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Odds, Ends & Friends

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"You sure they're just sleepin' in, Lap? I'll admit I'm not really used to seeing this… it really wasn't ever a thing back in Rose's day."

 

Lapis calmly offered a knowing smirk to her companion before resuming their mutual observation of an unusual sight they happened upon during a casual walk along the beach.

 

Steven and Peridot. Both unconscious but resting peacefully in a way that suggested they were in no way attacked by anyone last night. Granted, Peridot's face was planted firmly into the sand (not needing to breathe gave her body no reason to adjust her head for air), but she was otherwise fully embraced by her snoozing boyfriend. Both were fully clothed, and there was no evidence otherwise that suggested the pair engaged in anything inappropriate.

 

Still, given where the two slept, it was at least somewhat a cause of concern; there was no reason for someone like Steven to be sleeping in a location like this. No doubt he would wake up deeply regretting it, as the menacing sand was caked over his elbows, mixed in with his curly locks, and there was no telling how many granules snuck their way underneath his shirt and pants.

 

"Well, Steven's still breathing, and he doesn't look bothered at all," Lapis noted. "We'll see how long he stays that way when he wakes up. And Peridots by nature are a lot tougher than they look; the fact that Peri's form is totally stable should mean she's fine. Though she never was much of a sleeper before…"

 

"We've all given her plenty to be exhausted about, I guess," an uneasy Bismuth admitted. "You sure we shouldn't let someone else know about this?"

 

Lapis shook her head. "Bismuth, I'd say "be my guest", but I like you too much to let you be a victim of Pearl shooting the messenger. She's the last one who should ever know about this."

 

Bismuth let out a hearty chuckle at that sentiment. "Well, thank you kindly for sparing me the pain! Pearl's definitely not mellowed out with age; Rose was the only one who ever really kept her in line in the past. Much as I love her, I gotta admit she'd get pretty overbearing at times. And she had a history of overreacting to every little thing… I could see her screechin' up a storm if she saw Steven right now."

 

Lapis nodded in agreement. "I don't know her as well as you, but I've been around her long enough to get a feel for her quirks. I really don't think this is something we should be bothering Garnet about, either. Though I haven't seen her at all since last night when she pulled in Sphalerite and 5XF for some kind of private meeting…"

 

"Oh, Garnet's actually "out" right now," Bismuth informed her companion. "At least, she was as of a few hours ago."

 

The ocean gem tilted her head at the blacksmith. "She's "out"? Out for what?"

 

"She split," Bismuth explained. "Ruby and Sapphire have been tourin' 5XF around, lettin' her get used to her new home. They both showed her my forge while I was workin' there earlier. We had a bit of a chat, but it's still tricky gettin' that new tech gem to open up much."

 

"I guess there's a reason why Garnet felt the need to split up to do that," Lapis mused; these elements weren't really adding up in her head, but she was not yet familiar enough with 5XF to know of certain details that would clear up her curiosities in an instant. "It's good our new guest is getting accustomed to her new environment, at least. In some ways, I still feel like the odd one out here, so I can't really blame 5XF for wanting to keep to herself…"

 

Bismuth smiled warmly to her fellow gem, giving her a pat on the shoulder. "I'm sure that feeling will pass mighty quick once you're dealin' with a crowd of gems who still don't know what all's happened in the past couple of weeks and how that'll affect their lives from here on out, just like the rest of us. As much as I'm sure me feelin' like I'm in the wrong time period is gonna feel like a little gripe when the time comes."

 

Lapis let out a chuckle, blushing lightly at the gesture. "I guess I never really thanked you for sticking by me whenever I wasn't out circumnavigating the planet. You've really made this adjustment period a lot easier for me, Bismuth."

 

"Our Top Tiny probably doesn't realize how much good she did forcin' us to clear that tension between us," Bismuth noted with amusement as her focus returned to the sleeping youths tangled in the sand. "You ever stop to think about how big a leap we've made from where we were a couple of weeks back, Lapis?"

 

"I know we've made a lot of progress, but I guess it's easy to overlook just how much we've grown," Lapis admitted. "You were just being let out of your bubble after you tried to kill Steven a while back, right?"

 

Bismuth solemnly nodded in affirmation.

 

"And I was coming back to help fight after I had basically left Steven for dead," the shorter gem recounted; visibly uncomfortable acknowledging this detail. "Along with everyone else on Earth, really. We were both in position to make up for the awful things we did…"

 

"Between that and being stuck in stasis for thousands of years, I suspect that's why we gelled so nicely," Bismuth told her. "We're both still trying to find our footing, even after all that. But the moment I was able to get you to keep Malachite in the past where she belongs so we could make Moonstone a reality… y'know, Lapis, that's when I really felt this is where I'm supposed to be."

 

Lapis was compelled to look up to Bismuth directly; visibly moved by her comrade's words.

 

"That's right; I still had doubts whether or not this current version of the Crystal Gems truly needed a Bismuth element to their cause and their family," the blacksmith readily admitted. "When Steven first let me out, I was not ready to accept how much the Crystal Gems had changed. So many dear friends of mine are gone – and that much hasn't changed since I was given this second chance to adapt."

 

"And they'll stay gone until we're able to find a cure," Lapis sadly acknowledged. "You know, as much as I don't like thinking about my old Homeworld life these days, I guess it didn't hit me until recently that there were some gems I was hoping to see again when I first went back to Homeworld. But I never got the chance to even look them up before I was locked away for treason, even though I never committed such acts…"

 

Bismuth couldn't help but look hurt as she realized another similarity in their lives. "By now, there's a good chance most of those gems you were lookin' to reconnect with are pallified…"

 

"Yeah… they're no better off than your friends." The look in Lapis' eyes told her companion that it wasn't the first time this had crossed the terraformer's mind.

 

"All the more reason we should be there for Pearl when we can afford the time," Bismuth adamantly stated. "She's the one everyone's expecting will cure everyone in the end. But that's way easier said than done."

 

Lapis was surprised to actually feel the weight of Pearl's burden in that moment.

 

"The odds of finding a cure that'll deal with corruption and pallification are so low," she realized. "So realistically, she's got two cures to spend her days and nights looking for. I can't imagine how much pressure she's under right now…"

 

"Well, it's something she's used to." Bismuth smiled to Lapis, hoping to ease her concerns. "She was Rose's right-hand gem; the Pearl I know always worked well under pressure."

 

Lapis looked to Bismuth with a hint of skepticism both in her expression and tone. "Works well under pressure, huh? Pearl? Could've fooled me. Your nostalgia might be clouding your judgment…"

 

It seemed Lapis unexpectedly hit something of a sore spot; Bismuth visibly flinched from that statement. It was rare to see a seasoned veteran like her show any kind of vulnerability.

 

"–Guess that's a fair point," an uneased Bismuth conceded. "It's kinda ignorant of me to keep seeing my friends as the gems I knew five-thousand years ago; they've had to live through and endure these losses and hardships I've just recently come across. That alone can harden a gem in many ways over time… and there's no doubt losing Rose and raising Steven forced them all to change in order to adapt."

 

"I could barely comprehend anything that changed once I was out of that mirror," Lapis sympathized. "When I first returned to Homeworld… it scared me. At first, I thought maybe I landed on some weird colony by mistake. But it looked nothing like the Homeworld I knew; it was still just as foreign on a second and third visit. And I don't know if it's because I got to know Steven before going back that first time, but… what little I've seen of the Homeworld gems every time I went back to that planet, they just seemed so… cold. More ruthless than I generally remember them being."

 

Bismuth thoughtfully eyed Lapis for a moment before responding. "Maybe it wasn't that they changed… it's more likely meeting someone like Steven opened your eyes to the truth. Maybe your own nostalgia of the Homeworld you knew made you blind to just how awful that society really was. You Lapis Lazulis rank pretty high in the caste, as I recall."

 

It was almost disturbing how much Lapis and Bismuth had in common; the former didn't consider that she too was a victim of her own misguided nostalgic feelings of the world she knew… or rather, the world she thought she knew, before a certain hybrid came into her life.

 

5XF had also quickly pegged Lapis as a high-ranking member of Blue Diamond's court just by appearance alone. The ocean gem couldn't deny the higher-end lifestyle she once had very likely did play a large role in her perception of Homeworld and life itself.

 

"Y-yeah; we were right on the cusp between worker gems and the nobility," Lapis admitted, unable to hide her shaken appearance. "And it was fairly easy for us to be recognized as gems of higher influence. 5XF talked to me about this a few days ago, actually…"

 

"Oh, right! I think you mentioned you had a nice conversation with her a few days back on one of those communication doohickeys," Bismuth realized. "Usually I pride myself on being able to get along with any gem, but I think she's a little scared of me. But you…? Heh, I guess you got a way with Peridots, Lap."

 

It was a bit relieving for the topic to shift into something much less daunting; Lapis really wasn't ready to delve into the details of her distant past at this point. However, 5XF coming to mind compelled Lapis to shift her focus back to the sleeping Peridot.

 

"5XF is a lot easier to talk to than Peri, actually," Lapis revealed. "She was very formal and sophisticated. No egotistical posturing; she was all business. I think she'll come around with you soon enough, Bismuth, but I advise not to approach her like you would with the Peridot we know."

 

"Thanks for the heads-up," Bismuth graciously expressed. "I should've figured she wasn't gonna be just like our Peri."

 

She offered a glance to Lapis, showing a rare instance of uncertainty. "We're gonna have to rewire our minds entirely to make this Era 3 program work, huh? S'gonna be tricky if we stay stuck in the past like this. Maybe we should use these extra days of downtime to make peace with that part of ourselves. I wanted to take care of that weeks ago, but there just wasn't enough time to set aside for that… between, y'know…"

 

Lapis nodded in understanding. "That wedding I didn't attend, the Diamonds invading Earth, you having to watch over me and Peri until we reformed while everyone else went to Homeworld, then finding out our friends were in trouble on Homeworld and needed our help, all the work we did to plan our mission and carry it out… then we lost…"

 

She tried to hold back her choked-up feelings; despite not being conscious for those dire moments, being forced to abandon Peridot on Homeworld for that mission would never fail to hurt in ways Lapis rarely felt otherwise. For a gem very acquainted with enduring pain of many varieties, it was quite telling just how deep this internal scar truly was.

 

"I wanna say I'd have gladly taken Peri's place back then," a saddened Bismuth stated. "But I bet every single one of us feels the same way… and I'm sure that's exactly why Peri kept what she knew ahead of time to herself. You're not the only one who thought things might've played out differently, and for the better if only you did more, Lap."

 

"But you didn't get poofed," Lapis pointed out. "You're also way more experienced than me, Bismuth. I can't think of a single way you even screwed up that entire mission."

 

Bismuth shook her head. "No one's perfect, Lapis. You know that. There's a part of me to this day that believes if I had kept taking charge of the mission even after Peri came back from healing her damages, this all could've ended without anyone getting left behind. But then I remember that Pearl I had to kill on the bridge… Steven's never gonna look at me the same way again, you know? Even though he knows as well as I do that I had to take her out."

 

Lapis was compelled to offer her own support in the form of a pat on the back.

 

"We all would have been either shattered or made into pallid slaves if you didn't do that, Bismuth. If we took the time to incapacitate her non-lethally, there's a good chance White would have spotted us trying to escape. Or Yellow might have taken initiative to stop us if we lingered in the area that long. And you know that if we didn't permanently dispatch that Pearl, she would have regenerated and gone right after us. We wouldn't have had the time to heal Garnet, Pearl, and Amethyst or plan our escape route. Even if we made it to the terminal, I don't think we would have been able to handle numbers like that with just the five of us; especially since Connie was unarmed."

 

Bismuth greatly appreciated Lapis' support, though she was still troubled and filled with doubt.

 

"I just wonder if more gems would have ended up shattered under my command," the blacksmith mused. "I stand by what I did with White's Pearl, but I don't think Steven will ever really forgive me for it. I feel like there'd be a lot more gem dust on my hands if I was the one heading the mission. Don't know how, but… call it a feeling. If that did happen, I… wouldn't be surprised if Steven poofed me and put me back in a bubble for good this time."

 

It was very unusual to hear Bismuth talk like this. Lapis wasn't used to hearing her friend so lacking in confidence and self-esteem. This bright, buff gem was always a living hype machine until now, seemingly able to pump up anyone who was feeling down. But when the pillar of positivity and stability herself was compromised, Lapis knew she needed to do something to mend this. However long Bismuth was holding in these destructive thoughts, it was high time she be relieved of their burden.

 

And it seemed absurd that the gem prone to pessimism and low esteem for everyone (including herself) could do anything to rectify this.

 

But despite that, Lapis wanted to try.

 

"Bismuth… I think you need to talk this out with Steven when he wakes up," she proposed. "After everything that happened, I think he at least understands that his own pacifistic beliefs can put us all in danger. His mercy to White Diamond in the end literally almost killed all of us, remember?"

 

"If Peri hadn't thrown that attack right back at White when she did…" Bismuth knew what Lapis was referring to. "I guess you're right. I want to think Steven knows I didn't off White's Pearl for fun or anything, but… I can see him still thinking I was just bein' sloppy; that I didn't try hard enough to spare her life. Y'know, I hate to admit it, but… this was one of the biggest reasons why I voted for Peri to lead us."

 

"I guess I would've known this already if I had just gotten over myself sooner," Lapis lamented. "I did kind of wonder why you just let Peridot do her own thing even though you've got more experience in this kind of thing than both of us combined."

 

To that, Bismuth managed a smile.

 

"Well, I was always more of a field commander than a proper team leader," she admitted. "And that's not the kind of mindset you want for a leader when our mission was to rescue our friends and leave as quietly as we could. I was never much for stealth, y'know. Between that, Peri knowing Homeworld way better than either of us, me worrying about falling into my old habits, and… well… like you said before, my nostalgia of how I perceived my teammates could cloud my judgment mighty easily… and havin' that happen in foreign territory? Sounds like a recipe for disaster if you ask me. I'd only been in one battle alongside today's Crystal Gems at the time."

 

Lapis carefully considered Bismuth's words before responding. "When you say nostalgia… Bismuth, where are you struggling the most? What change to the Crystal Gems is the hardest part for you to adapt to? Because I'm starting to suspect…"

 

Bismuth bowed her head. "I'm still talkin' about Steven the way I'd talk about Rose. The negative responses I'm picturing in my head… they're ones I'm imagining from her; not her son."

 

"I figured as much." Lapis had a hard time believing Steven would really be this hard on her. "All the more reason why you need to talk this out with him."

 

Her eyes were on Steven at that moment, but once again they shifted to the tiny green gem in his arms.

 

"If it makes you feel better, Peridot and I are due for a talk I'm not looking forward to having," Lapis confessed. "I never properly apologized to her for ditching everybody and stealing her home away, and… I finally figured out why Peridot treated me differently from the others. Apparently, she's realized it, too."

 

Bismuth looked to her fellow gem inquisitively. "Treated you differently? You mean you two didn't sass each other all the time?"

 

"That only started up after I came back…" Lapis cringed as the guilt began to settle in. "Before then, she… did whatever she thought would make me happy. Over time, Peridot was going out of her way to filter her stupid thoughts so that she only said what she assumed I wanted to hear. Her wants were secondary to mine, and I… I actually took advantage of her when I first realized I could apparently do no wrong in her eyes, no matter how much I treated her like crap."

 

Bismuth was clearly not happy to hear this, but she tempered herself. "I'm gonna assume you understand that was a terrible thing to do and you're gonna drop that bad habit from here on out."

 

Lapis quickly nodded to that.

 

"Good. So tell me, how do you want Peri to treat you?"

 

"Like she would anyone else!" Lapis blurted out, having to bite back the emotional turmoil that threatened to spill out. "Which so far, she's been doing… so it's important it stays that way even after Peri and I have this talk. I'd… say more, but it was hard enough just outlining the discussion with 5XF…"

 

Bismuth could tell whatever it was her fellow teammates were due to talk about, it was something heavy.

 

"You don't have to tell me anything more than that, then," she assured Lapis. "I could always tell there was a lot of history between you two. I got the rundown of how Peri came to be one of us before you came back. You were mentioned a few times, but Peri herself was pretty quick to gloss over the specifics."

 

Relieved, Lapis smiled a bit more confidently. "Once we sort the drama out, I'll tell you the whole story. I… kind of would like to just spill it already; there's just something about you that makes me want to open up a little more, Bismuth."

 

"Well, my biggest asset as a Crystal Gem outside the battlefield has always been to be that shoulder an ally can lean on," Bismuth warmly explained. "Something kinda like what Greg was doing for us during that six-day gap between our Homeworld missions. Of course, I wouldn't be very good at that job if I was prone to breakin' down myself, so it's anyone's guess why I tripped up and got that way around you, Lapis. Sorry 'bout that."

 

To that, Lapis shook her head. "No gem is infallible, I think we've come to learn. Even the Diamonds had some pretty clear-cut limitations, as we've recently seen. No one's without at least one weakness… and I bet a gem like you pretty much has to internalize most of your issues to be everyone else's problem-solver. So, don't even apologize for that – it kinda felt… good to help you out for a change."

 

Bismuth gave her fellow gem a coy glance. "I remember you tellin' me how you were gonna learn how to be a good friend to make up for your own mistakes – I'd say doin' what you just did… that's what a good friend does."

 

"–I'm gonna wait to see how my talk with Peridot pans out before I can honestly say I'm even a halfway-decent friend," a flushed Lapis stammered. "I should probably… rehearse a bit before diving into that hot mess. I probably shouldn't spring this on her the moment she wakes up, either…"

 

"I'd like to get the air cleared with Steven as soon as I can," Bismuth said. "But I guess I'd best ask if he'd rather wait on that… stars only knows what these two rascals got into last night that got them like this."

 

This whole time, Steven and Peridot slept through Lapis' and Bismuth's entire conversation. It probably helped that neither were being particularly loud (Lapis even made the effort to tone down her few outbursts), but it was still peculiar and just slightly suspect how they could have ended up like this. Still, both were resting so peacefully, neither of their fellow gems could bring themselves to disturb them.

 

"Actually, I'll level with you on something," Bismuth quietly uttered to Lapis. "I asked Ruby and Sapphire about Sphalerite last night when they visited. That was when 5XF got this look like she'd just been punched in the gut – and Sapphire just told me she defused… and that it might be a while before we see her again. Ruby of all gems told me to watch my mouth from here on out; I'm getting the impression that Garnet's conversation with Sphalerite and 5XF didn't go over too well."

 

"And that might have something to do with why Steven and Peridot are like this right now," Lapis understood. "I was wondering why we never got to welcome either of them back last night. M-maybe this isn't a good time to confront either of them…"

 

Bismuth let out a tired sigh. "No time's really gonna be a good time to throw loaded questions at them, Lapis. I agree we oughta give 'em some space when they wake up, but we should let them decide when they're ready to take us on face-to-face. Sooner we blow past this, the sooner we can focus on this Gypsum problem."

 

"Right… Gypsum." Lapis had almost entirely forgotten the reason why Era 3 had gotten delayed again. "We haven't even heard Steven or Peridot's side of the story on her yet. Between her, Sphalerite being a thing now, and none of us being able to even talk to Steven or Peridot since Thursday, I'm getting the impression that maybe their vacation hasn't been as relaxing as 5XF led me to believe."

 

"That would explain why Sapphire and Ruby told me that we're gonna take it easy these next few days," Bismuth realized. "We're still gonna be productive, but it feels like the vacation just got a bit of an extension. Speaking of… we're just about done with that side-project of ours, aren't we?"

 

Lapis held back a giggle. "Well, I guess it sort of ended up being more of Moonstone's project at this point, but… yeah, with a little more polish, it could be done within a day or two."

 

"I was thinkin' we should let our tiny teammates see it after we talk things out," Bismuth suggested. "Even if it isn't all-the-way finished by then, I think they'd both appreciate it. It kinda fits the theme of what we're aimin' to accomplish with them, if you think about it."

 

"That's a great idea," Lapis commended as she wiped away a sudden tear from the corner of her eye. "I really couldn't have done it without you, Bismuth. And I guess you're right; we've been pretty fixated on the past in a lot of different ways… but seeing something that'll honor the past ought to cheer them up. It's definitely helped me make peace with some of my recent hang-ups. Maybe even for the refugees…"

 

"Yeah, it's definitely gonna be a comfort for those poor souls," Bismuth agreed. "All the more reason to get Moonstone to add the finishing touches tonight. Sounds like we've got our schedule for today all set up, Lap!"

 

"Does that mean you two are done yammering about past crap? You're standing around talking and compromising perfectly good blackmail material, I hope you know."

 

Both Bismuth and Lapis nearly jumped at the sound of a new (but thankfully familiar) voice entering the conversation.

 

Almost as if she had appeared out of nowhere, Amethyst stood before them on the opposite end of the sleeping couple in the sand.

 

Said couple seemed to be drawing the quartz's interest, as she had her phone out and was carefully aiming it in their direction while adjusting her hold on the smart device.

 

"I'd ask how long you've been here eavesdropping, but I'm not so sure I really wanna know," a very uneased Lapis uttered.

 

"And what's this about "blackmail"?" Bismuth inquired; eyes narrowed.

 

"C'moooon, I know you guys are more fun than you're letting on," Amethyst teased before a flash emitted from her phone. "There we go! Perfect shot."

 

Indeed, Amethyst made sure to take a potentially incriminating photo of Steven and Peridot asleep together in the sand. The flash didn't even make them stir.

 

"Eeesh; totally didn't take Peri to be a heavy sleeper," Amethyst muttered. "You two just found 'em like this, huh?"

 

"Yep; they've barely moved an inch since we found 'em like this," Bismuth affirmed. "So what did you just do there, Amethyst?"

 

"I think I see what her angle is," a smug Lapis mused. "Getting a picture like that will totally embarrass them, so you can hang that over their heads for favors, right?"

 

"I see P-Dot has taught you well in the art of sabotage," Amethyst commended, looking gleeful at the quality shot she got from her snoozing friends. "Well, that and I just wanted to add something to my Squad collection. It's been a while."

 

Lapis chuckled at the observation. "Camp Pining Hearts alone abuses the crap out of that narrative gimmick; Paulette can be a real piece of work in some episodes."

 

Bismuth still didn't like the sound of this… "This is really something y'all do for fun?"

 

"Trust me: Peridot's got her own evil little stash of blackmail material she's not above using," Amethyst slyly assured. "Besides, if either of these dorks start having doubts about their relationship or whatever, I'll just throw this in their faces as proof of how cute they are together. It's a guaranteed motivator."

 

"Well, you got your picture; shouldn't we wake them up soon?" Lapis asked, looking a little worried. "I mean, I wouldn't know for sure, but isn't this something that would make Pearl blow her top?"

 

It didn't take long for Amethyst to think that over. "… Yeah, probably. And not in a fun way. I was actually gonna borrow Peri for the morning. I got the news that we're taking a few extra days to prepare for the Gypsum stuff, and… I'm getting a feeling that maybe the kiddos need a vacation from their vacation, too."

 

"Oh, you needed Peridot now?" Lapis looked a bit relieved to hear this, but was also curious about what the young quartz had in store for her former roommate.

 

"During that day while we were sorting out all the bubbles, we talked about stuff to pass the time," Amethyst explained. "When I asked about how she found out when her birthday is on Earth, she offered to approximate mine whenever we had the chance to visit the Prime Kindergarten since my hole's still intact. Peri said that was all she needed to get an accurate read, and since we're on Earth, she wouldn't have to mess with all that kooky math conversion between Homeworld and Earth time."

 

"Huh… not sure what a "birthday" is all about, but it's mighty generous of Peri to offer that," Bismuth remarked. "It might help to get her in a good mood at the start of the day…"

 

Lapis sighed. "Yeah… I haven't stopped to think that maybe something else is wrong with Peridot… and Steven, too. We shouldn't drag them into these heavy discussions we're planning right off the bat."

 

Amethyst raised her hand and waved it to get her fellow gems' attention. "Ooh, I got an idea! Bismuth, since Steven's back now, he can show you around Beach City all proper-like! Have him take you to Funland or something; that'll cheer him up and you'll get some guaranteed entertainment outta the deal. At least you won't be too short for any of the rides, heh."

