banging.”
Sapphire exchanged a quick, worried glance with Pearl. “I... think that’s in your imagination,” she ventured when she turned back to Bismuth. “Can you tell me one more thing you can hear?”
“Good, good.” She interlaced her fingers. “Now put your hand out and tell me three things you can feel.”
“Pebbles,” she muttered as she dug her nails through the ground. Her other hand was on her knee. “My leg.”
Sapphire nodded, but didn’t try to meet her eye. It didn’t look like Bismuth could make eye contact, anyway. “You’re doing very well. Now, one more thing.”
Her face was contorting with raw grief. “I can’t feel anything else.”
“That’s fine. You did a good job.” Another gander at Pearl, and Sapphire decided to put her cool hand on Bismuth’s elbow. “I want you to know how deeply sorry I am for---”
She was instantly on her feet, towering above Sapphire with spittle flecking from her clenched teeth. “No! No, you do NOT get to be sorry!”
“Bismuth.” She held her hand up, palm open, presenting her gem; it was a sign of peace. “I understand that you’re---”
“You don’t understand a thing!” Sapphire barely had time to leap out of the way before one of Bismuth’s hand-hammers split the ground by her feet. “You still have Ruby!” she roared through her tangled dreadlocks, raising another hammer. “Don’t you pity me and don’t you DARE pretend to know what this is like!”
A sour laugh left her lips when Pearl’s spear flashed between them, but she did shift her hand back to normal. “And fuck you too, princess.”
They silently watched her stomp off, and it wasn’t until she’d disappeared around the corner of the cavern’s mouth that Pearl pulled her weapon from in front of Sapphire’s prone form. “Did... did you know she’d do that?”
“I knew it was a possibility.” She graciously accepted Pearl’s hand up, and smoothed the creases from the front of her skirt. “She wouldn’t have actually attacked me.”
She hummed through her teeth as she stared at the fissure Bismuth had left in the soil. “I find that a little hard to believe after that display.”
Sapphire placed her hand against Pearl’s arm until it stopped shaking. “No. Bismuth doesn’t have it in her to hurt anyone.” Then she lifted her fringe from her eye, looking up at the taller gem. “You want to go after her, don’t you?”
She thinned her lips. “I suppose there’s no point lying to you, is there?”
“I’ll record the deaths,” she said quietly. “If you’re going to go, you should slip out soon. She’s gone to the---”
“The forge. I know.”
She stepped off the warp pad with more trepidation than she’d expected; although she’d been here so many times before, the entire area made her slightly uncomfortable. She loved Earth, she truly did, but its bizarre powers still could set her nerves on edge. She’d been crafted on Homeworld, where everything was stiff and certain and solid; the bubbling pools in the craters around her served as reminders that the crust she was trusting to keep her from sinking into the planet’s molten core was as thin and brittle as she felt herself. This was Bismuth’s terrain, not hers.
Once in front of the forge proper, she trailed her fingers over the door, testing its warmth---the metal had been moved recently. She pulled her fingers into a slim fist and raised it to the door, but paused before knocking. Would it do any good? Between the thickness of the fortified walls and the constant growling of the volcano, would she even be heard? And if she was---would Bismuth want to see her?
The first question was soon answered when she heard a CLANG ringing out from inside, quickly followed by a splintering sound; if she had to guess, it was something---or several somethings---being pulverized. She jumped back when a second clang followed the first, twice as loud, with only a moment’s delay before a cacophony of banging and smashing thundered out hard enough to ripple the ground beneath her feet. She put her hand to her mouth and nervously picked at her lips. Whatever Bismuth was doing in there was rivaling the violence of the magma roiling through the mountain.
Pearl was just about to turn and scurry back to the warp pad when she heard---and felt---the cascading rumble of metal-on-metal that indicated the doors were opening. When Bismuth stepped out it was in a slow, pained shuffle, her head sagging and her massive shoulders slumped.
She jerked her head up and immediately flinched backwards into a defensive stance, which faded back into a slouch when her eyes landed on Pearl. “Oh. It’s just you.”
