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Lars wasn’t the biggest fan of Homeworld.

He had to admit it was a lot different from when he first “visited” (i.e. was kidnapped) years ago. Currently he was being guided through the halls of the Diamonds’ palace by a large and friendly Citrine, a former soldier of Yellow Diamond’s who cheerfully told him all about how she was taking up a new career in hospitality as well as several hobbies.

Lars tried to listen, or at least to make comments like “wow” and “good for you” at appropriate moments. He briefly gripped the warp whistle in his pocket that Stevonnie had left him.

They had taken advantage of Connie’s winter break from school to go on a quick scouting mission of past Gem colonies. Stevonnie had urged Lars to give his report to the Diamonds in person because “socializing with humans was good for them.” He rolled his eyes, noting that Stevonnie was all too eager to get off Homeworld themself, before smiling fondly as he thought of them.

As Lars and Citrine walked along, Gems of all kinds paused to greet them and exchange pleasantries. Overall, there was a sense of peace and warmth from the Gems around him that felt a little out of place in the cold, gleaming palace. Not to mention a distinct lack of killer robonoids.

Still, Lars couldn’t forget that his friends had spent millennia here struggling and hidden, just because they were different. Nor could he forget that he himself had literally died on this planet while trying to protect them. He was glad things were changing for the better, but in general he was happy to keep his visits to a minimum.

The Citrine left him in what he recognized as a receiving chamber near the Diamonds’ throne room.

“Sorry for the delay,” she said politely. “May I get you a refreshment while you wait? I believe humans enjoy consuming… hydroxylic acid?”

“I’m fine, thanks,” Lars replied. He rarely got hungry or thirsty anymore, but he was feeling strangely tired. As soon as Citrine left, he slid down the wall until his butt hit the cold floor. He leaned back and sighed. Hopefully whatever the Diamonds were doing would be over soon so he could get the heck out of here.

“Hi Lars!” a cheerful voice called from the doorway. Lars turned to look and was surprised to see the pink Gem who had, just months earlier, destroyed Beach City. He hadn’t seen much of her during the incident itself, but she was very distinct looking for a Gem. The upside-down heart on her chest gleamed. She looked a little less… insane… than last time, he thought.

“Oh, um. Hey, you…” Lars replied awkwardly.

The Gem giggled, “It’s Spinel! Do you want to play a game?” She did a little dance before sticking her tongue out at him.

Lars took a breath so that the first words out of his mouth weren’t, what are you nuts???

“I’m supposed to be meeting with the Diamonds,” he said instead. “Briefly. Very briefly.”

Spinel sighed dramatically, her body appearing to melt to the floor. “Oh, I know you are,” she said. “Sadly, they are stuck in ‘suggestion time’ with their subjects. Now that the empire’s a bust and the Diamonds aren’t giving orders anymore, everyone has lots of suggestions.”

“That sounds like something Steven came up with,” Lars guessed.

Spinel snapped back upright, twirled around, and shot him with finger guns. “You know it!” she confirmed. “Anywaaaay, the Diamonds knew it might be a while so they sent me to entertain you!”

She grinned at him expectantly. “Oh,” was all Lars could think to say.

“Well?” Spinel asked, inching closer. “What game do you want to play? I know all kinds of games! Or we could sing, I know all of Steven’s friends love singing—“

She took a deep breath as if she might burst into song at any moment. Lars quickly held up his hands to stop her. “We don’t have to sing,” he said, “Or play a game. Honestly, I’d just like to sit here until the Diamonds are done with their thing.”

“You just want to… sit here?” Spinel repeated, mulling this over. Both her voice and body had lost some of their quirky pep. “Do you want me to sit with you?”

What Lars wanted was to be home on Earth, taking a hot shower. But as long as he was stuck here, he decided he wouldn’t mind the company. “Sure,” he said, patting the floor next to him. “If you want to.”

Spinel hesitated before gingerly stepping forward and situating herself on the floor a few feet away. She imitated the way Lars was sitting, legs sprawled out in front of her and arms crossed.