 

Bismuth didn't get what Amethyst was referring to, but she did find something very enticing about this idea. "I like the way you think, Amethyst! I have been overdue for a formal tour of the Crystal Gems' present-day world beyond our home. I'm still waiting to see just how much Earth's advanced in the past few thousand years!"

 

"Then Funland's a great place to start," Amethyst assured. "Laps, you sure you're fine with all this?"

 

"O-oh, trust me! You're really doing me a favor," Lapis nervously assured. "Besides, I'm sure if Peridot was awake right now, she'd be screaming at me to branch out and make more friends. I've got plenty of options…"

 

"Should we wake them up now?" Bismuth wondered. "They're still so peaceful. And I kinda hoped our talking would've stirred them by now…"

 

"Like I said, we don't need Pearl seeing this," Amethyst reminded the blacksmith before shooting an unimpressed glance to Lapis. "Seriously, Laps? You haven't even tried throwing water on them yet? You, of all gems?"

 

Lapis couldn't help but blush deeply when Amethyst pointed out this obvious oversight.

 

"Wow, maybe I do need an extra day to unwind," she admitted with nervous laughter. "Can't believe I didn't even think of that… h-heh, hold on…"

 

The terraformer easily conjured a controlled medium-sized pillar of water from the ocean right behind her and contorted its figure until it hung right over the sleeping couple.

 

"But if they get pissed over this, I'm telling them this was your idea," Lapis smugly shot back before letting the mass of water splash down over the unsuspecting targets below.

 

"BLECHK!"

 

"Gggghaaaah! What the–?!"

 

"Rise n' shine, babies of the bunch!" Amethyst joyously hollered at the soaked and distraught pair. "If you're quick about it, we won't ask what you've been doing in that sand pit all night!"

 

"S-sand pit…?"

 

Peridot was too busy spitting out sand and trying in vain to rub her face clean to pay mind to her friend's words, but Steven was very quick to take notice to his surroundings. He looked extremely confused.

 

"Whoa, whoa! H-how the heck did we end up here?!" Steven wailed immediately. "W-weren't we on the roof?!"

 

Lapis' eyebrow raised up in bewilderment. "Zero answers, but more questions already… this is off to a fantastic start."

 

"The heck were either of you doin' on the roof for?" an equally confused Bismuth asked. A quick glance towards the beach house's roof compelled the blacksmith to press further. "I don't remember that roof ever havin' some piece of cloth over it."

 

Amethyst followed Bismuth's gaze – unlike her companions, she didn't look the least bit confused. On the contrary, the quartz's expressions implied the polar opposite.

 

"Aha, looks like you two came prepared for your second roof date, huh?" Amethyst teased the hybrid. "I remember that last time left you with one heck of a stiff back, my not-so-little man!"

 

Peridot was still preoccupied trying to clean her face (a bit difficult to do when her hands were covered in bits of sand as well; by this point she was forced to remove her shades and struggled to open her sand-crusted eyes), leaving Steven to wallow in embarrassment as he struggled to process this very uncomfortable situation he found himself in immediately after waking up.

 

Between the merciless teasing from Amethyst and the confused suspicion from Lapis and Bismuth… as well as his own confusion on how and why he and Peridot ended up here of all places when he last recalled being securely on the roof, Steven was quickly getting overwhelmed.

 

"This ain't the first time they've been up there?" a perplexed Bismuth asked Amethyst.

 

"That's just weird," Lapis remarked. "Even for Peri standards."

 

At least Amethyst took the time to pay attention to Steven long enough to notice their collective interrogation was having an adverse effect on the boy. She made the effort to dial back her urge to tease the couple and hoped her friends would follow her example without having to ask them directly.

 

"Well, it makes sense that neither of you get it," Amethyst casually assured. "First time it happened, it was like literally a day or so before you were brought back, Biz. Meaning you were still out being a space drifter, Laps."

 

Amethyst briefly shot the terraformer a stern look.

 

"You're actually the reason they were up there the first time," she revealed. "Lil' Peri-D found out you'd been on the moon practicing your voyeur-fu, so she was up on the roof hopin' you'd see her giving you the stinkface."

 

Just like that, Lapis' composure fell to pieces, feeling a crushing guilt when Amethyst concluded her explanation.

 

"And like a good boyfriend, Steven joined her for the night and helped Peri get through all that. We found 'em both snoozin' on the roof the next morning."

 

"W-we weren't even dating back then!" a flustered Steven countered. "I-I mean, I was starting to get an idea that night that maybe there was something more between us, but the important thing was helping Peridot resist–"

 

"Unless you have a desire to consume multiple servings of sand for breakfast, you will speak no more of that night in public. Are we understood, Steven?"

 

While far from clean, Peridot had recovered enough to register what was happening around her and was quick to silence her boyfriend before he completely spilled the story of one of her most vulnerable moments to their peers.

 

"Oh… right." Steven blushed as he quickly felt terrible for saying as much as he did. No matter how groggy he was from just waking up and finding himself in a very confusing situation, he couldn't excuse himself for being so careless with his words. "I-I'm sorry, Peri…"

 

"D-don't give me that look; I'm not that mad!" Peridot herself was flustered that she inadvertently made Steven feel much more terrible about his mistake than she intended. "We… have other, far more valid reasons to be upset right now, you realize."

 

Unfortunately, that didn't exactly ease Steven's concerns.

 

"I take it that means you don't know why you two ended up like this either, Peri?" a worried Bismuth inquired. "I would think one of you would have some kinda idea how you got from the roof of the house allllll the way down to the shoreline. That ain't exactly a hop, skip and a jump's distance."

 

"If you two fell, we'd at least see signs of impact or a trail in the sand," Lapis added; she used her water wings to hover a bit as she scanned the area behind them. "But it doesn't look like anything was disturbed. I don't see anything that looks like a path to here."

 

"That's a big drop, too," Amethyst noted. "If it didn't wake either of you up, I think at least one of us would've heard a mega-crash. Neither of you look banged up, either. You guys must've Peri-ported."

 

Peridot sighed. This was not something she was ready to deal with after the heavy drama she and Steven went through last night. "I suppose that's the only explanation that makes sense, but I don't remember doing anything like that. To be honest, I don't recall even joining Steven in the state of slumber."

 

"I-it's not like we did anything we shouldn't have been doing," a defensive Steven asserted. "We just had a really rough night, and…"

 

He was shocked to just now realize something important…

 

"Oh, geez! We haven't seen you guys since before we left last week!" Steven felt so terrible, even though it was completely out of his hands how last night's events played out. "I'm so sorry! It totally slipped my mind to get back with you all after we talked to Garnet…"

 

"Well, you did greet us as Sphalerite," Lapis playfully pointed out. "So don't feel too bad about–"

 

"Never speak of that so-called fusion again, Lazuli. I don't ever want to hear that name so long as I exist."

 

very uncomfortable silence followed Peridot's ominous decree. Lapis found herself trembling; not only due to her friend's menacing tone, but the fact that she was referred to as "Lazuli".

 

Historically, Peridot only ever called her that during her much darker days as the Crystal Gems' mortal enemy… or if Lapis did something to severely anger her. No doubt this instance was the latter.

 

"Yeah… sounds like the talk with Garnet really didn't go over well," Bismuth whispered to Lapis in hopes of easing her concerns.

 

"We'll… tell you guys about that some other time," a shaken Steven assured the others. When Peridot gave him a dirty glance, the hybrid remained firm. "Peridot, they at least deserve to know why. You can just leave it to me if you're not okay to talk about this."

 

"S-Steven, I'm not going to force you to endure that alone!" Peridot argued. "I just–… I need more time! Is that a problem?!"

 

"Of course it isn't," Steven warmly assured his girlfriend. He leaned over to comb his fingers through the small gem's dampened radiant locks. "I'm not ready to do it right now, either. But it's not fair to our friends to keep them in the dark, okay? I'll be ready when you're ready if you really wanna do this together."

 

Peridot allowed herself to limply fall into Steven's grasp. "I… will concede to that. This is the best we can do from now on, together…"

 

"We don't need fusion to prove we can be as one, Dot," Steven assured; he almost sounded as if he was on the verge of crying. "I promise it'll be okay; and whatever happened to us last night… j-just don't worry about it right now. We're not alone anymore."

 

That reminder seemed to snap Peridot out of it. Still locked in Steven's embrace, she looked to see three sets of eyes on her and her beloved. All of them were good friends she hadn't seen in several days… only now did that detail strike Peridot to the core.

 

"L-Lapis, I apologize for snapping at you like that…" Peridot seemed to struggle to get all of the words out she wanted to say, but so many remained unsaid. "I… actually have much more to apologize for, but–"

 

"No harm done," a cautious Lapis assured. "And I know we have a lot to talk about, okay? There's something I need to apologize for, and I understand you've recently remembered something important about the day we met that we really need to clear the air about."

 

"W-wait, what…?"

 

Both Peridot and Steven were stunned; neither of them said a word to Lapis about the circumstances of what happened the day she and Peridot met. It was definitely a conversation the couple mutually agreed needed to happen, but neither had spoken to Lapis since that horrific memory was unearthed from the depths of Peridot's memory. There was no way for her to know about this ahead of time…

 

"I ended up having a chat with 5XF while you two were out doing whatever a couple of days back," Lapis casually explained, naïvely unaware that she was triggering her former roommate in a different way now. "She didn't wanna go into the details; your sister was pretty clear that this was something only you and me should really talk about, but she gave me a thorough outline of what we need to cover… and what you're likely going to tell me, I guess."

 

Only then did Lapis focus back on Peridot and recoiled to see the diminutive green gem nearly boil over with sheer rage. It was expressed in waves of heat she subconsciously emitted, which at least dried herself and Steven up.

 

"O-okay, that explains it," a very nervous Steven acknowledged as he grasped the shoulders of his shaking girlfriend. "Th-thanks for clarifying, Lapis. We'll just–"

 

"THAT NOSY LITTLE HARLOT! SHE HAD NO RIGHT TO INSERT HERSELF INTO MY PERSONAL BUSINESS! FOR STARS' SAKE, WHY CAN'T I JUST GET THIS FAILED EXPERIMENT OVER WITH AND SHATTER HER ALREADY?!"

 

Everyone went quiet again; Steven himself inched away a few steps from Peridot, looking particularly horrified by the words of his beloved gem.

 

He so badly wanted that statement to be a typical Peridot overreaction… but a read of her current feelings showed Steven the very ugly truth: his girlfriend meant every word of what she said wholeheartedly. In that moment, she wanted her sister dead.

 

Unfortunately, even Peridot's silent realization of what she blurted out and the shame that came with it didn't really change her feelings as much as Steven hoped. While she covered her mouth with both hands and fell to her knees, shivering with horror, the human hybrid remained hesitant to comfort her.

 

After all, while Peridot was mortified by her own words, what really shook her to the core was the fact that even she realized her harsh words fully reflected how she felt and what she desired. Flashes of the events throughout the previous Thursday coursed through her mind, ever since she mustered the courage to free 5XF from Ruby's bubble. What sustained her inner rage was recalling over and over again the moment she realized 5XF was the one responsible for making Steven drag that horrible memory out of her in the first place.

 

She was so angry at 5XF for making her relive the most traumatic day of her life, but Peridot couldn't hate her enough to want her dead for it after she and Steven managed to work through what she couldn't on her own. She couldn't pretend it would have been for the best if that day remained buried in the innermost depths of her memory core; sooner or later, Peridot would have had to face this part of her past. Handling it in the middle of nowhere with no one but her beloved at her side was the best possible way to work through it; that much couldn't be denied.

 

Peridot knew how hard it was going to be talking about this with Lapis; as much as she dreaded it even now, the technician understood it must be done sooner rather than later. She agreed with Steven that it needed to be a priority.

 

She did not anticipate Lapis already finding out exactly what they would be talking about before the discussion was even scheduled.

 

The only way Lapis could have known ahead of time… all signs pointed to her big sister. What little Peridot could bear to glean from Sphalerite's experiences proved the fusion interacted with absolutely no one but 5XF for the remainder of the vacation. Sphalerite herself was in the midst of a deep sleep along with her components at the time Lapis was contacted. Between this and the unexpected stress of ending up in such a strange and compromising position with Steven this morning that Peridot couldn't for the life of her remember how it all came to this, she was about to completely break down. Steven's sudden lack of presence was not lost on Peridot, either; she knew her behavior had to be terrifying him, and rightly so. But it didn't make her feel any less beside herself with anguish. More and more, Peridot felt she was losing control of her life… and she couldn't help but feel 5XF was purposefully taking that away from her.

 

Bismuth, Lapis, Amethyst, and Steven all alternated between keeping an eye on Peridot succumbing to her breakdown to looking at each other, silently asking for someone – anyone -– to find a way to lighten the mood or nullify this tension. No one was brave enough to say anything out loud, for fear that it would exacerbate the problem.

 

However, Lapis felt responsible for this… even though she had no way to know how bad an idea it was to mention 5XF or Sphalerite in Peridot's presence. She knew her former roommate wouldn't be in any condition to talk later if this persisted, and Lapis wasn't about to screw this up for both of them. She had been living with the guilt for how she treated Peridot far too long to let it fester even one more day.

 

She calmed herself as best she could; Lapis closed her eyes, opened her mouth…

 

"It seems I misjudged you; that sounded like a very honest expression of how you truly feel… something I presumed you've always been either incapable of or unwilling to do. I commend you for your proven ability to truly change, 5XG."

 

All heads but Peridot's snapped forward to discover 5XF just a few feet away from the group; she was accompanied by Ruby and Sapphire, as she had been since Garnet defused the prior night.

 

Peridot resisted her urge to follow everyone else's gaze; she legitimately couldn't trust herself at this point. If she saw her sister now, Peridot feared she wouldn't be able to stop herself – and it was apparent she couldn't count on Steven to hold her back at this point.

 

"5XF. If you know what's good for you, you'll pretend you never saw this or heard what I just said," Peridot forced herself to say. "Now get out of here."

 

"Unfortunate; I was hoping to ask the same of you and your human companion," 5XF dryly retorted. "I've been toured through all permitted areas of the Crystal Gems' premises, so I wish to relax and monitor the ocean from here. I only ask that my view is not sullied by the presence of yourself and your Steven. Am I asking for too much?"

 

"My apologies," Sapphire interjected, likely aiming to control the damage as much as she could. "I foresaw this area clearing out by now, but the future is ever-fluctuating and fickle…"

 

5XF let out a quiet sigh. "Please do not use that word. My former hosts have forever tainted it."

 

"It's not our fault that word is a perfect description of you," Peridot shot back, attempting to maintain her self-control… poorly. "Then again, there's a wide variety of derogatory phrases that suit you just as well. However, I'm curious about something: what made you think you had a right to talk to Lapis about certain subjects that you have nothing to do with? I never permitted you to witness the events of that day, let alone gossip about it to others!"

 

"Wh-what?" 5XF was genuinely taken aback by this accusation. "5XG, I wasn't gossiping… I-I'll admit I eavesdropped when I shouldn't have, but that should be a minor offense compared everything else I was doing around that time! A-and I overheard you and Steven agreeing you needed to talk to Lapis about this. She called for you a few days ago, but you weren't available to talk; you and Steven were still Sphalerite at the time, and it was just before she woke up after being asleep for more than half an Earth day…"

 

Lapis was surprised to hear this. "W-wait, so the reason Steven and Peridot weren't available to talk that day… it's because they were fused? And asleep? You could have just told me that…"

 

5XF shook her head. "5XG wished to surprise you all with Sphalerite when she and Steven returned home. Additionally, Sphalerite specifically asked me to not reveal her existence to any of you just before she fell asleep; she too wanted to honor 5XG's wishes. I agree it would have been easier to be fully honest with all of you, but this was not my secret to tell."

 

"She really did that?" a shocked, nearly breathless Steven asked. "She… Sphalerite actually cared about us…?"

 

"Of course she cares about you," 5XF snapped at the hybrid, though she managed to keep herself relatively firm and even-tempered. "Would it not be completely illogical for a fusion to not care for their own components in any way?"

 

While this revelation surprised Peridot greatly, it was honestly too little, too late to salvage her perception of the fusion.

 

"What I find illogical is the concept of Sphalerite caring enough to honor my wishes not to spoil the surprise of her existence, yet not having the same consideration for the well-being of myself and Steven for literally everything else she did," she bitterly countered. "Just stop it, okay? Stop justifying her actions; she is now forever irrelevant! Sphalerite will never return, and you have only yourself to blame for that, 5XF!"

 

5XF felt she shouldn't have let Peridot's words affect her so adversely, but her fears of never seeing Sphalerite again being so adamantly vocalized by her willful sister was too much to take. Ruby was quick to keep the technician steady in her grasp when she stumbled back in shock.

 

"L-listen, I talked to Lapis about your imminent conversation because I wanted to be helpful!" 5XF cried out with far less composure. "I know I owe that to you, a-and I understand you'll both have a very difficult time even having this kind of talk. Anyone would! My sole intent was to inform Lapis to give her time to prepare what she would have to say to you, and to optimize the time needed to properly sort this ordeal out!"

 

"You weren't supposed to even know how we met in the first place!" Peridot shouted back, heavily agitated. "Let alone have any authority in a conversation that is 100% none of your business!"

 

"Yes, I've already owned up to sticking my nose where it didn't belong," 5XF told her. "But we can't turn back time, and I cannot in all good conscience simply pretend I never saw that part of your life, 5XG. My intent was to help you and Lapis as much as I could in a limited capacity!"

 

Lapis directed her gaze over to her seething friend and decided it was time for her to step in. "Peridot, just let it go; I can assure you 5XF went out of her way to be respectful about this. She even cut me off when I was starting to say things she felt should only be heard by you."

 

Peridot looked to the terrformer, horrified. "You're taking her side… I-I honestly shouldn't even be surprised by this…"

 

"I'm grateful she let me know about this so I could prepare for it," Lapis clarified. "I'm not condoning her invasion of your privacy, but 5XF already apologized for that. And it's not like we can do anything to change it; it's a stupid issue to get so hung up over, Peri! And that's coming from me!"

 

"I wasn't expecting praise for doing this favor," 5XF murmured. "At the same time, it shouldn't be unreasonable to believe this doesn't warrant being treated like a criminal."

 

"Go find some other body of water to observe!" Peridot screamed at her kin. "Garnet told me not to approach you, but you're the one who approached me! I should not be expected to back down when you're the instigator here! If you heard what I said about you earlier, I can't imagine why you'd want to be anywhere near my radius!"

 

5XF remained firm in her stance. So long as Sphalerite wasn't being mentioned, it was easier than expected to stand up to her sister. "Oh, you mean how I overheard your desire to shatter me? You're implying I should fear you for that reason, but we both know you won't succumb to that desire."

 

As the environment around Peridot started going haywire, with gusts of wind blowing sand about, an alarmingly potent dome of heat turning bits of sand into glass, accompanied by the soft rumbling of the ground below… Peridot's friends – Steven included – started to make some notable distance from her.

 

Ruby was tempted to act, but Sapphire held her back and shook her head immediately. Though her premonition of this area being vacated didn't go as planned, she had a bit more faith in the current future she saw; there, 5XF's words rang true and no one was ultimately hurt… externally, at least.

 

"I'm the Diamond of Will, you ignorant little clod," Peridot growled. The fact that she was even identifying herself with any part of her Diamond heritage was a red flag that the youngest gem of this bunch was very much not herself right now. "If I want it enough, I can make you explode into pieces without even lifting a finger."

 

Steven could tell his girlfriend was heavily poisoned with very familiar toxic emotions; in hindsight, the toxicity of her repressed feelings many weeks ago when they first conversed on the roof felt so minuscule by comparison.

 

"Is ending my life worth what you'll lose in exchange?" 5XF challenged. "Senselessly murdering me would make you indistinct from the Diamonds that are no longer with us, would it not?"

 

Bismuth couldn't help but cringe at this statement; it immediately made her think of that very uncomfortable conversation with Steven… the very reason she needed to clear the air with him in the first place.

 

Similarly, it also pained Steven to hear these words. 5XF's voice wasn't that different from her sister's – consequently, Steven couldn't help but think about 5XG; the amalgamation of Peridot's worst traits, and the very chilling talk they had before it shifted to a brutal strangulation. She harshly admonished how Steven conducted himself around Bismuth during the very same conversation Bismuth herself wanted to properly atone for.

 

Both shared a quick glance at one another before abruptly shifting back to the quarreling siblings.

 

"You are in no position to take the high road!" Peridot cried back. "You are not allowed to pretend you have any sense of morality; not after what you put me and Steven through!"

 

"I won't dispute that my actions against you two were inexcusable," 5XF calmly agreed. "All the same, you are no more qualified to pass judgment on my ability to learn from my mistakes, 5XG. But I am not here to dwell on the past; I apologize for letting my curiosity get the best of me again, but I had no ill intentions whatsoever when I informed Lapis about your imminent conversation. I wanted to make that clear; the only reason I'm here now is because I want to rest and take in a view that I know will offer comfort. I had no intention of speaking with you today."

 

"Yet you addressed me first," Peridot growled. "You drew attention to yourself!"

 

5XF almost pitied her sister at this point… almost. "My apologies for feeling the need to acknowledge that you've stopped lying to yourself and are embracing your true feelings, which is to have me shattered. I commended you for being fully honest for once in your life, 5XG. But as I said before, it's a foregone conclusion that you will not follow through on that desire."

 

"Stop talking like you know anything about me!" Peridot protested. "I could–I could–…"

 

"First of all, you gave me a very lengthy exposition dump on your life story since your assignment to Earth," 5XF interjected. "In the format of fully-detailed visuals, no less. Unless that was nothing but a very elaborate fabrication, I objectively know quite a bit about you. Secondly, will you stop lying to yourself? No amount of power you wield will shatter me; your weakness for Steven will always keep that power in check. As much as he hates me, he would hate you far more if you shattered me here and now."

 

All eyes were on the very distressed Steven. However, no one's gaze was more piercing than his girlfriend's.

 

He could tell Peridot was aware of the fact that her actions were not endearing him to her side in the least. She was looking at him as if she had already committed an act of murder, silently pleading for his forgiveness.

 

Steven had to keep in mind that Peridot's instability wasn't solely 5XF's fault; she had already been breaking down before the elder Peridot stepped in. The mystery of how he and Peridot ended up in the sand like this still hung over his head; he could tell the technician was similarly burdened. After the madness they endured after being liberated from their fusion, the last thing the couple needed was an uncertainty of the nature of how their night played out.

 

Their night on the roof was supposed to inspire hope that life would get better from here; the assurance of their unity, both as Crystal Gems and as lovers.

 

Waking up only to find that had been compromised… it bothered Steven way more than he cared to admit.

 

"Go ahead, 5XG. I'll offer no resistance: shatter me, if you want to so badly," 5XF darkly urged her sister. "Prove me wrong and make me pay for my transgressions with my life. I openly invite your wrath; in a way, you're honestly doing me a favor, as you've confirmed my greatest fear earlier."

 

Several gems looked to 5XF in that moment; all aghast that she was not only baiting her sister to kill her, but the tired look of resignation in her eyes told them their first refugee already felt her life was forfeit and not worth living.

 

Peridot could tell 5XF meant every word of what she said. As much as she wanted to act on her desire, Steven was no longer the only reason she couldn't go through with it.

 

While she managed to calm down her intense surges of rage on her own, it was now a challenge to not burst into tears in front of everyone. "Sh-shut up; just stop it…"

 

"I dare you," 5XF declared. "You'll likely never get an opportunity like this again."

 

"I-I will not indulge your suicidal codependency on our fusion!" Peridot finally cried out. "And I will certainly not ever grant you a legacy as a pathetic martyr! Unless you're going to confess that you had something to do with how Steven and I ended up here last night, I want you to leave!"

 

Steven cringed; he knew it was just a matter of time before Peridot resorted to that accusation.

 

"I have no idea what you're referring to," 5XF coldly replied. "But of course, my word alone isn't good enough for you. Luckily for me, I have a rock-solid alibi. Find some other gem to implicate."

 

"We've not left 5XF's side all night," Sapphire confirmed.

 

Ruby nodded in agreement. "We knew you two needed your privacy, so we made sure none of us ever crossed paths."

 

Finally, Steven found the courage to approach his girlfriend. Before saying anything, he embraced her from behind; that alone provoked more tears to spill from the technician's eyes.