“Yes... just me,” she said with an awkward smile.
Bismuth’s gaze trailed off to the side, and she halfheartedly wiped her knuckles over the sludge of sweat and soot on her forehead. “Rose sent you to comfort me, huh,” she said, her voice sullen.
Pearl stiffened. “Rose doesn’t tell me what to do.” She managed a peek over Bismuth’s shoulder, and saw what was left of the forge just before the doors slammed shut. “Did you trash the place?!”
She opened her mouth as if to speak, but closed it again with a grunt.
“Bismuth, that’s going to take ages to fix, and that’s time we don’t have right now!”
She shifted and rubbed at her baggy eyes. “I don’t care. Go, Pearl. Just... just go away.”
She didn’t. When she strode closer, Bismuth huffed and tried to move aside, but Pearl reached over and grabbed at her elbow. “I know you’re upset, but this isn’t the time to throw tantrums! You---”
But Bismuth’s chest went cold when Pearl closed her eyes and, as if on instinct, turned her head to the side. Startled, she looked from her friend, and then up to her raised hand. Worry fluttered through her; when she’d yanked her arm out of Pearl’s grip, it must’ve looked like she was going to backhand her. And she’d just turned her head to take it. As smoothly and calmly as she could, Bismuth twisted her hands around, palms forward in a more peaceful gesture. Even centuries of being a renegade couldn’t fully undo basic pearl proclivities.
“It’s nothing that can’t be fixed in a night or two,” she said more soothingly, watching Pearl’s stance relax. “I just...” She started fumbling for words. “I... needed... I mean... it... I had to get it out of my system, I, and... better to take it out on the forge than on a gem, right?”
She instantly realized that was a mistake when she saw the tension crawl back into Pearl’s shoulders.
“I didn’t mean that. Not that way. I wouldn’t... ” She looked down at her palm, and was surprised to see a faint trickle of blood curling around her calluses. “I couldn’t.”
“I’m glad to hear that, Bismuth. Emmie wouldn’t have wanted that.”
The skin around her eyes crinkled as her face twisted up in agony; Pearl held a hand out, but it wasn’t enough to keep Bismuth from collapsing to her knees with an audible ‘pop’. “Oh stars, Pearl, don’t. Not now. Just, please, leave me alone.”
The fingertips grazing her shoulder moved up to touch her face, but she thought better of it. “I understand if you don’t want to talk, but... I don’t think you should be alone right now,” she said quietly.
“Why? What do you think I’m gonna do, huh?”
She decided it best not to answer that question directly. “I just want to be there for you, Bismuth. And we don’t have to discuss... what happened today. We don’t need to talk, or even look at each other, for that matter.” She withdrew her hand and rested it on top of the other. “It’s possible to be alone when you’re with someone; I of all gems know that.”
A curious look flitted across her face, but she didn’t push it. Teasing Pearl about servitude was one thing, but she knew better than to pry about what sort of horrors she’d gone through before her emancipation.
“If you really don’t want to be around anyone, then I’ll respect your wishes, but... why don’t we just sit for awhile, hm?” She delicately took a seat on an outcropping of rock, her legs crossed at the ankles. “Let’s just sit. Just long enough to clear your mind a bit.”
“And then what?”
“We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it. Now, please...” She pulled the soupy, pouty face she usually used on Rose when she was trying to get her way. “Will you sit down next to me? Please?”
For a moment it looked like she was about to protest, but apparently the magic of those big blue eyes worked on her, too. “Only for you, Pearl,” she said grudgingly.
She sat down and balanced am arm on her knee; her elbow was brushing against Pearl’s wrist, and as much as she wanted to seize Bismuth’s hands in hers, she kept still. She could sense rather than see Bismuth shivering despite the sweltering heat.