They sat in silence for a few minutes. Lars knew he should be reviewing his report to the Diamonds in his head, but all he could think about was getting home and making plans with Sadie and the Off-Colors. Or maybe he and Stevonnie could hang out in a non-life-threatening-space-mission situation. He glanced over at Spinel who was frowning in thought. She appeared much more subdued than before.

“Are you okay?” he asked her.

She looked briefly surprised before frowning again and admitting, “I don’t think I’m a very good friend.”

“You mean because you almost destroyed the Earth?” Lars asked helpfully.

Spinel’s cheeks flushed a deeper pink. “I mean to the Diamonds,” she said.

“Oh,” Lars said. He thought the Diamonds were lucky to have any friends at all after all they had done.

Spinel sighed and stared up at the ceiling as she went on. “I know I’m supposed to laugh, and play, and sing, all the things that friends do together. The Diamonds spent so long being sad, I just want them to be happy now. But it’s hard because I’m not happy, and sometimes when I pretend, it just makes me feel even worse.”

She put her face in her hands. “If I’m not a better friend, they won’t love me anymore.”

Lars finally stopped thinking about home, and his friends, and showering, as he gave the Gem a considering look. She hadn’t said it in so many words, but he realized that she was afraid—she was terrified. And he remembered that fear, the tightness in his chest back when his heart could beat faster than twenty beats per minute.

The fear of doing the wrong thing. Of not being liked. Of being rejected. It had consumed him.

He scooted closer and put a tentative hand on Spinel’s shoulder.

“Can I tell you something I learned the hard way?” he asked.

Spinel glanced at him through her fingers and nodded.

“To be a good friend, you don’t have to pretend to be something you’re not. The best way to be a friend is to be yourself, whoever that is. Sometimes, that means showing parts of yourself that you’re afraid to show.”

Now Spinel looked at him with frank surprise. “There’s so much I’m afraid to show them,” she said quietly.

“Why don’t you try telling the Diamonds how you feel?” Lars suggested. “I don’t know them that well, but it seems like they’ve been pretty open to change lately. They might surprise you.”

Tears sparkled in Spinel’s eyes. “What if they reject me?” she asked.

“Well then you’d fit right in with me and my friends,” he said, smiling. “We’re all rejects. Together.”

-

“Pssst, Lars!”

Lars shot awake. He took a moment to appreciate that he was in his own bed back on Earth. He felt less appreciative when he looked at his phone and saw it was just past three in the morning.

“Laaaaarrrrsssss!”

“Steven, you don’t have to whisper, I’m already awake,” Lars grumbled. “And what did we talk about texting instead of using my head every time you need to contact me?”

Steven, whose face was poking out of Lars’s hair, laughed sheepishly.

“Sorry,” he said, “But it’s important! Come to the beach house, you have a call from Homeworld.”

“What—?” Lars started to ask, but Steven was already gone.

He sighed, hoisted himself out of bed, and started digging around in the dark for a pair of jeans. What could the Diamonds possibly want with him? The mission report he’d given them yesterday was pretty pessimistic—no organic life detected on any of the colonies he and Stevonnie had scoped out, and no response to healing saliva either—but they were already planning further missions. It almost seemed like they actually cared about somehow fixing all the damage they had caused. Maybe they really were trying to change.

Lars yawned as he shuffled up the steps to the crystal dome behind the beach house twenty minutes later. He could hear Steven talking to someone inside, and was surprised to see it wasn’t any of the Diamonds on the communicator’s screen, but Spinel.

“Lars!” she cried as she saw him. “Lars! Lars! I just had to tell you!”

Lars felt a brief moment of anxiety. Had she taken his advice? Had it gone okay? Then he noticed Steven’s ceaseless grin and relaxed.

Spinel launched excitedly into her story—how she had talked to the Diamonds about her fears and it went well. Really well! In fact, everyone was miserable, and they had spent hours crying together.

“Oh, Spinel, that’s—“ Lars began, unsure if he should apologize.

“It was amaaaazing!” Spinel gushed. “I haven’t felt this good in 6,000 years!! Thank you, Lars, for being a good friend.”

Lars felt his cheeks flush slightly pinker as Steven elbowed him. “Larrrs,” Steven said, still grinning, “You’re a good friend!”

“Yeah, yeah…” Lars said, and he smiled too, “I try to be.”