 

"Peri, we'll find out what really happened and why," Steven softly assured her. "This isn't the time to investigate that, though; we need to just step away and relax for a while. Can you be the bigger gem for me and let your sister have this spot to herself? I know there's a part of you right now that's reminding you not to fall back into a really bad habit…"

 

Peridot knew what Steven was talking about; the role her past life served currently. The last thing the ascended gem wanted was to return to the Peridot she used to be: an amoral, overly-ambitious sociopath. Indeed, in her mind's eye, she could see the old 5XG looking down at her; cold and stern as always.

 

However, 5XF seemed to shatter her internally with a few harsh words of truth: it really didn't matter how powerful she became. At this point in her life, Peridot had ended up becoming one of the most versatile super-powered beings in the universe.

 

But none of that mattered, really. As long as Steven lived, he would always be the power that nullified her own. Peridot wasn't sure why this specifically bothered her so much…

 

… Until 5XF practically announced that she no longer valued her own life if Sphalerite truly was never coming back.

 

This was too much to process; too much to accept. With the overwhelming work ahead of everyone in Gypsum and everything involving Era 3, Peridot desperately needed a few days of lighthearted fun. Every day felt like a constant test that pushed her to her limits.

 

"... Steven, I–…" Peridot found herself getting choked up already. "This is too much. Way too much. I-I don't know what to do…"

 

"I'm not really that sure about myself, either," Steven sympathized as he squeezed her tight. "But I promise you, we'll work something out…"

 

"Actually, we've all got plans in mind for y'all," Bismuth spoke up. "Just simple fun stuff, too. No work. How's that sound?"

 

Steven smiled widely at the blacksmith. "Sounds exactly like what we need! What did you guys have in mind?"

 

"Well, me and Peri-D have a long-overdue date that we're gonna take care of before that boring work junk pushes it back a ton of months," Amethyst smugly spoke up, which prompted a look of confusion from both her little brother and little sister figure. "C'mon, you already forgot? You promised you'd get me a birthdate, dude!"

 

"Oh! Of course; the Prime Kindergarten!" Peridot could hardly believe she actually forgot planning this with Amethyst. Then again, thanks to how the latter half of the vacation played out, even a day barely over a week ago felt closer to a year by now. "We can go there anytime you'd like, Amethyst."

 

"Peri-port us away, then!" the quartz insisted. "I wanna go now! You never know; my b-day could be today and I'm gonna expect a mega-sweet party if it is. Day's still young, so…!"

 

Finally, Peridot managed to genuinely smile. "I'd be happy to take you now; it's been too long since we've had a Not-So-Shorty Squad outing!"

 

"Actually, I'd like to borrow Steven for the morning if it's alright with you," Bismuth awkwardly interjected. "I've been hearin' good things about this Funland place, and Steven's been meanin' to show me around Beach City for weeks!"

 

"Oh… I guess we never got around to that, huh?" Steven let out a nervous chuckle. "Geez, Bismuth, it's been like a month since you were brought back out. We really need to get you adjusted to this time period!"

 

"That you do, little man!" Bismuth asserted, giving Steven a playful slap on the back. "I'm not gonna be much good helpin' these Homeworld refugees if I barely know this planet myself, right?"

 

Peridot offered a reassuring nod to Steven. "You're by far the best candidate for adjusting gems to Earth, Steven, and Bismuth deserves nothing less. Besides, my business with Amethyst really is not well facilitated for a third party; you'll get more out of the day touring Bismuth than you would sitting around a derelict kindergarten waiting for me to calculate and carbon date some markings and grooves in a hole."

 

"H-heh, good point," Steven conceded. He could tell neither he nor Peridot were entirely comfortable going their separate ways right now, but… "We'll… get together later, right? It just hit me that we've got a lot of people to catch up with now that we're back…"

 

"Wouldn't have it any other way," Peridot assured as she rewarded her boyfriend with a peck on the cheek. "Thank you for being a good center of gravity for me, Steven. I feel better already."

 

It just dawned on Steven that his support did indeed keep Peridot from completely falling apart once more. He felt just a little guilty; if he had acted sooner despite his girlfriend's frightening behavior, perhaps he could have defused this situation much earlier…

 

"Let me know if you need one later," Steven jovially instructed. "Until then, let's give the rest of our friends a little loving attention, 'kay?"

 

Peridot bubbled up with laughter as she felt Steven's warm lips peck her gemstone, though it abruptly stopped when something blue caught the corner of her eye.

 

"Oh… Lapis…"

 

The ocean gem didn't look hurt, offended, or even bummed out, to her credit.

 

"Go on and play," Lapis urged her former roommate. "We'll have our talk when we're good and ready, okay? No pressure. Believe it or not, I've got plenty of options, myself."

 

This immensely relieved the technician. "I-I suppose it's important our mental stability is at its peak before we engage in that kind of conversation. Your patience and your mercy are greatly appreciated. I'll be sure to let you know when I'm optimally prepared."

 

"You might want to make yourselves scarce immediately," Sapphire suddenly warned everyone. "Very soon, Pearl will find her way here…"

 

The seer gem glanced to Peridot specifically. "And she's on the warpath. She will not hesitate to mess with your plans. Peridot, be wary when you return home. You are the target of her ire."

 

"Of course she's pissed at me," Peridot grumbled. "She can join the friggin' growing line of clods who share her grievances and take a number. Thank you for the warning, Sapphire. Let's get out of here while we still can, Amethyst."

 

"Seeya later, all!" Amethyst waved to the others. "Next time you see me, I'll be handin' you a wishlist for my birthday!"

 

And just like that, Peridot and Amethyst vanished in an instant. Steven couldn't help but miss his girlfriend already, but he had to keep in mind that it wasn't a bad thing to spend at least a little bit of time away from her.

 

Much as he hated to admit it, Steven really felt he'd been neglecting his friends since he solidified his relationship with Peridot.

 

"Steven, you and Bismuth should hurry along as well," Sapphire advised. "Pearl won't hesitate to interrogate you, if only to draw Peridot out."

 

"Do I even wanna know what Peri did to get Pearl this mad?" a concerned Bismuth asked.

 

In that moment, Sapphire and Ruby fused – finally, Garnet was back.

 

"I guarantee it isn't worth your time," the fusion assured. "But I will hold her off as long as I can; whatever is troubling Pearl is not worth delaying your overdue tour of Beach City any longer, Bismuth."

 

"We appreciate it, Garnet," Steven warmly expressed. "C'mon, Bismuth! I'm kinda hungry, so do you mind if we stop for breakfast, first?"

 

Bismuth smiled and shrugged off the matter. "Breakfast's an experience itself, right? Can't be havin' you Bismuthin' that if you're gonna show me around town!"

 

Steven grinned; thankfully, he'd forgotten by this point that he and the jolly, buff gem he was hanging out with for the morning were due for an unpleasant talk of their own sooner or later. "That's the spirit! This way, Bismuth!"

 

As the second pair scampered off, only Garnet, Lapis, and 5XF remained on the coastline.

 

"So, uh… do I need to flee?" Lapis nervously asked. "I've been an unwilling informant once before; that's definitely an experience I'd rather not live through again."

 

"You ought to stay here and give 5XF some company," Garnet coolly suggested. "She's in my care now, but it's in her best interest to get to know all of the Crystal Gems. Her issues with Steven and Peridot should not prevent her from befriending the rest of you, at least. Pearl will see no point in inconveniencing either of you, so do not despair."

 

"Oh…" Lapis entirely forgot 5XF was still with them; then again, she had been completely silent for a while now, and she was already sitting and watching the ocean just as she intended. "Right. Well, if it's fine with her, I don't mind…"

 

"I accept your offer for company," 5XF calmly conceded, briefly startling the ocean gem, who didn't think she was still listening to anyone. "I would like to learn more about oceans in general… and after my kin threw a fit the way she did, perhaps it would be to our mutual benefit to have a proper conversation face-to-face."

 

Lapis nervously nodded in agreement. "Yeah, I'm… sorry I brought it up; I had no idea she'd react like that."

 

"Then there's no need to apologize for something you couldn't possibly have foreseen," 5XF insisted before she looked back to Garnet. "Oh, um… thank you for everything you've done, Garnet. I, uh… do give Ruby and Sapphire my thanks as well. Let them know I would give them a full grade for their performance evaluation."

 

Garnet smiled at that. "They appreciate your gratitude, 5XF. Best of luck on making some new friends."

 

As the fusion walked off to deal with a raging Pearl, 5XF invited Lapis to sit by her; the latter took her up on the offer.

 

"You may ask me anything you like," the Peridot offered. "On the condition that you answer my questions about the ocean."

 

"Hm…" Lapis looked out to the massive ocean ahead of her. "Well, I've made friends in weirder ways before."


 

Chapter Text

With everyone's morning schedules mapped out, the Crystal Gems all went their separate ways. In order to be ready for Gypsum, to be prepared to run Era 3 where Homeworld left off, and to be up to the task of saving Homeworld's colonies from civil disorder, the team agreed they needed to prove they could truly function as a singular unit brought together by these common goals. More than that, they all needed to invest time strengthening their bonds with one another.

 

Bismuth and Lapis joined (or rejoined, one could say) the Crystal Gems and were immediately thrust into the final battle of a war that had persisted for eons. Peridot hadn't been part of the cause for long, herself; Connie just barely had more seniority. On top of that, even Greg was officially considered part of the team against all odds. With the size of the Crystal Gems' forces nearly doubling in less than a year, there was precious little time to properly integrate the newer inductees.

 

There was about a week where the team could bond between missions, but by then the team had been forcibly fractured. Much of the bonding that occurred was out of sheer necessity with very little in the way of organic growth.

 

Now, they were united. The goal set by Pink Diamond several millennia ago had finally been reached… but as a consequence of this achievement, the future of gemkind now rested squarely on their shoulders.

 

This was a mission that truly had no conclusion.

 

It was an endeavor that required everyone to be on the same page.

 

Even Bismuth, one of the most stable gems around, had her hang-ups.

 

Paired up with Steven for this outing, the blacksmith was finally able to take in the surroundings of the world just outside the Crystal Gems' domain; the world inhabited by humans – the very beings that drove Rose Quartz to protect all life on Earth in the first place – was a concept Bismuth still needed to adjust to. The war Homeworld waged on the protectors of Earth and the widespread damage it brought about never allowed Bismuth to have much to do with much of the life she strove to protect.

 

It was bizarre, now that she really thought about it. For being so dedicated to Rose's cause, Bismuth barely understood who and what she had been protecting for so many years. This was not a good state of mind to have for a gem who would be responsible for helping the Homeworld refugees adapt to their new home. Bismuth was honestly not used to feeling like a rookie in any sense of the word, but ever since she had been brought back, the perpetually jolly gem was made somber facing reality.

 

Steven himself was one of the hardest changes for Bismuth to accept; she wouldn't let it show with her friends, but the moment the young hybrid started spouting Rose's rhetoric… that broke her façade as well as her resolve.

 

Even after being told the truth about everything regarding her former leader and accepting it for what it was, Bismuth couldn't help but shake the feeling of Rose's ghost lingering whenever Steven was around. The nature of the Homeworld missions allowed Bismuth to shove those insecurities aside; a time of peace forced her to acknowledge that she truly hadn't made peace with everything that changed since her glory days. It didn't help that with every passing day, more and more changes piled on top of what Bismuth already struggled to accept.

 

But if she was going to start anywhere, it was going to be with Steven. Regardless of how Bismuth felt, he was the heart of the team, now. While he inherited many of his mother's ideals, Steven was certainly his own person. After so many years of her life revolving around Rose Quartz, a couple of conversations with Steven was hardly enough for Bismuth to truly digest.

 

Little did Bismuth know, Steven urgently needed to speak with her one-on-one as well.

 

No matter how much he tried to ignore it, 5XG's harsh, biting admonishment for how he conducted himself around Bismuth in the past continued to echo in his brain. And of course, a certain incident in their pair of Homeworld missions made him very hesitant to directly approach her ever since.

 

He had no idea Bismuth shared so many of his concerns presently. The blacksmith certainly didn't let it show as she took in the surroundings of Beach City as they traveled to a certain destination that would cure Steven's hunger.

 

"Quaint little place," Bismuth remarked. "Good to see humans aren't as primitive as Rose described nowadays. Back then, it was all loincloths, spears, and gathering, she would say."

 

"Kinda refreshing to hear a gem take notice that we've done well for ourselves over time," Steven graciously commended. "Everyone else usually comments on how far behind they are from gems, or that they're gross savages or something."

 

Bismuth chuckled at that. "Well, I mean, I figured it went without saying that they're far behind even what gem tech from my time could do right now. Can't imagine how many times you've heard a gem brag about that; least I can do is not add to the pile, right?"

 

"I appreciate it," Steven assured. "Even Peridot was complaining about our tech limitations like, literally every time we went to a new vacation spot. Only exception was when we made a stop in Tokyo. It was almost impossible to pry her away from there, actually."

 

"Ooh, you're gonna have to tell me all about that later," Bismuth urged. "When you're ready, that is."

 

Steven froze momentarily after that statement. "… oh, yeah. You guys must be wondering what all we were doing last week… and why we weren't answering anyone for the past few days."

 

"Like I said, you can tell us all about what when you feel ready," the gem insisted. "But most of us can tell you and Peri had a rough time; I'm sure that Gypsum character had something to do with it. We really don't know more than that, though. And this ain't no time to put either of you on the spot."

 

"Thanks for understanding," Steven murmured. "Well, we came out here for you, anyway. Once I get something to eat, we'll save so much fun, we're gonna forget what our problems even are!"

 

Bismuth smiled; slightly forced. "Naturally! So, where're we headed to?"

 

"We're almost there," Steven announced as he pointed out in the distance. "The Big Donut! See that building over there with the ring-shaped thing?"

 

Bismuth looked ahead… and sure enough, an establishment matching Steven's description stood, just a short walk away.

 

"I see it," she confirmed. "So what is the ring all about, anyway?"

 

"It's just decorative," Steven explained. "It's supposed to look like a donut; people see it and they'll think about donuts. The more they think about donuts, they'll suddenly start wanting some, and they'll start craving 'em so much, they'll put all their plans on hold just to go to this place and buy donuts."

 

Bismuth gave her companion a wary look. "Sounds more like a hypnotic device, if you ask me."

 

"We call it "advertisement" here on Earth," Steven clarified, looking a bit sheepish. "I mean, it's not literally hypnosis, but I'd be lying if I said it's nothing like that at all."

 

"And here I was thinkin' this planet had nothin' in common with Homeworld at all," Bismuth sighed out. "I'm guessin' propaganda's just a universal plague."

 

It was oddly a very dark sentiment coming from Bismuth of all people; that much was not lost on Steven.

 

"I promise it's not that bad here," Steven urged. "You gotta remember, humans like us need stuff like food to live. A lot of people make a living providing that, but there's lots of different kinds of food out there. Different people are good at making different types of food, but we can't exactly just buy food from every place; so we're forced to make an exclusive choice. That makes all the food providers competitors, meaning they gotta go out of their way to convince us why we should choose them. They aren't making us make that choice, though; it's up to us to decide what's the most appealing to what we want for ourselves."

 

"I guess the donut helps the store stand out," Bismuth admitted. "Most of these other buildings look a bit same-y…"

 

It relieved Steven to see Bismuth quickly getting the hang of the basics of human economics.

 

"Exactly; just think if you weren't the only Bismuth around right now and all the other Bismuths were trying to get us to use their weapons and everything else they craft instead of yours," Steven told her. "Wouldn't you do whatever you could to prove no Bismuth crafts better than you?"

 

"This Bismuth builds best!" Bismuth asserted. "Dang straight I'll show 'em all, but I just need my skill to prove that point, Steven!"

 

Steven nodded. "Right; we know that, but most of our healthy refugees are Era 2 gems who've never even heard of you, Bismuth."

 

This caused the large gem to pause. "Hm, that's true…"

 

"While I doubt there's a Bismuth who could match your spirit, it might take more than that to win over your customers," Steven informed her. "All it takes is a flashy decoration or a really smooth talker, and you might find those other Bismuths getting the work you should be getting, no matter how much better you are than them."

 

Steven blushed as he had to remember… "I mean, really, don't worry about something like that for real, Bismuth. That was just some what-if talk to help you understand why humans do stuff like this. I'm not sure how many other Bismuths we have bubbled up right now, or if we even have any healthy ones we can release anytime soon."

 

"I sure didn't see any," Bismuth glumly acknowledged. "But I see what you're gettin' at, Steven. I appreciate you goin' the extra mile to help me get a grasp on how these humans operate. Can you picture me tryin' to explain the decorative donut to the refugees if we never had this conversation?"

 

"Oh, geez, that's a good point," Steven nervously laughed out. "Good thing we're doing this tour, then! Let's head on in; I'm not gonna be a very good guide on an empty stomach."

 

Bismuth nodded in agreement. "We can't be havin' that; lead the way, little guy!"

 

Before they even entered the store proper, Steven and Bismuth were met with a very unexpected surprise right in front of the Big Donut's doors. A very familiar gem (for Steven, at least) tended to the opening/closing sign before she spun around in shock.

 

"I-it can't be– You are f-far too large– Yet your uncanny resemblance to–!"

 

"Awesome to see you again, Rhodonite," Steven confidently greeted… before his childlike enthusiasm took over as this gem's presence sank in. "H-holy crap, wait! You're actually here on Earth! Are the other Off-Colors okay?! Is, i-is Lars–?!"

 

"By the stars, it is you, Steven," Rhodonite quietly realized. "We've all been worried sick about you!"

 

The fusion was quick to open the door for her two guests. "P-please, come in!"

 

Bismuth glanced over to her shorter companion. "You're gonna introduce me to these new friends, right?"

 

"You bet!" Steven excitedly assured as he dragged Bismuth along with him into the store. "You're gonna love these guys!"

 


 

Many delighted gasps of disbelief greeted Steven as he and Bismuth made it indoors.

 

"Could that be Steven?! But you are so…"

 

"… Much bigger than you were before…"

 

"Yeah, it's a human thing," Steven explained as he waved to the Rutile twins. "I'm so glad you're all okay! When the heck did you make it back to Earth?!"

 

A short, oddly-colored Sapphire popped in, looking nothing short of excited.

 

"Oh! Steven! I have predicted that we will touchdown on the planet Earth in approximately… nine Earth days ago! Isn't that quaint?"

 

"… Very," Steven agreed after an awkward pause. "Wait, so… you're saying you've all been here since… two days before our vacation…"

 

Bismuth looked to Steven. "That's less than a day after we came back from Homeworld. But we were loaded down with work right after coming back; that's why we had that vacation in the first place…"

 

Steven nodded in agreement. "I haven't set foot in town since… Garnet's wedding, I think. Geez, I've ghosted everyone in Beach City for the better part of a month, Bismuth!"

 

"I can tell you're about to get down on yourself," Bismuth scolded. "And you'd best stop it before you start, Steven. You know exactly why you wouldn't let yourself go out and mingle during that week."

 

Steven felt a chill run down his spine; he indeed remembered why he didn't keep in touch with anyone outside of the Crystal Gems for those six days between missions: Peridot.

 

"If you did, you'd be comin' down on yourself for a different reason," Bismuth added. "But a much more valid one."

 

"You're totally right," Steven admitted. "Thanks for keeping me in line, Bismuth."

 

"So, are you gonna be the first to try out our new Off-Color Donuts or what?"

 

The oh-so familiar masculine voice shocked Steven to the core. The hybrid looked to the cashier's counter, and there he stood.

 

"LARS!"

 

Much to Bismuth's surprise, Steven dashed straight over to the other end of the store and jumped over the counter to give his pink-hued friend a long-overdue hug. And while Lars was fully prepared for a hug, he was not so prepared for the leaping glomp he ended up receiving instead. The forced knocked both young men back against the wall, but pain was secondary to what they both felt presently.

 

"G-Geez, Steven," Lars muttered with mild embarrassment. "I know you're making up for being so late to welcome me back, but give a heads-up next time. You've put on some weight!"

 

It didn't stop him from hugging Steven back in earnest, at least.

 

"S-sorry, I just can't believe I actually forgot about you for so long," Steven wailed. "A-and extra weight comes with the growth spurt; you know that!"

 

"Can't argue that," Lars conceded. "So, is this another phase, or…?"

 

"I've been like this for over two weeks now," Steven answered, finally relinquishing his friend from the hug. "Pretty sure it's sticking this time. Some… really major stuff happened, and if there's ever a time where I need to start growing up, it's now."

 

Lars tentatively nodded in agreement. "Sounds like we've got a lot to catch up on. Wanna introduce us to your new friend, first?"

 

Steven gasped and looked to Bismuth, looking and feeling so ashamed. "Oh, man! I'm sucking as a guide as much as I did as a babysitter! I'm real sorry–"

 

Bismuth just rolled her eyes and smirked. "Steven, donut make me come over there. Just power through the pity, already!"

 

The blacksmith's play on words helped greatly in lifting Steven's spirit. Hearing Lars laugh along with him was even more of a boon.

 

"R-right, right," Steven agreed as he got the giggles out of his system. "Everyone, I'd like to introduce you to Bismuth! She's a Crystal Gem like the rest of my friends and I seriously wouldn't still be here talking to you all if it wasn't for her help."

 

"You cheeky little flatterer," Bismuth cooed as she waved to everyone in the store. "Nice to meet y'all! Can't wait to hear your stories. And if you ever need a weapon or some help with construction, I'm your gem!"

 

Steven was glad Bismuth was there to pick him up from these episodes of depression that seemed to increase in frequency within this day alone. "Bismuth, this here is Lars – one of my Beach City BFFs – and these are the Off-Colors! They were all rejected by Homeworld, but the fact that they made it here safe and sound when so many others didn't should show just how capable they really are. Rhodonite's the one who let us in, there's the Rutile twins, Padparadscha is the cute lil' Sapphire over there, and…"

 

There seemed to be one missing from the count. Steven looked to Lars with concern.

 

"Lars, where's Fluorite?"

 

"Fluorite?!"

 

Steven flinched at Bismuth's reaction. "Not that Fluorite, Bismuth. This one's another fusion, like Rhodonite."

 

"Fluorite's outside in the back," Lars calmly informed his friend. "She's not exactly able to fit inside in her natural size, and she can only shapeshift for so long. We'll try and fit her in once we get you two settled."

 

"Settled? … Oh, right! Food!" Steven grinned. "Did I hear you right before, Lars? You made donuts named after your team?"

 

Lars smirked and showed Steven the display of many donuts in a variety of colors, frostings, toppings, and/or fillings.

 

"Once we made it to Earth, we all just wanted to settle down and chill after everything that happened. Old Man Dewey's been overrun managing this store on his own since Sadie quit, so I offered to step in and do my share since I've been out for so long. The Off-Colors have helped a lot, and it's getting them adjusted to Earth life as a bonus. So I figured it was only fair to represent them in the best way I know how!"

 

"Through… donuts," Steven acknowledged, unable to hide his amused smile. "I'm so happy for you, Lars. And it goes without saying how glad I am you made it out okay. Some major stuff went down not too long ago…"

 

"Yeah; it's a good thing y'all didn't get too involved with Homeworld," Bismuth added. "Now that we know you're here, you might be a big help for the Crystal Gems. Is it too early to propose an alliance, Steven?"

 

Steven shook his head. "We're allies already, Bismuth. And really, I don't think any of us counted on these guys coming back this soon. But I definitely think we'll all be able to help each other. Lars, I'll take one of each kind of the Off-Color Donuts."

 

"That's a friggin' truckload, even for you!" Lars exclaimed. "You're totally sure about that?"

 

"I've barely eaten in like three days," Steven asserted. "The most I've had was a little sandwich and a glass of milk last night. I'm taking one of everything, Lars."

 

"Eeesh. We really do have a lot to catch up on…"

 


 

"We were truly blessed by the stars above," Rhodonite gasped out. "Homeworld, gone… the Diamonds, gone… and so many unwell gems who are doomed to stasis until a cure for their ailment is found. Yet gems like us not only escaped with our lives, but our health as well…"

 

"Life's weird like that," Bismuth agreed. "And it's only gonna get weirder from here."

 

Lars' eyes were glued to the floor as he tried to process everything. "Guess it's a good thing I got the Off-Colors integrated as Big Donut mascots, then. Looks like I'm ahead of the curve."