It would be best to let Bismuth make the first move---if she was willing to do so at all---so Pearl just sat, and she thought. She thought about Homeworld, but she kept far from that rusted-shut part of her mind that held the memories she didn’t want loose. She thought about her friend. Bismuth was an oddity among her kind; most of the craftsgems and blacksmiths spent the majority of their existence behind the scenes, only hearing about the outside world from snippets of conversations with the few gems who’d visit them in the bowels of buildings. She still sometimes ribbed Bismuth about the charmingly naive giddiness she’d shown when she first arrived on Earth, running from place to place and putting her hands all over each new thing she discovered. (The time she’d grabbed the beehive had been memorable, to say the least). It was hard to believe that was the same gem who was hunkering beside her with her lips set in a grim line, staring off into emptiness.
After a good ten minutes of nothing, Bismuth finally broke out of her stupor. She slowly opened and closed her fist until she could hold it steady. Then she reached into the small pocket on the underside of her apron and held her hand there for a moment, her knuckles shuffling the material as they moved; when she eventually withdrew her hand, she held it out so Pearl could see, and opened her sticky fingers.
“Oh stars,” she hissed, slapping a palm over her mouth. “Bismuth, put that away. I-I can’t look at that.”
“’Her’, Pearl.” She nudged her thumb through the shards. A few were darkening where they met the edges of her blood.
The sight of the shattered gem made that rusted trap in her brain burst open, spilling its memories out, tumbling over each other in horrid succession. “Please. You shouldn’t be carrying th---her around with you. It’s not... it’s not right.”
“I was gonna make a little box for her,” Bismuth mumbled down at her palm, as if she hadn’t heard. She was still brushing the shards with a shaky tenderness, like she was petting a wounded creature. “A place for her to rest. We could do what the humans do---put her in the ground. Give her a grave. Say some words, that sort of thing.”
She didn’t want to tell her that that didn’t seem right, either---putting broken gems back into the dirt from whence they came still seemed barbaric to her. But what could she say? Pearl crouched beside her, focusing on the side of Bismuth’s face so she didn’t have to look at the carnage cradled in her hand. “We all loved her, Bismuth...” She hesitated, and then cupped her fingers into her friend’s broad shoulder. “But I know what you had with her was something special.”
She nodded, her eyes wet. “...Yeah. I-I know.”
And, for the time being, that was all that needed to be said. They sat together in silence as the sooty magma foamed in the craters around them. Bismuth held her ground despite the lingering unsteadiness crawling in her flesh; Pearl shifted from squatting to kneeling, but kept her hand on her arm. Her skin eventually went from glacially cool back to warm.
Finally, Bismuth brought her free hand up to her face and pressed her fingertips against her eyelids. “Pearl,” she whispered, “Pearl, I don’t know what I’m gonna do.”
“I know. I understand.”
“Pearl... I’m... I’m...” Her voice was crackling, and ultimately broke: “I don’t know what the fuck I’m gonna do!”
Her face crumpled and her chest began heaving, fat tears gushing from her eyes and streaking through the grime on her cheeks. “Pearl, Pearl, I don’t know---I don’t know---”
Pearl could sense on some primeval level that it was time to reach out, to touch. She seized her in a tight hug and buried her face deep in those thick dreadlocks, furiously blinking at her stinging eyes. Each time she sniffed she pulled in the smell of Bismuth’s sweat, her tears, the raw minerals around the splintered shards, the ashen blood in her hands and on her biceps. It was the acrid stench of death left on a living being. All she could say, over and over again, was “Shh, shh, shh.” It didn’t matter. Her friend wasn’t even listening ---she was just babbling nonsense, broken pieces of words.
Pearl carefully moved her hands up to Bismuth’s face and swept the tears away, even though most of them just spilled over her thumb. With her other hand, she threaded her fingers through the multi-hued hair and massaged her scalp, which was so hot it felt like it was going to singe. Bismuth kept rubbing her wet eyes against her arms, her whole body shaking; they stayed like that for ages, just rocking back and forth, Pearl soothing and Bismuth sobbing.