 

"Once we get this corrupted gem in Egypt taken care of, life's gonna get pretty crazy," Steven sighed out as he popped another donut in his mouth, barely chewing the pastry before he completely devoured it. "The vacation didn't really help as much as I hoped… it actually made things worse in a lot of ways. I hate dragging you back into our crazy business after what you've been through, Lars, but…"

 

"Say no more," the elder teen urged. "I'm just a call away, Steven. After everything we've been through, I'm glad to say I'm no longer a raging douche who's gonna turn his back on you. As nice as the peaceful life is, what good is it if my friends aren't there with me?"

 

"Awww!"

 

Steven couldn't help but hug Lars again. "I'm so happy for you, Lars! Once you find yourself a ring for Sadie that isn't a donut, you'll be all set!"

 

"Wait, what?" Lars sputtered out. "Oh, man. You really have been out-of-touch with everyone else…"

 

"Huh?" Steven was confused. "What are you talking about?"

 

Lars scratched the back of his neck and looked up to the ceiling, trying his best to hide how awkward he felt. "I forgot, you totally missed Sadie's concert. Sorry to disappoint, but that ship has sailed."

 

"Lemme guess; creative differences?" Bismuth slyly teased.

 

"Actually, that's not too far off the mark," an impressed Lars admitted. "You an expert on this sort of thing, Bismuth? I didn't think gems really…"

 

"Let's just say I've got a real good intuition," the blacksmith answered confidently. "And gems are perfectly capable of getting into this "love" business; how the heck do you figure Steven came to be if they couldn't?"

 

Lars let out an embarrassed blush as he tried not to stutter. "Uh, riiiight… forgot about that."

 

"So, you're saying you and Sadie aren't tying the knot?" Steven looked so disappointed. "You guys acted like you were already married! What the heck did I miss?!"

 

"I think your imagination's embellishing some of that," Lars smugly remarked before straightening up to give a legitimate explanation. "Steven, I figured after all your crazy adventures that you knew this even better than me, but life tends to throw you loads of curveballs. Even stuff that seems like a sure deal, set in stone, totally inevitable… it can change just like that, and end up playing out the opposite way you expected it."

 

Steven thought over these words carefully. Lars actually had a solid point; much of Steven's life involved unexpected twists and turns within this year alone. The true identity of his mother and her questionable nature came to mind immediately, followed shortly by the fate of the Diamond Authority and Homeworld itself.

 

"Well… yeah," he uneasily admitted. "I could sum up my entire year as nothing but plot twists; things I thought were always true since I was born turned out to be lies, people changed in ways I didn't count on happening the way they did… for better or worse."

 

Steven smiled at Lars, which the latter returned in kind.

 

"And my usual way of solving problems ended up failing for the most important stuff in the end," he lamented. "I couldn't get through to the Diamonds…"

 

"You got through Blue," Bismuth was quick to point out. "You know she wouldn't have sacrificed herself to save us if you hadn't gotten her to see the light."

 

Just thinking of Blue Diamond made Steven wince as he tried his hardest not to cry.

 

"I guess; I just wish she didn't have to throw her life away just as she was coming around," Steven sighed out. "And Yellow and White…"

 

"Both impossible," Bismuth reminded him. "You said you tried to talk to Yellow and she wouldn't budge; we were racing against the clock in a major battle at that time, and you know darn well you couldn't have stopped White from finishing her off."

 

"I just wish I was more mature about it for what little time I had," Steven argued. "It got to where I was just annoying her on purpose without trying to really appeal to her better nature…"

 

Steven was going in circles, and Bismuth was determined to stop the cycle.

 

"Listen, Steven! You had no way to know you wouldn't have another chance to get Yellow to come around!" she declared. "It was out of your hands – all our hands. You know all of us wished we could've done stuff differently at the end of that first mission. We all thought we could've made it out together if only we did certain things a little better, but Garnet proved it all would have played out with the same result no matter who did what differently. Not just the detail of a Crystal Gem getting left behind no matter what, but how Yellow and Blue were gonna end up!"

 

It pained Steven to hear this, but he couldn't deny Bismuth was spot-on with her points.

 

"And I better not hear you even start on White Diamond," Bismuth warned him. "That one, you did literally everything you could with. She turned you down every single time without any hesitation. You know you risked our lives on more than one occasion tryin' to appeal to her, right?"

 

"I'm sorry…" Steven tried to distract himself with another donut. "But after losing Blue and Yellow, I just couldn't give up on her…"

 

"Steven, you can't change everyone's mind," Lars cut in, sighing. "There are people out there so stubborn, they won't budge for anyone for any reason. The ugly truth is that some sick minds out there really are too far gone to be saved. Take it from someone who was a stubborn jerk up till the moment he died: cut your losses, learn from your mistakes, and move on. Focus on who you can help now, instead of dwelling on the ones you couldn't for whatever reason."

 

That struck a major chord with Steven. He immediately recalled how much Lars wanted to change and become someone worth being saved by him. These were sentiments expressed after his revival.

 

Additionally, Steven was very familiar with much of what had been said to him. He'd heard it numerous times before…

 

Primarily from Peridot.

 

As much as Steven loved her, Peridot's pragmatic cynicism often clashed hard with his idealistic point of view. While he didn't deny that Peridot was justified to see things the way she did, part of Steven hoped that everyone else in his life would be more receptive to his approach.

 

But sadly, it turned out more people – humans and gems alike – shared Peridot's ideology than Steven anticipated.

 

The silver lining here was Lars' take on the matter: he did used to be a stubborn, immensely selfish and egotistical jerk. More often than not, his good moments were often tainted or overshadowed by his worst traits; he was absurdly resistant to Steven's influence for a long time.

 

Even if it hadn't been Steven who gave Lars this second chance at life, however, the elder boy wouldn't have been any less inclined to change his ways. All the same, he was living proof that some people would take their stubbornness to the grave.

 

"Well said," Bismuth commended. "In Steven's defense, I can see him not bein' able to turn the Diamonds around is makin' him worry that he won't be able to help the Homeworld refugees accept all the changes to their lives. I won't deny that's gonna be a challenge for all of us."

 

"We certainly sympathize with the position you've been thrown into," the left Rutile expressed.

 

"Even as far removed we've been from Homeworld society, this is a lot to take in even for us," the right Rutile added.

 

Rhodonite nodded in agreement. "Our home planet is no more, and our presumed primary reason for existing – serving the Diamonds, that is – that died with the Diamond Authority itself. We're still adjusting to Earth; I can't imagine how complicated it will be with so many gems hit with this news at once."

 

"But once they realize they can live their lives freely and forge their own path in life as we had, they should be much happier!" Padparadscha excitedly pointed out.

 

"That is the end goal," a shapeshifted Fluorite pointed out in her usual drawl. "They must learn to adapt; to cope with change. Most importantly… learn to place their trust in the Crystal Gems."

 

All Steven could think about in that moment was how he couldn't earn 5XF's trust. He knew full well the elder Peridot only tolerated him at best; there was a high chance that would never change. Peridot running her mouth about Sphalerite being banned from existence basically ensured that 5XF would never consider herself a friend to either of them.

 

He could only hope his and Peridot's failure didn't ruin 5XF's chance to befriend the other Crystal Gems.

 

"You all would be great motivators," Steven finally said as he tried to calm his nerves by munching on another donut. "Can you imagine that? The Off-Colors – gems Homeworld rejected and tossed aside – become the figures for other gems to look up to. You're all living proof that Homeworld gems can live on Earth and live your life without needing a Diamond telling you what to do."

 

"That does sound most delightful!" Padparadscha swooned. "The gems of Homeworld following the example of the ones deemed defective; it could be the ultimate gem success story!"

 

Bismuth smiled, clearly on board with this idea. "I think we oughta formally propose this to our fellow Crystal Gems first, but let it be known that you've got my full support on this one, Steven. We really need all the help we can get, and this here could be a real game-changer!"

 

"Wh-what if we mess up, though?" the perpetually-paranoid Rhodonite asked. "Even the slightest slip-up could turn them all against us; can you imagine the riot?!"

 

"Rhodonite, we're all worrying about messing up," Steven assured the fusion. "You're definitely not alone feeling that way; we're gonna be super careful how we play this, and we'll be there to support each other in case things go south for one of us."

 

"There's a very low chance we're gonna let all the gems out at once," Bismuth pointed out. "Because we need to be able to control the situation, which is gonna be harder to do the more gems we gotta look out for. But we're not retreading the Diamond Authority's M.O. – the Crystal Gems are teachers and guides, not governors. Once the refugees know the laws of the Earth and can coexist with its native life, they're free to go wherever they please and do whatever they want."

 

"Sounds good to me," Lars agreed. "It's not like we're gonna be living in the Big Donut 24/7, so feel free to hit us up if you need us, okay? We can schedule visits and whatever just to make sure you're all hanging in there."

 

Neither Steven nor Bismuth expected to come across a much-needed reprieve from the inevitable future stress when they stopped by the Big Donut. But both were immensely glad they ended up coming here; this was sorely needed good news.

 

"That would be so great," Steven expressed. "Thank you so much for everything, Lars. All of you."

 

Lars let out a sly smirk. "So, I was meaning to ask… you said something about vacationing around the world earlier with your girlfriend. You'd better have pics to share, or else I might be tempted to tell you it didn't really happen."

 

"OH! R-right; I kinda glossed over that part, didn't I?" Steven fumbled around his pockets, thankfully finding his phone soon enough and held it out to Lars once he found the correct collection of pictures. "Here's my proof."

 

Lars eagerly snagged the phone and swept his finger across the screen as he cycled through the pictures… he was very quickly confused. "Wait a sec… this isn't Connie…"

 

"Oh, I didn't mention Connie and I friendzoned each other?" Steven asked with a faux innocent tone. His sly smile made that painfully obvious.

 

"Your girlfriend is a gem?!" Lars had no idea why this surprised him so much. "N-not that there's anything wrong with that, y'know, but what the heck did I miss?! I was so sure–"

 

"That me and Connie were gonna get married?" Steven finished for him, still unusually smug. "Sorry, Lars. That ship has sailed."

 

Lars knew Steven didn't accidentally echo what he himself said earlier. "… Okay, I walked right into that one."

 

Steven let out an amused chuckle. "It's okay; we're still best friends. –Or I guess, more like one of my three best friends. We had a nasty little fallout right after our adventure, but we patched things up. And we just decided at that point, that… well, let's just be friends."

 

"I think I get it," Lars reluctantly understood. "Love messed with your friendship, didn't it?"

 

"Yeah, it's complicated juggling both at once," Steven admitted. "Especially with all the crazy stuff in my life. And I guess with some couples, it just doesn't work out."

 

"Connie said she was in her "Puppy Love" phase… or something like that," Bismuth added. "She thinks she's too young to be worrying about stuff like that as much as she was before. Now, she's all about figurin' out what she wants to be in the future. Y'know, outside of being the greatest human swordswoman of the Crystal Gems."

 

Lars couldn't help but shrug. "She's an ambitious one, huh? Well, I'm not one to hold her back from shooting for the stars; that'd be mega hypocritical of me. It's just tough to wrap my head around it all, you know? You both seemed like a lock for life…"

 

"Life throws me curveballs for breakfast," Steven boasted in jest. "And I'd say Peridot's one of the curviest balls life's ever thrown at me."

 

"Next time, you'd better introduce me to her," Lars told Steven as he continued to look through the vacation pictures. "I can tell she's way into you. Glad you found a keeper, Steven."

 

"How about you?" Steven asked. "You never did tell me why you and Sadie gave up on being a thing. You got someone else in mind?"

 

Lars was a bit embarrassed that he never properly explained that to Steven. Then again, the conversation got derailed pretty quickly by more important topics…

 

"Not too different from why you and Connie didn't work out," the teen admitted. "Love just made us both super toxic for each other. When I came back and found out Sadie's really taking off on that music career she's aiming for, it sorta hit me then and there: our lives feel like they're galaxies apart."

 

Steven thought that over. "Is it because I revived you, Lars?"

 

"The only thing you reviving me did was wake me up," Lars insisted. "You helped me see the big picture, Steven. All that time I wasted, trying to be the coolest dude in Beach City with the most babes on each arm… there's way more to life than that. You didn't do anything to sabotage the relationship, man: I should be thanking you for helping me learn to figure things out on my own. The old Lars could be seriously wrecking Sadie's career right now; the ignorant dick."

 

"Lars, please…" Steven winced at his friend's harsh stance on the man he once was.

 

However, Lars stopped Steven from saying another word. "Hey, I'm not being down on myself," he clarified. "I'm trying to express some gratitude, here! Thanks to you, Steven, you brought out the best in me! And it's important I accept that I used to suck really hard as a human being, okay? I need to remember the man I used to be; that'll keep the current me on the straight-and-narrow!"

 

Steven could have sworn he heard Peridot's voice speaking these very same words along with Lars.

 

"Sounds familiar, huh?" Bismuth playfully nudged Steven with her elbow. She too immediately thought of Peridot, as she heard this very sentiment from her several times in the majority of her video logs.

 

"Almost too familiar," Steven murmured back as he accepted his phone back from Lars.

 

Lars raised an eyebrow at the pair. "What're you talking about?"

 

"I'll tell you next time," Steven hastily promised. "So, no one else yet, huh?"

 

"I'm just now getting readjusted to Earth life again after spending like an eternity in space," Lars retorted. "Not to mention catching everybody up on what's gone on with me since I left – except Ronaldo, of course – not to mention running the store here. There's been no time for that, but don't you worry about a thing, Steven! Just because I've readjusted my priorities doesn't mean I'm not open to finding "the one" eventually. Plenty of fish out there in the sea, after all!"

 

"Good way to go about it," Bismuth approved with a wink. "I'll be rootin' for ya, Lars. Mighty glad I met you!"

 

Lars nodded, offering an honest smile. "It's been an honor; and I'm really looking forward to our groups mingling and working together to make Earth's Era 3 work out."

 

"We'll keep in touch," Steven promised as he tightened his grip on the bag of donuts he had not yet eaten. "Donuts were great, by the way! Please tell me those aren't limited editions…"

 

"Well, they were more of a prototype to see how well they'd sell," Lars admitted as he looked to the kiosk that the Rutile twins were in the middle of restocking. "If everyone else finds them as addictive as you, I'd say they'll make regular in record time."

 

"YAY!" Steven couldn't help but cheer. "Oh, man, I'll have to come back every day to buy out what's left. This'll totally make the Off-Colors take off as mascots."

 

Bismuth waved farewell to her new friends. "We'd stick around and chat some more, but Steven's gonna show off this "Funland" place to me. We weren't expectin' more than just a short pitstop."

 

"Eh, I kinda have to work, anyway," Lars admitted. "Old Man Dewey could show up any second now and bite my head off for chatting with the loitering customers."

 

"At least you're a lot happier here than you were before," Steven thoughtfully pointed out. "I'm so happy you've come as far as you have, Lars. And I'm beyond relieved you and the others made it to Earth safely. You all rest easy, now! No one's gonna hunt you down ever again."

 

Steven and Bismuth bid the Off-Colors farewell and sprinted out of the store; the former leading the way to Funland.

 

"What a way to start the day," Lars sighed out. "It was like he totally vanished on everybody… but I guess Steven's got a bigger calling in his life than any of us would've expected."

 

"I welcome this new era," Fluorite warmly expressed as she made her way out the door and shifted back to her much larger size. "We're about to see great things from that hybrid."

 

"O-oh dear!" Padparadscha exclaimed, sounding alarmed. "Speaking of seeing things, I just had a very troubling premonition, everyone!"

 

While this would normally be a cause for concern, Rhodonite rolled her eyes. If it was truly as bad as the Sapphire claimed, they all would have suffered already. "Must you disrupt this peaceful morning with that nonsense?"

 

"It's okay," Lars assured the small gem. "Go ahead and share."

 

"Steven will purchase a large quantity of our stock… and leave without paying!"

 

That made everyone's heads turn.

 

"Crap, did I seriously forget to ring Steven up?!" Lars rushed over to the register to find… he most certainly did.

 

"We would have earned so much money," Padparadscha lamented. "If only he didn't skip out on the bill…"

 

Rhodonite gave a stern look to Lars. "That other human coworker of yours won't be happy about this. Shall I set up a tab?"

 

"It's on the house," Lars decided as he made up for the difference with his own money. "Just this once. I owe him at least that much for saving my life, you know? Besides… you gotta spend money to make money."

 


 

"Thanks for everything you said back there," Steven told Bismuth as Funland came into view. "I dunno what's with me today…"

 

"You have been shootin' yourself down way more than you usually do," Bismuth noted. "But hey, I'm always here to pick up a friend when they're feelin' down. I'll make sure you don't break down on me when we're supposed to be havin' fun!"

 

It truly was more of a chore than Bismuth let on, as she not only had to keep Steven afloat, but keep herself from showing how hurt she was when certain topics were brought up. They were skimming very close to the very topics both were so on edge with each other about.

 

"Well, a place like this won't give us much time to mope around," an assured Steven stated. "It's all about doing stuff than talking."

 

"Well hey there, Steven! Good to see you still kickin'! You been off growin' in to that new body?"

 

Steven's eyes lit up as he saw another familiar figure he hadn't seen in ages. "Mr. Smiley! Haha, good one! I've just been really super busy, but I wanted to bring a new friend here!"

 

Mr. Smiley was startled, but not surprised when Steven ran up and hugged him. "H-heh, yep! You're definitely still Steven. Not bringin' in your usuals today?"

 

"The usuals are out on their own adventure," Steven calmly explained. "Mr. Smiley, Bismuth. Bismuth, Mr. Smiley."

 

"I see you live up to your name, good sir!" Bismuth commended as she shook the man's hand. "Don't you worry; I'm just as lively as Steven's squadmates!"

 

"Huh, just noticed no one else is actually here," Steven pointed out as he observed his surroundings. "How did business get so bad?"

 

Mr. Smiley narrowed his eyes but retained his smile. "Business is always like this around this time, kid. It's Monday morning and kids are still in school for a couple more weeks."

 

"That just means more rides for us, right?" Bismuth asked Steven.

 

"Good point," Steven agreed. "No lines. This is actually awesome!"

 

"Yeah. Workin' at a time like this… awesome stuff…"

 

When Steven and Bismuth curiously looked to Mr. Smiley, he quickly recomposed himself.

 

"I mean, yeah! No lines, ride all the rides you want! Play some games, while you're at it!"

 

Bismuth grinned. "I'm game! But I'll let you lead the way, Steven. All this stuff looks interesting, but you're the one who's gonna know where the hot spots are."

 

Steven nodded in agreement. "I won't steer you wrong. We're both definitely tall enough for everything now, right, Mr. Smiley?"

 

"Looks like it," Mr. Smiley observed. "Glad that growth spurt finally struck ya, son. You were overdue!"

 

Finally, Steven could ride everything in Funland without having to resort to subterfuge to bypass the height regulations. He hoped Peridot had at least grown enough to overcome that hurdle herself on her next visit… then again, Steven remembered even if that wasn't enough, his girlfriend could will her body to meet the set requirements. He really did regret not being able to take Peridot on the rides last time…

 

"Tell me about it," he agreed with Mr. Smiley after a short pause. "Okay, Bismuth! Let's have some fun!"

 

And so, their fun commenced.

 


 

Bismuth and Steven were thoroughly enjoying themselves as they experienced each attraction Funland had to offer without having to wait in line at all.

 

In a way, Steven was baffled how much more fun a place like this was when no one else was around. As someone who enjoyed the company of people, he was surprised to find he wasn't even bothered by the lack of the usual cries of joy and screams of other passengers as he and Bismuth tried out every single ride.

 

As long as he had at least one friend at his side, the crowd that usually filled this theme park now seemed more like an annoyance in hindsight; it came to a point where Steven wondered how he'd tolerate future visits (presumedly during normal business hours) if his fun was hampered by lines of people. It was so much faster to get around in Funland at this hour, on top of that. Steven vastly overestimated how much time it would take for him to tour Bismuth through every attraction.

 

Bismuth herself was having fun; she was a very easy gem to please. She naturally had a bundle of questions to ask Steven for every ride they went to and got a crash-course in multiple aspects of human culture as a result. Thankfully, the thrill and amusement provided by the rides balanced out the overwhelming knowledge the blacksmith took in. She really wondered how she managed to completely overlook this place even though she had been back for at least a month. Granted, she had been gone or busy half the time, but it was still surreal when Bismuth realized a place like this was within walking distance from the Crystal Gems' home base.

 

Some rides were enjoyable enough for repeat runs; of course, Bismuth's inner architect couldn't resist studying how everything was designed. She soon found herself full of ideas how to make these attractions sturdier, more attractive, and most importantly, more fun. No Homeworld construct she'd ever seen or built came even close to resembling the designs of this discount, second-rate theme park. Like Peridot, Bismuth was fascinated how Earth made up for their inferior technological advancements compared to Homeworld by introducing the element of entertainment to their work.

 

At the very least, it was a fantastic way for Steven and Bismuth to spend a couple of hours leaving the drama of their new lives behind them in favor of marveling at the positives of just living in the moment.

 

In a place like this, the duo could forget their worries and their woes in the name of fun.

 

Unfortunately, that went against what Bismuth and Steven wanted to accomplish in the first place with this outing. The thrills and the fun of an amusement park made them forget they badly needed to talk.

 

"Oooh, here we go! That's what I'm talkin' about! "Test Your Strength"? That one sounds straightforward enough!"

 

Steven had a feeling Bismuth wouldn't be able to resist this game. "Yeah, it's pretty self-explanatory. I just wish it was that easy to actually win."

 

Bismuth gave Steven a curious look. "Seriously? Nobody ever wins this one?"

 

"The mallet's like half my weight," Steven admitted. "Which makes it really hard for most of us to even lift it and hit the target – never mind hit It hard enough to make the marker ring the bell."

 

"Ah, so that's how it works," Bismuth understood. "Well, Steven, you're half-gem and a bigger man yourself since you last tried this; how 'bout you give me a demonstration?"

 

"Hah, we'll see about that!" a visibly exhausted Mr. Smiley boasted. "I ramped up the difficulty after your purple friend broke this thing."

 

Steven handed a ticket over to the man and grabbed the mallet. "It was just a matter of time before Amethyst busted it, huh? We'll be careful."

 

"You'd better," Mr. Smiley warned; his tone still jolly as ever despite being visibly worn down. "I'd hate to give you another lifetime ban!"

 

"Show that contraption who's boss, Steven!" Bismuth cheered. "Drop that hammer!"

 

Emboldened by his friend's encouragement and his own self-assurance of his recent developments, Steven slammed down the mallet with all his might.

 

However, he was quickly deflated to find the marker and the lights not even reach the halfway point. "Wow… you really did make this harder for us."

 

It was apparent no ordinary human would ever win at this game again.

 

"Let me take a crack at it," Bismuth urged as she gave Mr. Smiley a ticket. However, her eager smile dissipated as she was given the mallet. "Hm… you might wanna invest in something better than this; I could break the handle without even thinkin' about it. Is it okay if I use my own?"

 

Mr. Smiley didn't expect to hear a question like this, but tentatively nodded as he was given back the mallet. "If you say so."

 

Steven had a bad feeling about this, but he held it down. He could barely hide his concern when Bismuth's hand morphed into the shape of a much bigger mallet, however.

 

The familiarity of this weapon sparked some very brief flashes of certain past events.

 

"I'm callin' shenanigans if I can't beat this," Bismuth boasted. "Okay, game: time for your stress test!"

 

Needless to say, the deafening impact from Bismuth's throwdown was more than enough to ring the bell… at least before the marker was shot up with so much force that it knocked the bell off entirely. The lights lit all the way up to the top, but soon shorted out; the power behind Bismuth's downward thrust cracked the machine.

 

All eyes were on the soaring bell, but for Steven and Bismuth, both swore they saw something else in its place.

 

Or rather, someone. That poor, unfortunate White Pearl.

 

"You killed it! Literally and figuratively!" Mr. Smiley cried out; his choice of words only triggering his pair of customers further.

 

The bell fell out of sight… and a second later, a splash was heard. Bismuth's strength sent a piece of the heavily rigged game careening into the ocean.

 

"I-I'm really sorry, Mr. Smiley!" a panicked Steven apologized. "Please don't ban us; w-we can fix this! I'll get the bell for you!"

 

"Steven, I'll get the bell," Bismuth asserted. "This is my doing… it's my responsibility. You oughta stay put and see if you can't patch up that machine."

 

Steven's face fell at the sound of Bismuth's abruptly somber tone. Inadvertently, through his aura, he picked up on his friend's sudden, intense feeling of guilt and regret… every bit as strong as his own, and definitely not brought on by accidentally breaking a game.

 

However, she had a point. Steven had a chance to salvage this with his own powers… but to do that, he would have to remain here.

 

"I-I'll fix it as fast as I can," Steven promised. "But I'm going after you if you haven't found the bell by then."

 

Bismuth really didn't think that was a good idea, but she had lost the gumption to protest. She simply headed off without a word, in the direction where the bell plunged into the ocean.

 

Mr. Smiley didn't anticipate this to play out so dramatically; he could tell there was some legitimate tension between Steven and his friend that seemingly came out of nowhere. He could only watch in awe as Steven licked his hand and placed it over the broken base of the game… and watched the cracks mend.

 

Steven concentrated as hard as he could to restore this machine to its former glory; he did not want to leave Bismuth out on her own any longer than he absolutely had to.

 


 

Of course, the bell was not going to be that easy to find. Bismuth could only go so far in the water before she was forced to turn back: while she didn't need to breathe, she wasn't exactly adept in getting around underwater.

 

The Pearl she had to kill kept popping up in her mind, on top of that. She was never seen to shatter, but being helplessly frozen in a block of ice while falling from such a great height basically ensured her demise at the bottom.

 

That situation was so easy to push aside in the past; sensible, as so many other more pressing matters surrounded the Crystal Gems at the time. Only Steven truly mourned that White Pearl's loss, and him even doing that was a huge detriment to the team.

 

"I figured that bell fell pretty deep."

 

Bismuth whipped around to see a very downtrodden Steven at the shoreline. "Steven?! There's no way–"

 

Steven shook his head. "My spit heals stuff pretty quick nowadays. We'd better hurry, Bismuth. Tides can carry light stuff really far out."

 

Immediately following that, Bismuth found herself sharing a pink bubble with Steven. She helped him roll their spherical shield further underwater with nary a protest.

 

Shortly after they were fully submerged, both Steven and Bismuth's gemstones lit up in hopes of catching the gleam of the metal bell they sought.

 

"We've both been avoiding why we really came out here," Steven suddenly said, to Bismuth's shock. "But after what happened this morning, I…"

 

"Needed to distance yourself from reality for a little while," Bismuth finished for him. "Yep. Ain't nothin' wrong with that, Steven. But… we had to get to this point sooner or later."

 

Steven glumly nodded. "The sooner, the better. But… I'm not sure where to start."

 

Bismuth didn't expect Steven had very similar plans in mind as hers, but when she really thought about it… this made sense. Of course, they weren't quite on the same page yet.

 

"I'm a gem known to get along with almost anybody," Bismuth sighed out. "You're no exception, despite everything that happened before with Rose. There's really only a couple of things that would qualify as "issues" between us."

 

"Mom's actually sort of… related to what I wanted to talk about," Steven admitted. "What about you?"

 

Bismuth bring herself to look at Steven. "Sorta related, but more about what I ended up doing after everything we talked about when I came back, and everything you told me when I got my second chance."

 

Had it not been for the nature of their quest, Steven would have had to take a minute to think this over. However, he could see the issue plain as day now. "The Pearl on Homeworld…"

 

"Yeah… we never really talked much about that," Bismuth said with a sigh. "Peri said she read you the riot act to get your head back in the game, but…"

 

"She needed to," Steven insisted, sounding fully sure of himself. "Because I was risking Blue Diamond's sacrifice being for nothing by just standing there and freaking out over it. You know, instead of running for my life like I should've done from the start."

 

"But that wouldn't be like you," Bismuth pointed out. "Just like Rose, you treasure all life… even the lives that threaten our own. That's what I'd call "caring to a fault", but… it's not like I haven't thought about doing something differently back then. I'm not proud of what I did, Steven. But I do stand by it."

 

Steven's eyes tiredly darted around their oceanic surroundings; still no bell to be found.

 

"I never got the impression that you were proud of doing that," he informed his fellow gem. "I bet it was hard for you… not only doing what you did, but knowing how I've always felt about that kind of thing, just like Mom. And I had to see it happen, on top of that… I wasn't ready–"

 

"I know a lot of gems were made to be ready to see death happen at any time – and I guess I'm no exception – but one thing I 100% agreed with Rose on was that no one should be conditioned to see something so horrible," Bismuth cut in. "We shouldn't want to kill each other… death is not something we should just shrug off, no matter who it is or how much they had it coming."

 

Steven couldn't agree more, but this didn't stop him from wanting to cry. "I really can't think of what else you could've done differently that would've made us any safer getting out of there," he admitted. "I know just poofing her and nothing more was a huge risk to take. Too big a risk… we didn't learn about pallification until right after that; if we didn't get back inside fast enough, any one of us could've gotten infected."

 

"She also could've reformed at any time and chased us inside," Bismuth added. "We might've not had time to get Garnet, Pearl, or Amethyst all patched up and caught up on what was goin' on. It could've been just the five of us at the end, there. And I don't like thinkin' about our chances of escaping with our lives under those conditions, you know?"

 

"Wow. I didn't even think about that," Steven realized; his eyes widened. "Geez, Connie didn't even have a weapon…"

 

Bismuth was relieved Steven was taking this seriously and thinking of the exact same points she and Lapis considered earlier.

 

"Yep. We might've never made it off Homeworld," she told him. "I'm not wantin' to say it's just because you insisted on givin' that Pearl mercy, but…"

 

Steven closed his eyes and nodded his head. "I get it. Like you said at the Big Donut, I literally did risk your lives because I wanted to believe White Diamond could really change. Believe me, Peridot and Connie both got on my case about that. I can't say they're wrong, but…"

 

"Don't let us get you all jaded," Bismuth advised. "You need to be able to trust your intuition; sometimes you're right, sometimes you're wrong. But if you doubt yourself all the time, you're always gonna be wrong."

 

"That's a good point," Steven commended, managing to smile a little. "I really didn't expect you to be hard on yourself over this still."

 

Bismuth gave Steven a hard look. "Steven, didn't you ever wonder why Peri led the charge in the first place? Was she really the one that first came to your mind when you thought who you'd see up front-and-center when you got saved?"

 

Steven was surprised how he barely gave this detail any thought… "Huh. That's a good point. You're the experienced Crystal Gem out of who we had left. You were kinda in charge when you first met up with me and Connie…"

 

"Peridot named me second-in-command," Bismuth confirmed. "And you saw how she was…"

 

"Huh, I think even she wasn't expecting to lead you guys," Steven realized. "I just remembered she talked to me about everything you all did to set this rescue mission up while I was healing her. And I could tell she was trying to hide it, but Peri was really insecure… she really didn't think I could seriously see her as a leader. She didn't expect me to say yes."

 

"She really did improve after you healed her up," Bismuth warmly expressed. "Peri was not kiddin' about that "center of gravity" thing. She was all over the place, but you gave her the confidence she needed to reach her full potential. And even now, she's clearly got a lot to learn… but as long as you're not too far away, Peridot oughta be just fine."

 

Of course, Steven couldn't help but blush. "Aw… thanks, Bismuth. I mean, I kinda expected her to have a big role in our rescue. Not just because she'd never pass up looking that good to us, but she's the only one who could really guide us through Homeworld since it's changed so much since the rest of you were there."

 

"True, that was probably the biggest reason why we assigned her to the top," Bismuth admitted. "But I had another reason… less about why Peri should lead, but why I shouldn't."

 

Steven paused as he heard his fellow gem's tone grow darker towards the end. "Is it… because of Mom?"

 

Bismuth shook her head. "As much as I wish we didn't have to kill White's Pearl, it's pretty amazing how she was the only casualty by our own hands. I can't shake this feeling, Steven… if I led the rescue mission, there would've been way more casualties."

 

"… You really think it would've played out that way?" Steven felt his innards tremble at her words.

 

"If we did things my way, it's just common sense it would," Bismuth told him. "I don't do stealth or subterfuge, Steven. In my time, Homeworld already knew where we were; where we lived. The element of surprise was almost never on our side. Fighting back to defend ourselves… that's all we could do. So that's really the only I way I've ever known to fight Homeworld… even though that approach probably would've gotten us killed before we even reached Homeworld's orbit."

 

It saddened Steven to hear this, but it felt like he understood Bismuth better now. He knew these were details he needed to be aware of; how life really was for his mother and her followers.

 

"It made me think… if I really rescued you all like that; shatterin' every gem in my path… you might actually think Rose was right to sweep me under the rug like that. And the second we got home, I'd go right back to being stuck in bubble-stasis in Lion's mane… where I belonged."

 

Steven immediately went over to hug Bismuth tightly. "I'm so sorry; I should've never, ever said you were just like the Diamonds!"

 

Bismuth was startled, but gently hugged the boy back. "Wha… what brought this on, now?"

 

"I was awful that day!" Steven cried out, no longer able to hold in his tears. "I-I guess we both were, but I started it by saying something like that! I just ignored what your life must've been like, having to fight all the time for survival… I was trying to make you think that you were no better than the Diamonds just for defending yourself and your friends, which is no different from what I'm doing!"

 

The blacksmith was compelled to pat the boy's head in hopes of calming him down. "So, that's what got you down… 5XF saying that to Peri made you remember that time, huh?"

 

Steven shook his head. "It was a refresher, I guess, but that was nothing compared to what Dot said…"

 

"Huh? But she didn't say anything about it…" Bismuth was understandably confused.

 

"N-no; this was during our vacation," Steven sobbed out. "It's… oh, geez, I can't even explain this to you in a way that's gonna make any sense!"

 

"But you're gonna try, because we're gonna talk this out here and now," Bismuth asserted. "Just give me some bare-bones details and I'll fill in the blanks later. I wanna know what Peri said about you and me."

 

Steven eventually calmed down; he had to give credit to Bismuth later for being so patient and understanding with him.

 

"O-okay… I'll try. It's just… really complicated, because it was technically Peridot who said it to me, but sort of… not."

 

Bismuth raised a brow at that statement. "Oh, boy. This oughta be fun."

 

"5XF got internally corrupted by Gypsum," Steven started after taking a deep breath. "Me and Peri; we got ambushed. We got knocked out… and when we woke up, we were… split into two identical people. One represented all our best traits…"

 

"And I suppose the other was the worst of you personified," Bismuth postulated. "Light against the darkness, right?"

 

Steven was impressed how easily and quickly Bismuth grasped the concept. "Y-yeah, exactly! And one can't live without the other, so none of us could afford to die. But… Peri and me already accepted the worst parts of ourselves. So what ended up happening instead was… we got separated in different dimensions. I had to fight Dot's dark side, and she had to fight mine. There was no way we were able to contact or help each other… and the idea was that only one of us was gonna get out of that mess alive."

 

Now… Bismuth was mildly horrified. "Stars almighty… this happened on your vacation?!"

 

"Well, we ended up finding a loophole that saved us both," Steven tiredly explained. "But I'd rather hold back on talking about the whole thing… it was hard enough to live through and it's still giving me nightmares."

 

Bismuth quickly nodded. "Right; this is really something you should get into when the whole team's together…"

 

"Let's just talk about the part where Dark Dot mentioned you," Steven sighed. "She actually spent most of the time talking to me instead of fighting… but that was just to get me to let my guard down. Where she really got me was, er… I guess at some point you talked to her about that conversation we had before I poofed you."

 

"Hm… yeah, that was probably one of our first real conversations one-on-one," Bismuth recalled, now feeling awkward about it in hindsight. "This was before the wedding happened, but after everyone calmed down since no one was gonna introduce me to her after all that. You'll probably know where this is going already once I tell you how we told each other about how we joined up…"

 

It didn't take long for Steven to piece this together. "Oh… right. You both ended up with us after trying to kill me." He couldn't help but let out a sigh of resignation. "Well, at least that was just a one-time deal with you, and Dark Dot helped me see it was least understandable in your case. Full-Dot's a repeat offender; she had her reasons, too, but it took months to get her to knock that off."

 

Bismuth couldn't help but find that slightly humorous. "She is a stubborn gem; can't imagine what a handful she was as an enemy."

 

"I'm just glad we never really had to deal with Peridot at her worst," Steven admitted, visibly fearful of the prospect. "That's another story, but I think you already got an idea on the first Homeworld mission that she started out being a really twisted gem…"

 

It just hit Bismuth then as she recalled how eerie and unsettling Peridot was after poofing Yellow Pearl and her entire workstation: poor Steven was talking at length with that kind of Peridot. The same one who teased shattering her helpless coworkers, who was far too proud of her own sadistic tactics, and didn't hesitate lashing out at those who cared for her.

 

"Oh… stars, Steven, that's the kind of Peri you had to deal with…"

 

"You know what was really messed up about that whole exchange?" Steven rhetorically asked her. "I got to see through memories just how convincing Peri used to be as a liar. She can't do it to save her life now, but she was really good at it as the gem she used to be. But… Dark Dot, as much as she and I talked… she didn't lie once that entire time. She was completely honest with me at every turn."

 

Bismuth couldn't help but find that odd. "That… doesn't fit well with a Peri that's supposed to be nothin' but the bad stuff. Wouldn't a real bad version of her do nothin' but lie?"

 

"The truth can hurt," Steven realized. "Sometimes we need blunt honesty, but other times people can use it just to be mean and rub people's weaknesses in their faces. And lies… are almost always a bad thing, but I guess there's an argument to be had for white lies."

 

"Is there?" a cynical Bismuth inquired. "A lie is a lie, Steven."

 

"Right, but sometimes the truth isn't always the right way to go with certain people," Steven argued. "People can be really sensitive. Maybe someone you're close to shows off a new outfit, or they make something for you that they poured all their heart into and it's just… well, not for you. Maybe it's awful, maybe you're not seeing what they're seeing. Point is, being too liberal with the truth can hurt people without helping them at all."

 

Bismuth still wasn't fully sold. "But lying can actually benefit others?"

 

"Think about someone who's about to die, and in their last moments they think they're seeing their loved ones, or their home when they're really not," Steven urged. "You really wanna shatter that image by telling them they're just seeing things and they're dying alone?"

 

The mood got dark very quickly this time.

 

"Guess there's no sense in doing that," Bismuth conceded, though she was clearly concerned with Steven and his own mindset. "If you're gonna die, best you do it with a smile, huh?"

 

Steven nodded in agreement. "Sometimes there's just things people are better off not knowing, too. And sometimes to protect them from the truth, you gotta lie. I think that's what Mom meant to do every time she lied… but you're living proof that even good intentions can really hurt people; sometimes even more than just being a jerk."

 

Bismuth couldn't help but wince at that; she had been stranded and alone, trapped in an elaborate prison for thousands of years… all because Rose Quartz lied to the Crystal Gems of what really happened between them. She wanted to shield them from the ugly truth, but she did so at Bismuth's expense.

 

"Point is, the truth isn't exclusively good or evil," Steven concluded. "And if that's the case, so is lying. Dark Dot was smart, too. She knew it would've been a waste of time to even lie to me, Bismuth: she knew I had the ability to see through her words by reading how she felt. She pretty much didn't have a choice but to be honest with me if she wanted to get out of that situation alive."

 

"I vaguely remember Peri saying she was disappointed in how you acted when I told her about our conflict," Bismuth recalled. "She was fully siding with me over Rose in the video she made to me, but… she had way more contempt for Rose's conduct than she ever had for yours, Steven."

 

Steven felt his whole body slump in that moment; thankfully, Bismuth kept him grounded.

 

"No, Dark Dot proved she really didn't like the way I handled things with you the first time," he realized. "It was like… like… a verbal apocalypse or something! She rubbed it in hard that I had the nerve to say you were just like a genocidal tyrant like the Diamonds, just because you didn't agree with how I saw things! I-I was still stubborn and stupid enough to think love and peace would solve everything, and I demonized you for being realistic! For being logical! That's why Peridot felt so strongly about this whole thing, Bismuth! You share the same beliefs, and you're not wrong for feeling the way you do! But it's like…"

 

"She could see herself in my position," Bismuth sadly finished for him. "Peri told me as much in the video, Steven. I just didn't think she'd take it so personally; she really had nothing to do with our conflict…"

 

Steven shook his head. "You're her friend now, though. She feels for you; I think she wants to make sure something like that never happens to you again. As much as me and Peri love each other, Bismuth, we still don't agree on a lot of stuff. And all the love in the world isn't enough to erase how she really felt about that situation."

 

"What are you implying?" Bismuth inquired, though she had a feeling she wasn't going to like his answer…

 

"The last thing Dark Dot said…" Steven himself felt sick to even recount it, but… "She said she didn't blame you for a single thing you did. Because she believed I deserved to die for everything I said to you."

 

This was far worse than what the blacksmith expected to hear. "Peridot seriously thought you should've been killed back then?!"

 

"Like I said at the start, it's not really all of Peridot that feels that way," Steven asserted through his tears. "I mean, it wouldn't make sense when she loves me as much as she does… and how she's so determined to protect me. But there's always going to be a tiny little part of her that's gonna despise me for how I first treated you, Bismuth. The part of her that wished I died back then… it's microscopic, and it's all contained inside the gem she used to be, who hated everything about me. But Peri isn't defined by her anymore – her past self still exists, but it's there as a reminder. It's what drives her to keep bettering herself, you know?"

 

"Just like the rest of us…" Bismuth knew looking back on her worst moments often compelled her to keep moving past them as best she could. "So, Peri doesn't really feel that way about you… you two talked about all this after it was over, right?"

 

Fresh tears spilled from Steven's eyes. "No, we haven't! We haven't even had the chance, because–"

 

He managed to stop himself from saying more.

 

"Because of stuff you'll tell us about when you're ready," Bismuth understood, patting the fluffy curls on Steven's head. "So, this is what got you all tore up with me. Please don't tell me you agree with the part of Peri that said you deserved to die."

 

"N-no," Steven whined through his sniffling. "B-but it made me think… you know… I really didn't do enough to make this up to you, Bismuth. We talk about it like it was just any old argument, but it really wasn't! And however bad it was for you to attack me and still treat me like I'm Mom like pretty much everyone else does already, it was just as bad for me to be so judgmental of you! I disrespected you and everything you worked for and made it sound like it meant nothing… even though I have no clue what it was like for you all when you were fighting Homeworld here on Earth, and I'll really never understand or appreciate you like I should."

 

Bismuth managed to smile; it was heartwarming to hear Steven finally admit this to her face, however much it hurt him to do so.

 

"Well, to be fair, you're the change I'm still havin' the hardest time adjustin' to," she gently admitted. "And because of that, when I think about what you'd say to me, what you think about me… and how you'd react around me, all that comes to mind even now is the stuff Rose would say; what she'd think, and what she'd do. Because much as I loved her, Steven, I know now she's not the messiah we all made her out to be. Rose did some bad things, whether she meant well or not. And I know firsthand she can dish out some really twisted, disproportionate justice…"

 

"Bismuth, I swear on Mom's diamond that I'm never gonna do you the way she did," Steven solemnly promised. "Not for any reason – that's a fate worse than death. And I know you better now… at least I'm hoping I do; any conflict we come across in the future, we'll deal with it and we're gonna remember what not to do."

 

That was a much-needed lifted weight from Bismuth's shoulders. "I needed to hear that, Steven. Thank you."

 

"I'm not sure how to help you get your mind off Mom when it comes to me," Steven admitted. "I mean, I can't blame you any more than I can blame any other gem who's got the exact same problem… and I'm sure it's impossible to just totally forget about her."

 

Bismuth nodded in agreement, letting out a chuckle. "You just keep bein' you, Steven," she urged. "As much as you've got in common with Rose, I'm glad to see you've inherited the best of her. And there's plenty about you that makes you distinct from her in the best ways possible, Steven. It's only been a month since I've been back in the game, so maybe we just gotta give ourselves some more time to adjust."

 

Steven offered a nervous smile in return. "I keep forgetting that it's not just me and Mom that you've gotta get used to…"

 

"Y'know, that's another reason why I let Peri take the reigns when we took off for Homeworld," Bismuth told him. "It's still hard comin' around every day and not seein' Snowflake, Biggs, Tiger's Eye and so many others I used to greet every morning. You've never really met 'em, but they're still family to me just as much as Pearl and Garnet are. And even though I still have those two, it's hard to shake off how I remember them actin' and lookin' like back in my day. But they've been living with all this loss and devastation for thousands of years that I just learned about…"

 

"They've hardly changed at all since I've known them," Steven responded. "Most gems I've seen never really change except for Peridot… but I guess after that much time and losing Mom, they would be different from how you last saw 'em. Is there anything I can do to help you out with that?"

 

Bismuth gave the boy another much-needed hug. "Naw; I just need to spend some more time with 'em, that's all. Time like that's hard to come by these days. I just wanted to let you know nostalgia can really mess with your head, Steven. It's why I felt like it was gonna be a huge risk in more ways than one havin' me make all the decisions. If I'm still afraid you're gonna say and do the things Rose would, that's a sign screamin' at me to get this mess sorted out before I can take on any kind of responsibility."

 

Steven finally felt calm; his tears were dried, and he could tell with his aura reading that they were both finally at peace, having let out everything they needed with each other.

 

"It feels like we both reached our goal today," he serenely expressed. "This got a lot heavier than I planned, but… maybe it needed to be."

 

"We're still gonna keep each other in check," Bismuth assured him. "But at least now we understand each other a lot better than we did before. We can't very well manage Earth's Era 3 if there's no trust between us!"

 

"I'm glad Garnet gave us extra time to settle in," Steven sighed out. "There's a lot of pressure around what we gotta do, and–"

 

Just then, the light of his gemstone caught the glint of something metallic. "Oh, geez! I think I see the bell!"

 

"Oh, you're just now seein' it?" Bismuth teased.

 

Steven turned to Bismuth, raising a brow. "Wait… you already knew it was here. How long have you known that, Bismuth?!"

 

"Around the time you figured out we really needed to talk," Bismuth casually explained as they rolled their pink bubble over toward the sunken bell. "I figured that was a little more important, y'know?"

 

Steven let out an exasperated sigh as he reached out, bubbled the bell, then merged the bubbles to bring the bell into his hands. "Well… guess I can't argue with you there. At least it's still in one piece."

 

"That's a shoddy piece of work, I gotta admit," Bismuth told him. "I could make a bell a million times better than that; heck, I could make a better-lookin' contraption for that game without breakin' a sweat! Pearl or Peri would have to do the electronic stuff, though."

 

"Well, one of the two can just make that happen through willpower now," Steven realized. "It would be a nice gesture after all the trouble we caused for Mr. Smiley…"

 

Just then, Bismuth looked very determined with a new goal in mind.

 

"Steven, let's hurry back up to the surface," she suggested. "I have a proposition or two for that smilin' man. They've been simmerin' in the back of my mind for hours!"

 

He had to admit, it was inspiring to see Bismuth this driven. Steven had a vague idea where this was going and offered his friend a reassuring smile.

 

"If it's gonna save me from another lifetime ban, I'm all for it. Let's go!"

 


 

"So… hold on. You seriously expect me to believe you'd maintain this place, make improvements, and not expect any kinda compensation?! You think I was born yesterday, honey?"

 

"Listen, if you're gonna insist on payin' me, give it to Steven," Bismuth insisted. "And I won't have much interest in working my magic on this place if he ain't allowed to enjoy it, so you'd best make him immune to any future lifetime bans from now on!"

 

Steven grinned and shrugged at the still-cynical Mr. Smiley. "H-hey, this was all her idea, but I really think you should let Bismuth work on this place. This kinda stuff is what she was made for, and no one could just make up a list that huge of all those structural flaws she pointed out."

 

"Look, I'll admit you're not bluffin' on her skill; that new strength-tester is tight," Mr. Smiley told him. "But understand it makes sense that I'm not just gonna go along with this just because it sounds good!"