“It should’ve been me,” she bawled into the crook of Pearl’s neck. “Stars, I should’ve---it should’ve---I should’ve been there for her---”
“No, no. You couldn’t have known. Even Garnet didn’t see it coming.”
“Y-you don’t understand. I froze. Pearl, I froze.” She pulled back and looked her straight in the eye with a piercing, fractured expression on her face. “I saw that bitch charging at her, and I froze. If I’d ran even two seconds sooner, I could’ve saved her!”
“I knew it. I just knew it. I wasn’t cut out for this. I couldn’t protect her---I can’t protect anybody.” She stuffed the shards back in her pocket and then ran both hands over her face, frantically rubbing up and down. “What am I doing? I’m not a soldier. I’m just a bismuth.”
Grateful that the shattered gem was finally out of her sight, Pearl bit at her lips and chose her words carefully: “Rose says we can be anything we choose to be.”
“But look at me!” She flung her arms up and down, helplessly gesturing at herself. “Look at how I’m reacting to this! Soldiers don’t do this!”
“Yes they do.” Pearl leaned back on her heels and placed her hands on her knees; despite their hug, it felt safest to give Bismuth a bit of breathing room, whether or not she physically needed it. “When soldiers start exhibiting what Homeworld considers ‘unusual symptoms’ despite having intact gems, they call it ’counterfeit corruption’. They used to think it was a sign of cowardice, but we’ve since started learning that it’s a normal reaction to trauma.”
“I...” She ran the back of her hand over her nose, snuffling. “Normal?”
“Yes. It’s perfectly normal. And you should just let it happen, Bismuth.” The next part was going to take some delicate wording. “You know why quartz soldiers tend to have such anger problems?”
“Because they’re all made with a bug up their butt?”
She decided to ignore that. “Because they’re taught to repress it. To repress everything. And to simultaneously believe that they deserve everything that happens to them. You can only push those feelings down for so long before they... erupt.” As if to underline that, the volcano belched out a lick of oily smoke. “What you’re going through is understandable, and not your fault, and by allowing it to happen, you’re letting yourself heal.”
Bismuth shook her head ruefully. “How do you always know the right thing to say?”
“Years of trial and error. Honestly, a lot more of the latter.”
She smeared the tears around her cheeks, and a sudden abashed expression crossed her face. “Pearl... please don’t tell anyone I broke down like that.” She turned a sweet, tear-streaked smile up to her. “Can you promise that to me?”
She simpered. “Everyone would understand, you know.”
“Pearl. I’m not asking you, I’m begging you. Don’t tell them, okay?” She hunched the side of her face into her shoulder in embarrassment. “Promise?”
“Of course.” It took a few placid strokes to her cheek to make Bismuth turn to face her, and when their eyes met, Pearl decided to risk a quick peck on the very tip of her nose, grinning when those dusty cheeks darkened in a blush. “I promise, Bismuth,” she said softly as she ran her spindly fingers over her friend’s knuckles. “Your secret’s safe with me.”
The grief on her face finally cracked, and Bismuth chuckled as she put a big, broad hand atop Pearl’s. “You’re one of the good ones, princess, you know that?”
She let her hand drift up higher, and squeezed her delicate wrist. Then she pulled away.
They stared at each other for a moment, before---it was so fast, so unexpected, that Pearl couldn’t properly react. Bismuth’s lips were on hers. One hand on her waist, one on her neck, her eyelashes grazing against her cheeks every time she blinked. Pearl gasped, and felt a smooth, hot slickness pass her lips. Since she didn’t eat, she couldn’t even remember the last time she’d tasted something; this was sweet and pungent, and it reminded her of chalk and smoky loam. It wasn’t until Bismuth traced her fingers down from Pearl’s collarbone to her ribcage that she realized what she was feeling in her mouth was... oh stars, it was her tongue. Bismuth’s tongue was in her mouth. Bismuth’s tongue was in her mouth!
With a startled cry, she slammed the heels of her hands on Bismuth’s shoulders and shoved her back. “Bismuth!” she shrieked, “What are you doing?!”