 

"You would be a stupid idiot to pass up on a steal like this, sir. Bismuth just pointed out all the various ways this amusement park could injure or kill your human customers if you simply ignore the many ways your attractions could give out at any moment. She is offering to install preventative measures, asking for nothing in return, and you will lose nothing in this deal. Unless you desire an inevitable lawsuit that will shatter your reputation and your means of living, I suggest you stop asking questions and accept our offer."

 

Mr. Smiley stared at the green technician applying the finishing touches on the new machine. "Uh… haven't I seen you somewhere before?"

 

Peridot smirked back at the man. "Didn't I just tell you to stop asking questions?"

 

"Hmph… well, if I've got nothin' to lose…" Mr. Smiley rolled his eyes before shaking Bismuth's hand. "Fine, fine! You got yourself a deal, Bismithy!"

 

"Nice nickname! And thank you kindly, Sir Smiley!" Bismuth said through her laughs. "Trust me, you won't regret this Bismuth decision anytime soon!"

 

Both Steven and Peridot shared a snort at the shameless wordplay.

 

"Thanks for stopping by to rig up the electronic stuff, Dot," Steven told his girlfriend. "I'm sorry for interrupting your thing with Amethyst."

 

"Trust me; you made the right decision doing this instead of coming with us," Peridot assured. "You'd be bored to tears by now. But I'd still choose the tedious birthday-calculating any day over whatever in stars' name Pearl is waiting to unleash on me at home."

 

"Peridot, are you sure you didn't do anything to bring that on?" Steven asked her, now much more serious. He knew their rivalry in mechanics would always breed animosity between the two in some form.

 

Of course, shamelessly dating the boy she helped raise as her own would add a layer to said animosity.

 

"You'd be able to tell if was lying, anyway," Peridot flatly pointed out. "But I seriously don't recall deliberately doing anything that would have set Pearl off. It's not like I had much time to do anything other than be with you since we got back…"

 

Blushing, she quickly added, "N-not that I'm saying that's a bad thing; far from it. But you should know there's nothing I could have done intentionally. I'm sure she just found another reason to despise me, that's all."

 

Steven picked up on the nagging doubt in Peridot's tone, but it wasn't because she lied; she had to still be worrying about why she couldn't remember much of anything after a certain point last night.

 

After all, that continued to linger in Steven's mind as well.

 

"You're a lifesaver, my Tiny superior!" Bismuth praised her small friend, who of course glowed to receive this. "I knew you'd set these lights and digital doohickeys up without even thinkin' about it. And you sure did a better job laying that design out than whatever schmuck designed the old one!"

 

"This theme park badly needs an overhaul," Peridot agreed. "Steven took me to a few of the most famous ones in the world, and ohmystars, they are galaxies ahead of these pitiful knock-offs. And I could still do a better job than those professional-grade rides! And so could you, Bismuth!"

 

Bismuth triumphantly pumped her fist into the air. "That's what I wanna hear! Share some notes with me when you got the time, Peri! We're gonna make Beach City have some world-class rides! That oughta win over at least a few refugees, right?"

 

Peridot smirked at the idea as she stood up, having finished her task. "We'd at least find out which ones are soulless problem gems if any aren't won over. I'll share some reference photos when we return home for the day, Bismuth. But I do believe I'm finished here, so I'd best return to the Prime Kindergarten and make sure Amethyst hasn't snapped and broken my machine out of sheer boredom."

 

"Has it really been that tedious just getting her birthday figured out?" Steven asked, perplexed that a seemingly simple task would be so daunting.

 

"Let's just say I have a very healthy contempt for the Gregorian calendar you humans insist on using," Peridot smugly told the boy as she started to pass him by… only to suddenly embrace him and indulge in a kiss.

 

Bismuth smiled knowingly at the sight while Mr. Smiley wasn't sure what he saw was real. "Dang! Since when did Steven get game?!"

 

"Oh, hush," Bismuth teased the man. "They've been apart for a good few hours until now, and both of 'em thrive on affection. Didn't you ever have feelings like this?"

 

"Way too long ago–I mean, none of your dang business, woman!" Mr. Smiley was visibly flustered as Bismuth warmly chuckled back at him.

 

The loving couple reluctantly parted; both relieved and at ease in each other's presence despite the tensions from earlier in the day.

 

At least, one of them felt at ease until they suddenly felt a little peculiar.

 

Steven, lovingly glued to Peridot's eyes, seemed to notice an unusual, sparkling gleam in her right eye. Of course, thanks to her shades, it was very nuanced. However, she was also faced away from Funland at the time Steven took notice to this.

 

"Peri…?"

 

Peridot's loving glance easily faded into immediate concern. "Every time you look at me like that, there's an issue. What is it?"

 

"I…" Steven hesitated, as the last thing he wanted to do was needlessly worry his girlfriend. However, he powered through it, cringing as he pointed to his own eye. "Thought I saw something glow in your eye just now. Are you feeling okay?"

 

Peridot let out a tired sigh. "Your own eyes refract the light caught from the décor of the theme park, you clod. That's obviously why you saw a shine in my eye."

 

Steven wasn't sure about this answer. "But it was just the one eye…"

 

"The way my head is angled, cradled in your loving hands, would only allow my right eye to catch the light," Peridot calmly told him. "Have you anything else to refute my logic-fueled explanations?"

 

Now, Steven frowned. He had some evidence now; not the kind Peridot would expect. "Why are you lying to me, Dot?"

 

Peridot backed away, looking hurt. "What?! I-I'm not lying to you, Steven!"

 

"… Uh…" Steven was stunned by these words.

 

According to how he read her aura… Peridot didn't lie in her last statement. But she clearly lied in her last couple of lines.

 

"What, you don't believe me?" Peridot looked legitimately clueless. "What do I have to gain from lying to you at this juncture?!"

 

Absolutely nothing, Steven realized…

 

"S-sorry; I guess I'm still paranoid about what we found out this morning," Steven apologized. "I didn't mean to get you upset. I can tell you're telling the truth now."

 

"I suppose even your senses are prone to false positives now and then," Peridot sighed. "Our mental clarity is still obscured by the unknown; that much is obvious to you as it is to me. But the last thing we should ever do is start doubting each other's integrity, Steven…"

 

Still no lies to be found, and Peridot had a point, on top of that.

 

"I guess we still need a little more time apart before we can tackle this," Steven conceded. "That's fine, though. We're just starting to catch up with everybody."

 

He couldn't help but cup Peridot's cheek and bring her in for another kiss. Thankfully, he hadn't upset his beloved gem to the point where she would reject this method of making up. Joining together like this helped them both calm their nerves and reassure their nagging doubts that no matter what was behind their current plight, they would make it through the other end together, hand-in-hand.

 

After managing to pull out of a rigged deathmatch with each other with their very souls split apart, Steven and Peridot respectively felt embarrassed in hindsight that a brief instance of memory loss and odd circumstances would have them this shaken up. Even a worst-case scenario would pale to the situation where the only way to win with no one dying was to risk killing yourself and praying your opponent would spare some mercy to save you.

 

"I'd rather pass on catching up with Pearl, but I know it's going to happen sooner rather than later," Peridot lamented. "Ugh, and at some point today I have to have that talk with Lapis… are you sure doing this is going to make us mentally and emotionally prepared for what we're putting off?"

 

"It has to," Steven told her. "At least talking with Lapis will set you both free and put the past to rest–"

 

"Until a cure for corruption is found and Jasper is next on the list to be purified," Peridot sternly interjected. "At which point, I'll likely have made peace with my past issues with her, but Lapis… she'll probably hate us for the rest of her life for even entertaining the notion."

 

"It's gonna be up to you to make sure that's not how it plays out, Peridot. I mean, I don't wanna add on the pressure, but–"

 

"You already did," Peridot interrupted again. "If you want to make amends, you must kiss me again."

 

Despite saying that, she was the one who initiated the kiss this time. However, Steven was quick to reciprocate and match her dominance.

 

It was apparent at this stage the two would be a very clingy, very expressive couple. With every kiss, they became more and more reluctant to go their separate ways again, even for just a little while. Their affection was like a barrier, shielding the pair from the hardest, most vile parts of their lives. Steven found himself getting increasingly better in holding his breath as time went on, as he pushed his limits further and further just to be able to indulge in their tender kisses for a moment longer. Not just for his own indulgence, but for his girlfriend's sake. He knew she must have immense, stored amounts of patience to tolerate her boyfriend's air-related limitations that constantly impeded their experiences every time their lips locked together.

 

Said lips parted right on cue, as Steven was in dire need of oxygen. Though he had to admit, the lightheadedness he would get from Peridot pushing his limits was enrapturing in its own bizarre way.

 

"We shall resume our passion-driven ritual the next time we cross paths," Peridot slyly assured. "Preferably without witnesses. Shine on, my true love."

 

With that, the technician vanished, willing herself back to her previous location with Amethyst.

 

Steven stood in place for a moment before he was no longer overwhelmed by the daze of passion.

 

Now, oddly enough, he was worried again.

 

"You alright over there, Steven?" Bismuth called out; she and Mr. Smiley having greatly distanced themselves from the couple in order to give them space. Consequently, she was not in earshot of anything they talked about. "Miss her already?"

 

Steven glanced at Bismuth from his right side, then smiled back at her and waved. "Hah, am I that obvious?"

 

"Blunt as a mallet to the strength-tester," Bismuth shot back. "You wanna join us and give me some feedback on these ideas I got?"

 

Steven looked around hastily before nodding back to his friend. "Y-yeah, sure thing! Just a second, though! I wanna check something in the house of mirrors real quick!"

 

It seemed like a random request, but Bismuth simply shrugged and let Steven go on his way.

 

"Weird place to take care of business," Mr. Smiley remarked. "–Wait, the heck am I saying?! That'd better not be what he's doing!"

 

"Do I wanna know what you're even yammerin' about?" Bismuth inquired, giving the man a hard look.

 

"No, you do not!" Mr. Smiley proudly proclaimed. "But if that is what he's doin' in there, you'll find out soon enough when you clean up after him!"

 

"... I think I'll opt for believing Steven can hold it in a little while longer, thank you."

 

"H-haah… yeah, sure. Believe that."

 


Meanwhile, Steven was quick to go inside the mirror house. As soon as he found a mirror where he could inspect his face with minimal warping gimmicks obscuring his view, Steven fell back as a flash of pink nearly blinded him.

 

With squinted eyes, he crawled over to get a closer look, and thankfully wasn't blinded when he looked into the mirror again.

 

There, he saw exactly what he feared: his left eye no longer matching the brown of his right, but instead the bright pink color of his mother's. Also, the color he beared as Pink Diamond 2.0. Coincidentally, the same color as Iridescent Diamond's left eye as well.

 

"No, no… please tell me it's not you… that shouldn't even be possible!"

 

Perhaps it wasn't a coincidence after all. The pink eventually faded back to brown, but Steven frowned at this… as it only solidified his suspicions.

 

"But there's no other way Peri could lie, and then not lie at the same time… is there?"

 


[ NEXT PHASE: Peridot & Amethyst – OR – Lapis & 5XF ]

Chapter Text

While Steven spent his morning showing off a couple of Beach City's most notable landmarks to Bismuth, Peridot had familiar company in Amethyst as they closed in on the hole the latter emerged from in Earth's Prime Kindergarten.

 

Though she missed Steven already, Peridot did feel it was important to not completely neglect her friends. Amethyst was her closest, and they hadn't so much as texted each other in several days. There was much they needed to catch up on.

 

"That's the thing that's gonna figure out what my birthday is, huh?" Amethyst asked as she glanced over to see Peridot tinkering with a small machine that looked suspiciously similar to a barcode scanner from a retail store. "Uh, random thought: can't you just, like, will the answer right outta the cliff?"

 

The quartz didn't want to bring it up, but after so much time apart, it was now awkward again for her to actually be shorter than the technician. Not that Peridot towered over Amethyst now or anything, but she had grown just enough to make the size difference noticeable.

 

"Unfortunately, my willpower is rather reliant on what I know already," Peridot casually responded, though her eyes never left the device. "And since I'm not Steven, I can't exactly bring this place to life and ask it what day you emerged. Besides, if it was that easy, this wouldn't be much of an outing, would it?"

 

"Oh, sorry. I kinda assumed this would take like a minute and then we'd spend the rest of the time just doin' whatever," Amethyst admitted. "You know, the usual kinda outing."

 

Peridot looked to Amethyst and smiled. "Honestly, Amethyst, I am more than content to procrastinate and drag this out as long as possible. I am not looking forward to returning home anytime soon…"

 

She blinked right after saying that. "Huh, it feels sad to actually say that when I just got back from a vacation…"

 

"You'd better be sharing some of the 'deets on that, by the way," Amethyst urged, unable to contain her eagerness.

 

She recoiled a bit when Peridot's smile faded away, leaving a narrow-eyed dead stare.

 

"L-look, I'm not gonna pry everything outta you, Peri," Amethyst hastily assured. "If you really wanna keep it to yourself, that much I totally understand. But you and me are squad buds, y'know? I should have Early Access to your sensitive info!"

 

Though doubtful, Peridot at least wanted to humor her friend a bit. In a way, it might not be too bad an idea to let out some of her stress and frustration on her best friend before she would be expected to address the entire team.

 

"Normally, that's true," the technician agreed. "And I suppose it wouldn't be a terrible idea to vent some of my stress out on you if you're okay with that sort of thing…"

 

"Lay it on thick," the cocky Amethyst dared. "Quartzes can handle a little pressure."

 

Peridot sighed. This was going to be a long day… "Earth's Era 3 hasn't even started yet, but already it's affecting my life in a most unpleasant way. Though I suppose taking on a more authoritative role in the Crystal Gems is the more prevalent issue here…"

 

"Oh, right! Garnet told me you were co-leadin' with her from here on out," Amethyst recalled. "Congrats on the perma-promotion."

 

"Ah… thank you." Peridot shyly smiled at the sentiment; even now, her new role felt so surreal. "Unfortunately, I need to start getting into the habit of actually… well, being responsible. Which means I need to alter my way of thinking, because there are conversational topics I normally would share with you here without any hesitation… but there are potential ramifications I must consider now."

 

Amethyst couldn't help but feel curious about that. "So, you gotta train yourself to be more of a stiff, huh?"

 

"Hopefully not on par with Garnet," Peridot muttered. "I learned a long time ago that emulating her is not the same as leading, so I do want to make myself distinct. That being said, I still need to be realistic…"

 

"Got any examples?" the shorter gem asked. "Like, tell me something you'd like to spill with me but can't. You gotta have something in mind there, Per."

 

"Well, normally I'd be more than happy to tell you in elaborate detail why 5XF is the worst," Peridot grumbled. "But I really can't…"

 

"Yeah, I could definitely tell you've got some major issues with your sis," Amethyst murmured. "Why hold back, though?"

 

Peridot opted to focus on her device again in hopes of calming her nerves. "I presume you've not had an opportunity to really get to know her yet. Am I correct?"

 

"Guess that's true," the quartz affirmed. "We exchanged a line or two, but she was pretty off-putting…"

 

The device was not nearly calming enough. Peridot had to set it aside as her arms started to reflexively shake.

 

"Then I can't complain about her to you," she told Amethyst in a very tired, resigned tone. "You need to get to know her on your own time without my bias influencing your perception of her. I'll end up conditioning you to already not like her before you two even properly meet, and that's… exactly what we need to avoid with the refugees. Everyone's supposed to get a fresh start here on Earth; they all deserve an equal chance to make their own first impression, be it good or bad."

 

"Well, thanks to the little blow-up between you two, I've kinda got an idea what might be going on with her already," Amethyst mused. She was unsettled seeing Peridot visibly upset over this. "But, uh… you know, we can save that for later. You need to concentrate and junk to get my birthday figured out, right?"

 

"–Right, of course," Peridot quickly agreed, while doing a poor job suppressing the shakiness of her voice. "While I don't have to worry about any of that math conversion nonsense, your case has some extra annoyance factors of its own that will make this a bit of a chore to approximate."

 

Complaining about the work she'd have to put into figuring out Amethyst's birthday did a much better job calming the technician down.

 

"Oh, do tell," Amethyst slyly requested. "Just how much work do you gotta put in?"

 

Peridot could tell Amethyst was enjoying her imminent pain… but that was par for the course.

 

"Well, let's just say this would be a fairly transient process if I had an actual record of your emergence from this kindergarten," she dryly retorted. "And given the circumstances of the world around the time you emerged, I highly doubt one even exists. As a certified kindergartener, I've had access to my own record long enough to memorize every detail. Consequently, I could calculate my own birthday without having to examine my hole at all."

 

"Ah, so that's the difference-maker, huh? Yeah, there totally wouldn't be a record for me." Amethyst seemed to take that in stride, of course. "I came out after Homeworld corrupted most of the gems on Earth, so no one would've been operating any kindergartens. But hey, at least you don't have to mess with math for the better part of a year to do any screwy time conversion crap."

 

"No, but there is another aspect of time that makes your case tedious in its own right," Peridot countered. "But the first thing I need to do is approximate how many years ago you emerged; I highly doubt it's an even five-thousand. And to do that, I need to investigate this exit hole."

 

She did not look the least bit eager to do that, and Amethyst could see why. The purple gem couldn't help but audibly snort when she pieced it together.

 

"Heh, of all the times to have your little growth spurt! You even gonna be able to see what's what after you get all your hair stuffed inside, P-Dot?"

 

"Thank you for reminding me why this is going to royally suck, Amethyst," Peridot said through clenched teeth. "Best to get this over with, though…"

 

"You sure you don't want me to tie your hair back or something?" Amethyst offered. "Will up some scrunchies and I'll make this easier for you!"

 

Peridot paused; such an idea did come to mind, but she quickly dismissed it with barely a thought. "I-I'm not sure. I've never really messed with my hair before…"

 

She had admitted to Connie in a certain video that she regretted never dabbling in that.

 

"Yeah, but you looked super-cute when Steven slapped that ribbon on ya that one time," the quartz reminded her. "Maybe if I work my magic, I can make you even cuter, too!"

"Mmph…"

 

Peridot really struggled to trust Amethyst here, but she had to admit in the long run that this wasn't really a risk for anything. Even if it looked horrible, she would have an easier time fitting in the hole without having to expend any energy or spare concentration on shapeshifting. No one else was going to see them, unless…

 

"No pictures," she warned Amethyst, poking her nose for good measure.

 

"Eh, I already got my blackmail photo op of the day," Amethyst casually countered. "So I can totally control myself in that department."

 

Peridot quickly figured out what her friend referred to, but simply let out an annoyed huff and nothing more. Closing her eyes, she conjured a small bundle of scrunches that fell into Amethyst's hands.

 

"Excellent!" Amethyst had been waiting for months to do something like this, truth be told. Her companion always had so much hair to grab, it was impossible to resist imagining the styles she could pull off. "Good to go. Just sit your bubble-butt down and I'll work my magic in making your hair cavern-friendly."

 

"Must you call attention to my posterior?" and embarrassed Peridot grumbled as she sat down and prepared herself.

 

"Aw, cut the innocent act, Peri," Amethyst scoffed. "I told you before there's a certain part of you Steven really likes to stare at when you ain't looking, and you clearly remembered that conversation. Can't imagine why else you'd make the effort to give yourself an even bigger one since you last reformed."

 

Amethyst blinked at what she said just then. The rump in question was bigger than how it appeared when she last saw Peridot before the vacation. There was an obvious upgrade between the times Amethyst had seen Peridot from their penultimate Homeworld mission to their final visit, but somehow another one happened very recently.

 

"Wait… Peri, did you get poofed on the vacay?"

 

Fewer gems could stumble upon an accurate, logical conclusion using the most random means of interpreting innocuous details more often than this overcooked quartz.

 

"Via alligator ambush," Peridot grumpily confirmed. "Not my proudest moment, but Steven said I was crazy lucky that it was just my midsection in its jaws."

 

"Holy crow. Heck yeah you're lucky!" Amethyst exclaimed. "That's friggin' epic and scary at the same time!"

 

Peridot rolled her eyes while she endured her fellow gem messing with her hair. "Well, I wasn't out that long, but I figured a little concession was in order, since I knew he'd be the one to save me after my gemstone was lost underwater."

 

"Holy crap, Peri, your excuses have not improved with time," Amethyst laughed out. "You do that kind of thing to get noticed, dude! Let me guess, you just let out your sis or were about to, and you were afraid she'd be sporting a better booty?"

 

Reflexively, Peridot crossed her arms, hunched over and tried to contain her rage. She was glad Amethyst couldn't see her massively-blushing face now, but at the same time… there was a nagging feeling that the quartz could already read her face without even seeing it.

 

"Ah-ah!" Amethyst playfully scolded her fellow gem as she pulled her hair back and fixed her terrible posture. "You keep yourself straight, Peri-D. And just relax, okay? It's totally natural to feel like you need to stand out... y'know, even more than you already do most of the time. Shows how much you really care about Steven that you're putting any kinda stock in your appearance, 'cause you sure didn't think much about your looks before you two hooked up."

 

"You just make it sound so… shallow," Peridot groaned. "Which is the last quality besides stupidity that a genius should ever possess. I pride myself on logical thinking, Amethyst!"

 

"Newsflash: love and logic usually don't mesh too well," Amethyst teased. "Heck, logic and Steven ain't much better when you really think about it. But hey, somehow you managed a compromise."

 

Peridot sincerely hoped this moment was just a minor bump in the road for their outing; she desperately needed some form of reprieve before taking on future headaches. She knew she needed to follow her fellow gem's example and take the lower points of life in stride.

 

That was part of what always drew her to Amethyst in the first place; she and Steven were the main sources of her enjoyable moments on Earth when she first adapted to life on this foreign planet. Pearl was more often than not synonymous with the concept of stress and irritation in Peridot's life, while Garnet was… awkward to be around, at best. As much as Peridot grew to admire the team leader over time, even now there remained a touch of awkwardness every time they shared a room together.

 

At least nowadays that came from the surrealism of being on her level rather than the fact that she was a perma-fusion.

 

"True, and certainly that is no easy feat," Peridot tentatively agreed. "Though the fact that you figured out I got poofed during the vacation based purely on my butt size is arguably more impressive… and highly unorthodox."

 

Amethyst chuckled deviously. "That's how I roll, Dot: I'm the first to figure stuff out in ways no one else can. You know it's because of me that we all figured out your eye color quirk early on and what it said about you, right?"

 

"I believe Steven did credit that discovery to you despite him and Garnet seeing my eyes beforehand," Peridot recalled. "And he said your observational skills were the foundation of Pearl's plan to eliminate White Diamond's proxies; namely the fact that White's fusion with me made them utterly worthless. I can't believe I overlooked that!"

 

Amethyst felt quite proud of herself to be reminded of her accomplishments in the biggest mission of the Crystal Gems' long-lived crusade.

 

"Yep, I'm a master of the rocks most peeps leave unturned," she calmly boasted while her hands remained busy trying to tame her friend's hair. "We all got pushed to our limits back then… and no matter how much this Era 3 thing is gonna suck for us, I'd say after surviving the Diamonds and an exploding Homeworld, we're gonna handle the future stuff just fine. We gotta stay sharp, but it helps to remember we've all officially been in probably the worst spots we're ever gonna be in our lives."

 

This was much-needed advice that was blessing for Peridot to receive.

 

"Leave it to Amethyst to express the precise sentiments a troubled friend needs to hear," she said, audibly soothed. "Oh, stars… d-did I ever apologize for screaming at you in that video?"

 

"Ah, don't apologize for expressin' how ya really feel," the quartz told her in a dismissive tone. "I pulled some dick moves on you while you were our enemy and our friend, Dot. I'm just glad the worst thing I did to you actually amounted to something, 'kay? Don't sweat it anymore; I'm glad you didn't hold back on me."

 

Peridot found it easier to maintain her smile by this point. "It's stupid to even think about those old things at this point in my life, but I'm glad you all got something out of my nonsense. I can rest knowing I didn't waste my time when I believed I wouldn't make it off Homeworld alive."

 

"A little self-reflection never hurt anybody," Amethyst assured. "Aaaaand I think I've done all I can for your hair. Ponytails… definitely don't go well with your style, sorry to say. But whatever helps you fit better in that crevice, right?"

 

It was definitely far from Amethyst's best work. To keep her hair from sticking up even after being bound by a scrunchie, Amethyst had to make use of them all to loosely braid the hair in various segments.

 

"Correct; this very uncomfortable style will cease to be the second its purpose is fulfilled," Peridot flatly confirmed as she held up her scanning device. "Okay, time to do what we came here to do."

 

It would still be tedious busywork, but as long as Peridot kept in mind what Amethyst said about what they had already dealt with in the past, the task felt much less daunting.

 

Amethyst didn't even know the half of the varieties of hell Peridot lived through during the vacation alone; hellish moments that were on par with their Homeworld turmoil. However, it wouldn't be something she would be ignorant of for much longer… for better or worse.

 


 

The exit hole was a snug fit, as to be expected, but Peridot persevered as she scanned every detail of the rock she was surrounded in. She needed to concentrate but didn't want to force her friend to sit out and wait in awkward silence, either.

 

"You know, Amethyst, I've hardly asked about you at all…" she shyly admitted. "Catching up is supposed to go both ways."

 

"Eh, there's honestly not much to say," Amethyst responded with a shrug, though Peridot obviously wouldn't see that gesture. "I'm a lot more inspired to go to new places and do new things when I've got buddies in my party, but I was a solo act for most of last week. Not a bad deal at all, though. I definitely needed the R&R."

 

"Nyerrgh… I really need to stop feeling guilty Steven and I went without you," Peridot grumbled. "I know it's illogical, but I can't help but worry my decision to upgrade my relationship with him might create a rift in our dynamic and cause our group to disperse. Bad enough we both outgrew you so that we can't even be called the Shorty Squad anymore…"

 

Amethyst sputtered out very amused sounds of laughter in reaction to this, and Peridot was very thankful to be able to hide her heavily blushing face inside a hole at this moment.

 

"Psssshtt, oh man! Part of me wondered if you were seriously thinking that!" Amethyst said while failing to contain her cackling. "Seriously, Peri! You're getting as bad as Pearl; that's not a route you wanna go down. Neither of you could help how you grew bigger, so don't even start with that! I'll admit it's weird being beside you guys and being the one on the shorter end of the stick, but that's just one of the bazillion changes we're all adjusting to, okay? So the squad's not full of shorties anymore – big deal. We'll figure out a new and better name for us down the line!"

 

"If you want to deter me from traveling down any path, reminding me that I'm becoming more similar to Pearl is one of the most efficient methods," Peridot numbly responded. She was visibly shocked to be likened to Pearl. "So, you really don't think this relationship will fracture our bond as best friends?"

 

"Peri, the only thing it's gonna do is bring us closer," Amethyst assured in a more sober tone. "You're already practically a little sis to me; you'd better believe I'm looking forward to the day you become an official sis-in-law."

 

The elder gem smirked to hear her friend's wails of mixed joy and embarrassment.

 

"You two needed a vacation alone together," she added. "I mean, you needed that much since you guys hooked up during our most dangerous, deadly mission and all. And whatever crap happened on that vacation, outside of your health and whatnot, I'm honestly most relieved that whatever you both suffered didn't damage your relationship."

 

It felt so much easier to think of those trials and tribulations with this perspective, Peridot found. However much she and Steven lost from the experiences, their love never faltered; instead, it steadily strengthened.

 

"Yes… brutal as it mostly was, Steven and I loved each other through every step," Peridot said serenely. "Our amorous sentiments strengthened in accordance to the level of heinousness in our perilous journeys, and I project that trend will persist from here on out. For everything I've doubted and feared for needless reasons, right now… how we feel about each other is one of the few aspects of my life that I'm not doubting for a millisecond."

 

"That's what I like to hear," Amethyst commended, sounding relieved. "If you're that secure about your commitment, you don't need to worry about me being a third wheel, 'kay? We're still an epic trio, but it's totally okay if I feel like stepping back and letting you two indulge each other. Seriously, I'd better not ever hear either of you cry over that and think you did something wrong."

 

Peridot could never get over how words like this had such a powerful effect on her. It shook her to the core every time she spared a thought to acknowledge the overwhelming influence of her love for Steven (and his love for her, naturally). She only remained relatively stable now due to having a distraction in the form of her current work, but she was powerless to mask the raw emotion present in her voice.

 

"Wow, thanks, Amethyst…"

 

Immediately, the quartz snickered at her tone. "Ho-oooh-ly crapThat is the sound of a gem who's so heads-over-heels in love, she's already in withdrawal being away from her lover boy and needs a make-out session with him, stat."

 

Amethyst wasn't wrong, and Peridot was so caught up in the moment that she almost forgot she was being mercilessly teased.

 

"Do I ev–…"

 

Finally, it registered… right around the time Amethyst burst out laughing out loud once more.

 

"Y-you deceptive clod! D-do you want your birthday figured out or do you not?!" Peridot cried out, losing what little composure she had left. "I swear, I am not above holding our outing hostage over this!"

 

Thankfully, she was dedicated enough to her task to not get distracted and lose track of what she was analyzing in Amethyst's exit hole.

 

"Bwahaha, haha, o-okay, okay!" Amethyst relented between her laughs as she forced herself to gradually calm down. "I'll behave; I promise. You gotta be close to being done in there, right?"

 

"I have reached the origin point of your tunnel," Peridot confirmed. "I'm just ensuring that I get the entirety of this section thoroughly scanned; the key points in any gem's hole they emerged from are where they formed in accordance to the injector's inoculation and where they breached the surface."

 

"I'm startin' to get hyped!" Amethyst gleefully squealed. "Gonna have a day all to myself every year from now on, and it'll be soooo sweet…"

 

Suddenly, Peridot's head popped out from the exit hole, startling the quartz. With her duty in the tiny crawl space complete, her hair was liberated of all ties. For the most part, it immediately resumed its default style, though it was highly messy thanks to Amethyst's sloppy styling methods.

 

Luckily, Amethyst managed to hold in her instinctive urge to laugh at Peridot again when the latter gave her a stern, very hard stare that prompted the elder gem to cover her mouth with both hands.

 

"Honestly, Amethyst, is it standard protocol to torment your friend at every opportunity?" Peridot asked with a straight face.

 

"Peridot, don't even make it out like you don't torture your friends on a regular basis too," Amethyst retorted between giggles. "You're just still kind of a newb at it and do it without having to try that hard… or even knowing you're doing it."

 

The technician rolled her eyes at this as she finished climbing out of the hole and refocused on her scanning device. "Back to the task at hand, congratulations… I overshot your approximate age. If I only count the point of your emergence as your date of "birth", then you are merely four-thousand, five-hundred, and eighty-seven years old."

 

"Ooooh, a real number!" Amethyst was in awe, though it quickly faded. "Wait… what about my actual birthday?"

 

"That, I still need to calculate," Peridot explained. "Miserable as it was being stuck in that dreadful hole, that's nothing compared to the terror known as the Gregorian calendar."

 

Amethyst blinked cluelessly at the gem by her side. "The Gregorian what now?"

 

"Don't be cheeky, Amethyst: you heard exactly what I said," Peridot scolded as she poked Amethyst's chest to punctuate this.

 

In her free hand, a typical wall calendar appeared.

 

"Oh, the thing that only Steven really uses," a dismissive Amethyst acknowledged. "So, what about this calendar is so diabolical to our mission?"

 

"It's simple, really," Peridot said in a light, chipper tone before her it and her expression darkened. "This current method the humans use to record the passage of time hasn't even been in use for a full five centuries, and your age spans across roughly nine times that length! Additionally, the Gregorian calendar has countless logical imperfections I'm forced to carefully monitor for as I manually apply the Gregorian calendar thousands of years before its historical implementation to approximate your metaphorical date of birth."

 

Amethyst rested back into a smug smirk; she couldn't help but enjoy Peridot raging over various Earth concepts she still had trouble grasping. "Oh, is that all?"

 

"That most certainly is not all!" an irate Peridot insisted. "Why are the months not consistent in length, Amethyst? They couldn't uniformly be thirty-one or thirty days for what reason, exactly? And why is frickin' February so contrarian that it has only twenty-eight days as some form of protest?! But even that isn't the worst part about this wretched measurement of time!"

 

"And what is?" Amethyst had a feeling she knew what it was, but it would still be worth it to hear Peridot rant about it in her adorable, pedantic way.

 

"Need you ask?! It's that stupid idiot leap year! Tell me how that makes sense, Amethyst!"

 

This day felt like a possible contender for record-holder in how many times in a single day Peridot had gotten Amethyst to bust up in fits of laughter. The latter was already struggling to hold back another spell. "You're the smart one, dude, psssht… how about you explain it for me?"

 

"I ran across this menacing variable a few times when I approximated my own birthday," Peridot informed her. "For some superfluous reason, February gains an extra day in length once every four Earth years. Something about this month must be cursed to be such a statistical anomaly, I swear…"

 

"Eh, there are worse months out there," Amethyst mentioned. "February's got Valentine's Day, which is basically a day dedicated to eating a buttload of chocolate, so I can't hate on it too much."

 

"Forget the chocolate; this month is objectively a black mark on this dating system's credibility!" Peridot adamantly insisted. "Before I learned about the concept of the leap year, I kept getting inaccurate approximations for my metaphorical birth date. On three occasions, I had to make adjustments due to this moronic phenomenon. But that was merely a minor irritation, as I only had to adjust for it in the span of thirteen years…"

 

Amethyst's eyes widened with amusement as she started to piece it together. "Ooooh, I think I see where you're going with this!"

 

"I explained it in such a way that even a pebble could comprehend what I'm dictating," Peridot dryly shot back. "The reason I needed to approximate your age first was to determine how many times I'll need to implement the leap year variable. Divide that age by four, and on one-thousand, one-hundred, and forty-six instances, I have to account for February's arbitrary extra day."

 

"That's… a lot of extra days," Amethyst noted. "But hey, can't you just will one of your machines to automate that for you? We've still got loads of stuff to talk about while we wait on that!"

 

Peridot thought that over as she looked to the scanner she still held firmly in her grasp. "I'd rather keep an eye on this to ensure nothing malfunctions," she admitted. "But I suppose I can automate this ordeal, monitor it, and converse with you simultaneously."

 

"Take a seat with me, then!" Amethyst invited as she patted the ground next to where she reclined. "I was thinkin' that it's kinda a pity we can't figure out birthdays for anyone else in the group…"

 

The technician, after taking up her friend's invite to sit down by her, looked a bit downtrodden when this was pointed out. "Mm, that's true… Lapis, Pearl, Ruby, Sapphire, Bismuth… whatever holes they emerged from, they no longer exist. The mainframe hosting all emergence records was naturally stationed on Homeworld, so that too was obliterated. Stars, I seem to recall many Homeworld colonies not having their own native central hubs… they were remotely connected via Homeworld's network."

 

Amethyst obviously never thought about something like this, but she was visibly worried now that Peridot brought this up. Suddenly, her jolly demeanor vanished.

 

"Whoa, wait. So you're saying there's like, a really huge chance that Homeworld's colonies are already in full-blown chaos mode because they got totally cut off from the rest of the galaxy the second Homeworld went kaput?!"

 

Peridot took a moment to study Amethyst's expression, as her tone very abruptly shifted to dead serious – and the technician couldn't recall the last time she ever heard her friend lose her cool so quickly. The dramatic way the quartz expressed her concern proved this was more than mere sympathy.

 

"I haven't personally been to any colony planets," Peridot admitted; her approach to Amethyst now a cautious one. "So I honestly can't tell you for certain that every single cosmic entity in Homeworld's jurisdiction was fully reliant on its now-nonexistent root network. But it's common sense that at a bare minimum, each planet had access to said network and made great use of it. In the end, all colony planets still answered to the Diamond Authority. That alone being permanently cut off would incite worldwide rioting, but…"

 

Peridot paused herself, as she only now realized being this blunt with a harsh fact of life like this only further aggravated Amethyst's anxiety.

 

Likewise, Amethyst realized she was being far too open about her investment in the wellbeing of the colonies – the Crystal Gems' duty as intergalactic diplomats of peace was on the backburner until their own planet properly functioned as a Homeworld substitute.

 

She knew with everything else ahead of them, the colonies wouldn't be contacted anytime soon. Amethyst was also aware how much her two younger friends didn't want to be the central figureheads of that campaign, but they were the Crystal Gems' best chance for the colonies to give them recognition. Steven and Peridot would be more than happy to find any excuse to put off their inevitable duty, and at this point in time, they had plenty to spare.

 

More than anyone else, Amethyst completely understood why her fellow squaddies didn't feel the sense of urgency that currently plagued her. She couldn't bring herself to pressure Peridot into something like this; not while the junior gem struggled with so many other parts of her life.

 

"Amethyst, I didn't realize the wellbeing of the colonies was such a high priority for you," Peridot gently told her. "I… really want to say we should possibly reevaluate its position on our schedule, but…"

 

"N-no way; don't waste your time on my account," Amethyst insisted as she shook her head. "I just…"

 

She grumbled inaudibly; the elder gem really didn't want to sour this moment with her best friend with her own selfish concerns.

 

"Lemme figure out how to say what I wanna say, and I'll explain why I'm freaking out over this, m'kay?" Amethyst proposed. "While I do that, let's think of something a little happier."

 

Peridot had a very hard time following along with this plan; now that she had seen that their collective decision to delay aiding the colonies had such an adverse effect on the normally jolly quartz, she couldn't in all good conscience just pretend the very tense past few minutes didn't happen.

 

"Um… define "happier"," Peridot warily requested. "It's nonsensical to pretend we're not about to get slammed by multiple unpleasant responsibilities as a consequence of our actions on Homeworld, you realize."

 

"I just thought of another birthday you could figure out!" Amethyst excitedly told her, hoping to steer her friend to a new topic. "Well, more like birthdays, but there's one I know you're gonna have some fun with, Per!"

 

She didn't catch on just yet, but Peridot couldn't help but dread what Amethyst was going to say next.

 

"W-we just went over the fact that no other Crystal Gem has an exit hole left to examine," she nervously reminded the quartz. "And doing this isn't exactly "fun" to begin with…"

 

"Nah, trust me: you'll get some entertainment outta this," Amethyst assured, seeming completely confident with her idea. "Naturally my fam could get their own birthdays too, but we could also hop over to the Beta Kindergarten and get a birthday for Jasper!"

 

Peridot completely froze before she could fully reveal the opposite intended effect this answer inflicted.

 

"Then down the line when Pearl finds the corruption cure and we get Jasper back to normal, we can throw a major–…"

 

Amethyst's voice died out when she caught sight of her best friend trying to internally fight off the soul-crushing trauma just hearing Jasper's name brought on.

 

Though to be fair, it wasn't merely the mention of Jasper's name and Peridot's immediate thoughts to the most traumatic moment of her life that brought on this panic attack.

 

More than anything, it was Peridot's realization that Amethyst was still blissfully unaware of her estranged, so-called sis' past behavior and the full extent of the living hell she put Lapis through… that by itself almost shattered her internally.

 

The last thing Peridot wanted to do was talk about this part of her life again.

 

"Peridot… g-geez, what the heck did I say…?" Amethyst quietly wondered to herself before slowly leaning in to comfort the trembling gem. "C'mon, talk to me… you can always talk to me."

 

But Peridot knew the last thing she should do was to keep Amethyst out of the loop. Not only because she was her best friend, but due to Amethyst's own personal investment in Jasper herself.

 

She tried to respond to Amethyst, but in the midst of her hyperventilating, every time Peridot attempted to speak just resulted in a wordless gasp.

 

In the end, Peridot wasn't sure she could do this.

 

For the second time today, the technician felt she was completely losing control of her life. It seemed like she could fall apart at any minute… and Peridot was not at all used to feeling so unstable. It was obvious her concerns from the incident when she woke up this morning continued to plague her; Peridot was able to hold it down well enough since coming to this kindergarten, but now it was starting to internally consume her again.

 

"Peri, you gotta pull yourself together!" Amethyst urged as she grabbed her companion by the shoulders. "C'mon, don't let whatever's in your head control you like that! Wh-whatever I said, I'm sorry, okay?!"

 

She was a far cry from Steven, but Amethyst was just influential enough for her cries to not go unheard. Peridot's shrunken pupils grew to their normal size, her full-body shaking stopped, and she seemed to be aware of her surroundings again.

 

"Oh my stars… Amethyst, th-that was…" It was still no easier for Peridot to speak coherently, unfortunately. "No, this isn't your…"

 

"You didn't freak out like this on your own," Amethyst readily asserted. "I said something and got you triggered; don't even try and act like that isn't what's going on here."

 

The scanning device Peridot had such a firm grasp on fell out of her hands and rolled to the ground. Thankfully, it was a short fall broken by the owner's lap since she was sitting at the time.

 

"I didn't think I'd have to talk about it this soon," Peridot wearily told the quartz; her voice worn down and weakened. "B-but I cannot simply leave you out of this, Amethyst. E-even if you tell me you don't need to hear it for my sake, you need t-to… at least for your own!"

 

Amethyst had no way to know how this was going to play out. She didn't foresee their conversation going this route at all.

 

"L-look, if you're saying this is something I need to know about, I'm not gonna argue that," Amethyst assured Peridot, giving the younger gem a hug. "You know me well enough to make that call, and I totally trust you're doing this because that's what a real friend would do. Just… tell me in a way that's gonna hurt you the least, okay? I'm right here; cling as hard as you need to."

 

Peridot did not have it in her to share this memory the way she did with Steven several days ago. However, she was also far too unstable to simply narrate the entire tale of how she first met Jasper.

 

Luckily, there was a happy compromise.

 

"Touch my gemstone," Peridot quietly instructed; Amethyst quickly followed it to the letter. "Close your eyes, concentrate… and you'll understand why I can't fulfill your request."

 

Amethyst silently closed her eyes and focused on the visuals from the not-so distant past flowing within her from the gems' connection. Luckily for her, she wouldn't have to deal with the unique side-effects Steven suffered when Peridot first tried to communicate with him like this.

 


 

"I'm sorry, I can't do this for you," Peridot meekly told Amethyst once the horrific event was mentally relayed to her in full. "I-I understand what Jasper means to you, Amethyst – I really, really do. I know you have nothing but good intentions. You always mean well. B-but I… I can't."

 

She had been clinging to Amethyst for a while now and had been in the quartz's embrace even longer than that. And yet, Peridot was surprised to feel Amethyst pull her in for an even tighter hug and felt lukewarm tears fall on her shoulder.

 

"What the hell, Peridot?! Stop apologizing, already!" Amethyst cried out. "You show me something like that and try to act like you're in the wrong here?! H-how did you keep this to yourself for so long, huh?! Why did you?!"

 

"I… just recalled it a few days ago," Peridot numbly responded. "A traumatic event of that magnitude…. I-I'm ashamed to admit I would not have been able to move forward and become a better gem with all of you if I had fully retained this instance of my life within my cognitive self. All but one part of that moment was suppressed with the intent of making it "disappear", so to speak. And even for what I salvaged… I mentally redacted every trace of context to minimize chances of regaining the full memory."

 

Amethyst used to fondly look back at the time she, Steven, and Peridot were able to overcome and neutralize Jasper as a threat all on her own. She was touched by Peridot's speech to Jasper before they were all forced to fight. All too quickly, the quartz realized Peridot never would have been able to participate to such an extent if she truly remembered what Jasper put her through.

 

"… Then I can't rip on you for keeping this from us," the elder gem understood. "This, uh… this is the thing you need to talk with Lapis about, isn't it? And the reason you blew up at your big sis earlier?"

 

Peridot whimpered as she nodded to confirm her friend's suspicions. "A-affirmative. 5XF is the one responsible for how I regained this memory in the first place. That's only one of the many reasons why I despise her, but… after I shared this story with Steven, we both realized this was not a matter I could just leave indefinitely buried. I must face this eventually when we cure Jasper, and… I need to learn to make peace with her when that time comes."

 

"That's… a tall order, to put it mildly," Amethyst remarked. "Geez, I'm sorry I dragged that outta you, Peridot. Y-you could've just turned me down…"

 

Peridot shook her head, now a bit more self-assured. "No… I wouldn't have shared this if there wasn't a good reason for me to do so, Amethyst. And being my best of friends is not the credential in question for why I decided to make you aware of this part of my life. You are the only one outside of Steven I have spoken of this to voluntarily. Lapis is forthcoming, of course, but she was directly involved in the matter. However, I haven't even shared this information with Garnet and do not intend to anytime soon, if at all."

 

"Trust me; I know where the lines are when it comes to gossip," Amethyst sternly told her. "I'd never spread this around."

 

"I know you would never do that to me," Peridot softly responded, offering her friend a weak smile. "And I appreciate it. But do you understand why I felt the need to let you know about this?"

 

It wasn't hard to guess, of course… "Y… yeah. Me and Jasper… we've got our own history."

 

"I understand your insistence on regarding her as a sibling despite the two of you coming from different kindergartens," Peridot added. "You are both quartzes made here on Earth. Unlike your kin whom emerged from this kindergarten, Jasper remains on this planet. Not only that, but she's practically next door. However, mentally…."

 

"… She's probably even further away from me than the fam literally is," Amethyst finished. "Until we can cure her. But even then…"

 

"You recall her utter dismissal of us all," Peridot pointed out. "The last time we encountered her. Not even Steven could get through to Jasper despite being stuck in the metaphorical rock-bottom point of her life. Even if we could convince her to hear us out once she's cured, have you considered how Jasper might behave once we inform her of everything that has changed? And how she'll have to adapt?"

 

Amethyst's eyes bugged out as a particularly disturbing detail crept inside her head. "Holy smokes… she doesn't even know Pink Diamond and Rose Quartz are the same gem yet!"

 

"Hm, would she take that harder than the fact that Homeworld and the Diamond Authority are forever lost?" Peridot wondered out loud, cringing at the thought. "Either way, I don't anticipate we'll come across a corruption cure anytime soon. But when we do… Amethyst, you know it won't be a simple task getting Jasper to come around. It's good to have an optimistic outlook even in the darkest of times, but…"

 

"No, Peri… I get it," Amethyst glumly assured. "All this time, I thought if I tried hard enough, I could be just like Steven and unlock that hidden good side of hers. Make her a real friend. But I keep ignoring the fact that… even on her best day, Jasper is probably still gonna be remorseless psycho full of bloodlust. And I can't overlook what she did to you, Peri… I-I mean, geez, Lapis is supposed to be my friend now too, and I've been overlooking how much it would hurt her if I actually tried to make Jasper a… a…"

 

"A Crystal Gem."

 

Peridot was grateful she had such a wonderful boyfriend; thanks to his powerful support back when she first shared this buried memory, the technician no longer felt the typical pangs of guilt and shame when she relayed the same story to Amethyst.

 

Steven went above and beyond to assure Peridot that she had done nothing wrong, and even her contradictory feelings brought on by the psychological trauma were nothing to damn herself over.

 

The only guilt Peridot felt now was forever compromising Amethyst's own happiness and optimistic beliefs. She hated having to make Amethyst see Jasper for how she truly was; Peridot knew her former escort would need someone like Amethyst to help in rehabilitating her, and she risked denying Jasper that benefit by speaking the truth.

 

"I-I used to think, y'know… like, "hey, it'd be so cool if we could make all three of our first major enemies our friends down the line" – Homeworld's trio of toadies becoming Crystal Gems like us would just be the ultimate win," Amethyst wistfully murmured. "Two outta three ain't bad… but I was super-shallow back then. Times like this, it feels like the Ste-man's had more of an influence on me than I thought – I keep thinking how cool it'd be to make all our enemies our friends, but…"

 

Peridot quietly sighed; it pained her greatly to continuously destroy her best friend's hopes and dreams like this, but she was committed to doing what must be done.

 

A leader needed to push past all doubts and do what was best for everyone, even if the optimal course of action ran the risk of upsetting one or more teammates. Peridot knew she couldn't arbitrarily make an exception for Amethyst simply because they were such close friends.

 

"Amethyst… I promise to do my best to make peace with what happened to me, so that one day I'll have the strength to forgive Jasper," Peridot solemnly swore. "I'm obviously not ready now, but–"

 

"Peridot, you can't let her off that easily!" Amethyst interjected, now visibly upset. "I-I'm not even sure how I'll approach her now, because there's no frickin' way I'm gonna overlook what she did to you!"

 

"This matter is between myself and Jasper; no one else," Peridot asserted in a stiff tone. "Besides, you need to remember whatever Jasper did to me is nothing compared to what she did to Lapis. I'm going to have a much harder time forgiving Jasper for that, especially if she does not regret her actions nor seek an apology… a-and I'm sorry to say, Amethyst, that the odds of a gem like her seeking atonement for acting on her brutal instincts are…"

 

Amethyst bowed her head I resignation. "I-I know; she's not exactly the type who'd be sorry for anything. Proud warrior n' all that…"

 

"Similarly, I need to trust Lapis to settle her issues with Jasper," Peridot added, though her doubtful expression showed how uncomfortable she was about that particular detail. "It's… not my business, yours, nor anyone's else's. So when you and I confront Jasper individually on our own time, we need to make an effort to not drag our friends into the conversation. It will be incredibly difficult for me to not bring Lapis up when I speak to Jasper… but perhaps not as difficult as the task of convincing Lapis to settle matters with her without it ending in a fatality."

 

"Oooh…" Amethyst cringed; she couldn't possibly see Lapis ever reaching a point where she could ever hold a conversation with Jasper again – rightly so, of course. "You know, Peri… this is just an observation from your bestie, so take it with a grain of salt, but maybe we shouldn't expect Lapis to deal with this the exact same way we're gonna. There's being wronged by somebody, and then there's… well, a next-level wrongness. A wrong so strong, it'll take way more than just talking things out to really make up for it. And a gem like Jasper… she'd be too proud…"

 

Peridot knew deep down it was killing Amethyst to speak of Jasper as if she was already a lost cause. And she had only herself to blame for her best friend – normally so hyped and wired to see the glass half-full – now being reduced to fighting off her inner misery as the ugly truths of life threatened to become a permanent blight on her optimistic outlook.

 

"You have a point," the technician murmured. "Jasper honestly should not physically be anywhere near Lapis at any time. Not just for the sake of Lapis' safety, but Jasper's as well. And perhaps we should entirely leave the matter up to Lapis' discretion rather than expect her to follow standard protocol. She is… clearly a special case. This is just… nrrrgh! Amethyst, this completely goes against what I said before, so what does that say about me as an authority figure?!"

 

Amethyst blinked at Peridot's sudden little outburst as she thought over the earlier parts of their conversation. "–Oh, right! You said all the gems are supposed to get a second chance, or a fresh start or whatever."

 

"Exactly," Peridot affirmed with a sharp nod. "Even Jasper, terrible as she was, deserves a chance to redeem herself. I-it's not currently an achievement I think is feasible, but that's merely my subjective sentiment. Of course, I'm biased to have a negative predisposition of Jasper, just as Lapis would. But we can't let our feelings interfere with any gem's right to prove they can in fact better themselves! As much as I cannot stand 5XF, I would be terrible to deny her the opportunity to befriend all of you!"

 

The quartz was compelled to give her friend a comforting squeeze once more. "Per, it's okay…"

 

"It is not okay!" Peridot barked back. "She should not be expected to like all of us in order to be welcomed into this family! Steven and I are a lost cause – I will inform you why that is the case after you have your chance to spend some time with 5XF, okay? But until then, please dismiss my sentiments when you see her, Amethyst. And do your best to forget what you saw between the two of us this morning…"

 

"I don't think I can do that last one," Amethyst tiredly informed the younger gem. "Because I think I've already figured out some pretty big things about her in that little exchange alone. Not, like, bad things… just things that could be good or bad depending on what more I learn from her later."

 

Peridot knew she was going to want to kick herself for asking this, but… "Wh-what have you gathered?"

 

Amethyst was understandably wary of answering this question, but Peridot did ask.

 

"Your sis and Sphalerite are – or were – an item. And for a relationship that couldn't be more than a few days old, apparently it's a pretty dang serious one."

 

Well, Peridot wanted to do far more than just kick herself, now.

 

"GGGRRRRRHGH! I-it's not–GYAH! Nyerrrrrrhmm–!"

 

She hated their relationship with a burning passion. It was the bane of Peridot's existence. And worst of all, the young leader could not rant about this, as she swore to uphold her vow to keep herself from running her mouth and preemptively ruining everyone's predisposition towards her sister.

 

"I'm gonna hold back on judging it until I really get to know Elder-Dot," Amethyst promised. "But going by how much you're freakin' out, I totally hit the nail on the head with my educated guess."

 

Peridots unintelligible cries mellowed down into grumbling by this point. She had to admit, the way she and her sibling spoke probably made it easy for not only Amethyst to pick up on the relationship, but likely Lapis and even Bismuth as well.

 

"And I can tell your sis is definitely more of a stiff," Amethyst added. "Better-behaved, which usually means a high risk of being boring, buuuuut I'll give 'er a chance. You're doing a really good job staying professional about this, Dottie-P. Gotta give you props for that."

 

"Mmh… thank you." Peridot could not reject praise; she was hopelessly addicted to it. "Though I've made this outing a fairly depressing one, now…"

 

"Hey now, don't start with that," Amethyst playfully scolded as she tugged on Peridot's hair. "Now that I've had some time, I think I'm ready to talk about that other thing now… y'know, before I went and brought Jasper up."

 

Peridot nodded. "A-and don't worry; we'll figure out a way to reach a compromise with how to handle Jasper. So, what else is on your mind?"

 

"My way-nicer sisses," Amethyst told her. "The Famethyst. I've been thinking 'bout 'em a lot lately, Dot. Most of my week, I wondered how they're doing… and worried that maybe they're not doing too good."

 

Now Peridot finally saw what was truly troubling her best friend. "And I just made you worry more talking about the universal civil disorder plaguing the colonies. Oh my stars, Amethyst… I really didn't mean to instill more fear and paranoia of the unknown…"

 

"Look, look: you couldn't have known that," Amethyst countered. "But I've been thinkin' a lot about them over the past week, and… it's kind of a stupid idea, but I wanted to pitch it to you and see if there's any way we could make this work out like, really really soon."

 

"I presume you want us to check on whatever colony your relatives are stationed in," Peridot postulated. "And it's certainly understandable, but I'm not certain how feasible it is or if we could even schedule it anytime soon."

 

Amethyst shook her head, now firmly gripping Peridot's shoulders again while giving her a hard look of determination. "Hey, listen to me: my fam isn't on some colony planet. They've been assigned to Pink Diamond's Human Zoo – they deal with the Zoomans and stuff. It's just a little station, and it's a place most of us are familiar with since we've been there before. We're gonna know a lot of faces there, too."

 

Peridot gulped. "Well, you all might know the faces there…"

 

She, of course, had no part in that particular adventure a few months back.

 

"I'm tellin' you, Dot, it's the perfect place to practice your diplomating!" Amethyst insisted. "Small crowd most of us are familiar with – so even if a riot does break out, we'll easily be able to keep 'em under control. And with how sensitive the Zoomans are, we really should check this place out first before any colony to make sure the lack of Diamond influence hasn't totally wrecked the exhibit."

 

It was a compelling argument; Peridot's resolve visibly crumbled as she tried to exploit whatever logical hole she could find in the proposal.

 

"Are we not taking a huge risk endangering the humans in captivity if we fail to get through to the gems?" she asked. "Steven and I haven't even practiced how we will conduct ourselves diplomatically. We've not even shifted into our Diamond forms since we returned from Homeworld!"

 

"Look, every time we go to a new colony, we'll be taking a risk no matter what," Amethyst pointed out. "But I guarantee you that Pink Diamond's Zoo is gonna be as low-risk as it gets in this political game we're playing. We gotta learn how to do this right eventually, you know."

 

"But you also know in terms of priority, our intergalactic diplomacy mission is in the figurative back of the line," Peridot reminded the quartz. "We need to ensure Earth can function as a proper home for gemkind before we worry about the state of other celestial entities, Amethyst. And before we can even do that much, we have a very dangerous corrupt gem on the other end of the world that must be dispatched before we commit ourselves to anything else!"

 

Amethyst smirked at this statement. "You mean besides these extra few days of chilling out we're gettin' because you and the boyfriend hit some big bumps on your vacay?"

 

Peridot blushed, grumbled, and looked away before letting out an exasperated huff. "It is important for us to mentally recover from our traumatic experiences. I have a feeling Steven and I only witnessed a mere fraction of Gypsum's power and potential."

 

"And that's why I'm not gonna interrupt our Gypsum preparation with what I'm pitching to ya here," Amethyst clarified. "But I really, really want us to at least check out Pink's Human Zoo before we start the major Era 3 stuff, Peri. If I wait until after that happens, it could be months before we can schedule a time to head out there since we're all gonna be super friggin' busy, see?"

 

This point actually resonated with Peridot. The technician was well aware that her carefree life would be truly over the second Era 3 launched on Earth. There would be very little time to rest, let alone time to do whatever she wished. Realistically, she could see Garnet projecting even a short, simplistic visit like this to not be feasible for several months, or even years.

 

Amethyst couldn't possibly wait that long. After a certain point, Peridot was certain Amethyst would try and run that sort of mission by herself if she had to. She wasn't quite as impatient or impulsive as Steven, but the relatively young quartz was certainly up there. It was cruel to make her wait for such a long time, not knowing if her beloved Famethyst was okay or even alive after being cut off from Homeworld.

 

"Fair enough," Peridot conceded. "And I suppose I owe you this much, since I do not have the mental or emotional fortitude to set foot in Jasper's exit hole ever again, let alone calculate her birthday."

 

"Geez, do you have to put it like that?" Amethyst winced. "I'm really sorry I asked you to recap…"

 

Peridot shook her head. "No; we needed to have this discussion sooner or later, Amethyst. And… I believe this is actually helpful in preparing me for when I have to talk to Lapis later on this very incident. So, you have my thanks for assisting me in this endeavor."

 

She managed to smile and give the quartz a playful hug for the first time in ages.

 

"It's only fair I support you however I can for this proposal," Peridot added. "After all, the first rule of family is to never leave a member behind or let them be forgotten. It's never too soon to start honing our skill in diplomacy, additionally. We will need to approach our own refugees just as we'll have to for any off-world gems… so perhaps your request is not only perfectly reasonable, but a logical and necessary step for the Crystal Gems to take before we launch our Era 3!"

 

"Awww, duuuude! You're totally the best, Peri-D!" Amethyst cooed as she returned the hug tenfold. "I knew you'd fight for me! Mucho gusto, boss!"

 

Peridot found herself blushing at her friend's reverence. "Much as I thrive off being rightfully worshiped, Amethyst, there is absolutely no need for you to be formal with me for any reason…"

 

Well, one big reason suddenly came to mind.

 

"–a-ah, outside of when we are collectively facing the public, that is," she hastily amended. "Reverence is a bit of a necessity in establishing credibility. However, you are making this "zoo" out to be like more of an informal settlement, so…"

 

Amethyst nodded. "Well, can't hurt to play it safe anyway, yeah? While I guarantee the zoo's gonna be a chill experience compared to the colonies, it's still gonna shake 'em up that there's no more Homeworld. Aaaaand it'll be weird for 'em to accept Trucy and Pinky-2 as their new Diamonds, too."

 

"In name only," Peridot sternly asserted. "The Diamond Authority isn't continuing with us in any way, shape or form. Honestly, if there was a way to get those clods to accept us as delegates of Earth without a Diamond representative, I would be completely on board with that."

 

"Still not into Trucy, huh?" Amethyst mused. "Guess I can't blame ya; havin' a Diamond alter-ego sounds really cool, buuuuut… I admit it's way less cool the more I think about actually livin' with something like that."

 

Peridot nodded in agreement. "I've passed the acceptance phase of her existence, at least… Steven's already scolded me a few times for overexerting my will at the expense of my own health when I could have bypassed it had I shifted into Chartreuse."

 

"At least you know he's only saying that 'cause he loves you so much that he worries about ya all the time," Amethyst assured. "Steven's the last one who'd pressure you into being someone you're not."

 

"I'm very fortunate to have such an accommodating, compassionate partner," Peridot warmly stated. "I just need to learn where and when to make a compromise… I don't want Chartreuse to simply be my power crutch or my metaphorical ensemble for work or social gatherings. But I still need more time to get comfortable with truly being her. Very few truly good things happened whenever I became her in the past, so…"

 

"So now is Trucy's chance to show she's more than just a fancy-lookin', power-boostin' troublemaker," Amethyst encouraged her uncertain friend. "And a little visit to the zoo's the perfect place to start on cleaning up her image!"

 

Peridot found herself easily moved by Amethyst's words; she sniffed and held back a tear as she gave the quartz an affirming nod with a quivering smile.

 

"You really are something else," Peridot remarked; her tone full of fondness. "This idea to make an impromptu visit to Pink Diamond's Zoo before we get to work… at first it seemed out-of-nowhere, arbitrary, and spurred on by a selfish desire…"

 

Amethyst snorted when that detail was mentioned. "Well, it kinda is, still."

 

"Yet you've made an incredibly compelling argument for it," Peridot commended. "We do need to brush up on our diplomacy; the destination is small and familiar to many of you, so logically it's the optimal place to start honing our skills and finding out where we need to improve. Should we succeed, we'll gain allies earlier than anticipated, which would greatly help our cause in its most turbulent phase. We very likely won't come across a colony that poses less of a risk in a worst-case scenario, but should we succeed with these gems stationed at the zoo, they can aid other imperiled colonies while we stabilize our society on Earth! Because as you said, otherwise it could take months or years before the Crystal Gems are ready to contact the colonies on our own time, and by then, it might be too late!"

 

"Oy-oh-boy," Amethyst muttered. "Spoken like a true politician, P-Dot! Bring that fire with you when you take this campaign straight to our team!"

 

Peridot smirked wickedly. "Oh, I intend to. And worry not: even if the other Crystal Gems won't let this motion pass, we can always take matters into our own hands and simply go ourselves. So long as I have coordinates, my power can take us to this "zoo" whenever we desire!"

 

Amethyst wasn't exactly on board with the idea of going rogue and handling this with only a small portion of the theme, but she managed to smile regardless… though it was visibly one of unease.

 

"I, uh… dunno if we've got anything that'll tell us where it is exactly," she admitted. "But hey, we're gonna have to build another spaceship to do this intergalactic political junk to begin with, so…"

 

"–Oh, wow. I can't believe I forgot our last ship was destroyed."

 

Peridot didn't even have time to get upset over that when it happened. The death of a certain loved one took up 100% of her attention back then… and the state of the ship itself was a trivial matter when Homeworld's remains were getting brutally torn up by the rage and grief of the ascended gem.

 

"Eh, you and Bismuth made the last one in just a few days," Amethyst recalled. "Shouldn't be a big deal to make another one. Still, I can't thank you enough being all for fighting for me on this, dude. I know you and Steven both aren't keen on this part of our new job…"

 

"We'll suck it up," Peridot assured her. "It's the price we pay for being special, after all."

 

Just then, Peridot's phone started to ring. She quickly stood up and procured the device and smiled to see the visage of her beloved with his name over the picture.

 

Amethyst couldn't help but snicker. "Aw, don't tell me he's booty callin' you already, Per!"

 

Peridot scowled at the quartz; a deep teal tinted her cheeks as she growled and quickly tried to regain some composure. "D-do not even–!"

 

The elder gem quietly snickered to herself as Peridot answered the call of her one true love.

 

"Greetings from your great and lovable," Peridot chirped out; almost immediately, she looked smitten. "To what do I owe the honor, my center of gravity~?"

 

Her lovestruck expression faded into mild confusion. "Oh, you aren't interrupting anything, Steven. Do you require my assistance?"

 

Amethyst was content to smirk and just imagine what was being said on the other end of the line.

 

"Busted machine, huh? I'm surprised it took this long for one of Funland's contraptions to malfunction or break down entirely," Peridot commented. "You do realize after spoiling me so many times with the world-renowned theme parks last week that Funland will be nothing more than an eternally inferior experience from now on, right?"

 

The technician smirked; she began to resemble her old self-assured, egotistical self again. This was a great relief for Amethyst, who was internally overjoyed to see her friend liberated (if only briefly) from the drama surrounding her life.

 

"Well, it sounds like this is a blessing in disguise, then. Bismuth could give Funland a much-needed makeover and consequently make it a much more credible tourist trap! Oh, do you think she could eliminate the height restrictions in the process…?"

 

Peridot huffed when she got the answer she expected. "Fine; I suppose it's inconsequential now that I've ascended, anyway… what exactly did you need me for, then? –Ohh, electronics. That makes sense. I suppose I could whip up a circuit board and throw together some kind of pattern with the LEDs…"

 

The young gem smirked as she absorbed every word of Steven's grateful praise. "Yes, yes, I am the best. You do realize I'll expect you to reimburse me with a more potent sentiment when I finish my job…"

 

Peridot couldn't resist succumbing to her blushing and looking as if she was about to melt when Steven responded. He was certainly not a lover who would ever disappoint.

 

"Starved for affection as always," she teased. "Are you certain love is not an essential secondary sustenance for you humans?"

 

It was anyone's guess whether or not Peridot was aware of her humorous hypocrisy; regardless, Amethyst snickered to herself after hearing this. And the snickers grew louder when she saw Peridot's blush deepen after Steven responded. He very likely had just called Peridot out.

 

"D-don't you sass me!" Peridot sputtered. "Stars almighty, do not mock the gem you're begging for a favor! …–I said that in jest, Steven: stop apologizing. Calm yourself; with my efforts combined with Bismuth's, you needn't worry about that "lifetime" ban that smile-prone human is threatening to hand down. Give me a minute and I'll be right over to save the day."

 

She almost hung up but gulped and paused as Steven's last words stopped her. "A-aha, yes, yes. The love you feel for me is very much mutual on my end. My love for you is absolute, as always. I look forward to our imminent reunion."

 

Now she could hang up. Peridot immediately glanced at Amethyst, who finally stopped holding back on her full-blown cackling.

 

"Oh, come on! You couldn't have heard more than half that conversation; how would you know when anything objectively humorous was spoken between myself and Steven?" Peridot protested.

 

"Can't help it," a clearly unapologetic Amethyst explained between her chuckles. "You both just got it so bad for each other, it's unreal! I always knew the day Steven became a real Ste-man would be the day he turns full-on into a ball of mush. The dude was born with lots of love to give in nearly every variety. Now here you are; the long-awaited conduit for his romantic brand of love! And he's makin' up for lost time!"

 

Peridot scoffed at this, but of course her blushing never faded. "Anyway, I need to relocate to where Steven is for just a moment. Apparently, Bismuth applied so much force to that strength-measuring game that she smashed it to pieces."

 

"Eeesh, she flattened that one?" Amethyst was admittedly impressed. "Mr. Smiley triple-reinforced that sucker because I kept breaking it – and Bismuth straight-up obliterated the thing?!"

 

"In one hit, allegedly," Peridot added. "But as I previously said, a machine that fragile would only malfunction repeatedly if left to its own devices, so it's to Funland's benefit that it's getting a replacement that is superior in every aspect. Steven said Bismuth's taken an interest in maintaining the structural integrity of Funland, so that's quite refreshing news to have at a time like this."

 

Amethyst couldn't help but feel Peridot massively understated that last part.

 

"Sounds like Steven's doing good getting Bismuth adjusted to Beach City," the quartz happily pointed out. "Just as I figured the not-so-little guy would, heh."

 

Peridot looked to her friend with a bit of concern. "I'm very sorry to interrupt our "hanging out" time like this, Amethyst…"

 

The quartz shrugged off the imminent concern; she seemed to regard this as something she was quite used to. "Hey, we can't afford to let Steven get lifetime-banned from Funland, Peri. It's your duty as a Crystal Gem to make sure our boy gets to have some fun whenever he needs it and do whatever you have to whenever something threatens to take that away from him! And, it's your duty as Steven's girlfriend to be there for him as his loving, trusted partner!"

 

While this spiel made Peridot blush again, this time she was smiling rather than scowling from embarrassment.

 

"Steven did sound a little tired," she noted. "As if he just had a very heavy and difficult conversation himself. But he's only with Bismuth, for stars' sake…"

 

"Eh… you weren't awake to overhear this, but Bismuth was overdue for a talk with Steven," Amethyst uneasily told her. "But you said Steven just sounded tired, right? And he and Bismuth are clearly still fine hanging out right now, so odds are that duo tied up all the loose ends left hanging thanks to the Homeworld debacle."

 

Only then did Peridot silently piece together what issues Bismuth could possibly have with Steven… and yes, since her light and dark personas merged, the technician remembered every detail of what happened in those dreadful deathmatches – even the one her primary "light" self was not present for.

 

Consequently, she remembered the dark entity known as "5XG" verbally tearing Steven to shreds, especially when she brought up the incident that caused the hybrid to poof and bubble his fellow Crystal Gem. He kept her in stasis until the advent of Ruby and Sapphire's wedding – this milestone in the Crystal Gems' history paired with the revelation of Pink Diamond and Rose Quartz being one and the same finally allowed Bismuth to be given the second chance she deserved.

 

Peridot merely assumed these issues had been worked through already; she never would have dreamed 5XG's words would have left this much of an impression on the best side of her beloved.

 

"Dot, Dot, Dot," Amethyst chided as she caught her best friend lost in thought. "It's all good, okay? Stuff like this is exactly why Garnet's extended our break before Gypsum and Era 3, don't you see?"

 

"–O-oh; of course," Peridot stuttered in agreement. She felt silly needing to be told this by Amethyst, in all honesty. "Steven seemed fine otherwise; if he was truly upset, he would not have been able to flirt with me so expertly."

 

Amethyst grinned at this detail. "See? He's already dyin' to see you again. Better not keep your man waiting!"

 

"I fully intend to take advantage of our time in close proximity with each other," Peridot devilishly assured. "All the same, this should be a simple job for an engineer of my caliber – I will do my best not to linger, as it does pain me to leave you by yourself like this. Perhaps you could come with me…"

 

"Nah." Amethyst was content to sit down and sit this out. Her eyes caught the device that fell out of Peridot's hands the moment Jasper was brought up – it still remained on the ground unattended. "I should probably keep an eye on this thingamajig still figuring out my b-day."

 

"Oh my stars!" Peridot cried out, horrified. "I was supposed to monitor that device to ensure nothing would malfunction! Th-the topic of Jasper must have broken my concentration!"

 

Amethyst closely inspected the scanner-shaped machine before offering a shrug to her friend. "For what it's worth, it's still working just fine. Still doing calculations and backdating."

 

So, at the very least, Peridot didn't damage it nor hinder its progress. Still, she was visibly exasperated.

 

"Even so, a glitch could have happened during our conversation and we'd be none the wiser," the younger gem tiredly countered. "Unfortunately, we may have to start this all over again from the beginning…"

 

"But it's still working like it should, dude," Amethyst pointed out. "You don't know if it glitched out or not – maybe it didn't. Maybe it's still fine as it is!"

 

"Even so, I pride myself on accurate approximations," Peridot sternly insisted. "I will not sully my credibility on an oversight – especially when my work pertains to my best friend. So, let us compromise – allow the machine to finish this initial scan as-is and record the results. Then, run it again: this time, keep your eyes on the screen for the entire process. Resist all distractions and do not let the inevitable boredom break your resolve. Can I count on you to do that for me while I assist Steven and Bismuth?"

 

"Well, guess I can't ignore the huge incentive there is for me to do a thing I'd normally never do," Amethyst slyly pointed out. "If I gotta endure a little boredom to figure out what my birthday is, then so be it or whatever, eh?"

 

"Ah, very true," Peridot agreed. "It's settled, then. Of course, if something catastrophic happens in your vicinity while I'm absent, do not hesitate to contact me. I don't anticipate this task taking up too much of our time, but you never know..."

 

Amethyst winked at the junior gem while still paying close attention to the device. "Hey, if you've got an opportunity to get a little steamy with Steven, don't pass it up on my account! No doubt he's missing you as much as you miss him."

 

Peridot suppressed her urge to bark out at Amethyst in her usual defensive manner… but of course, she couldn't hold down her very-visible blushing.

 

"I will not leave without Steven reimbursing me in loving affection," she assured the quartz. "Keeping it brief should work in my favor, though; teasing Steven with a sample should make him desperate for me by nightfall."

 

"Ooh, even at the rookie stage, Peri is already proficient in the art of cocktease-fu!" Amethyst teased… though the gem entirely meant every word she said. "You're all set, girl: go get 'im!"

 

Peridot was very uncertain of her friend's choice of verbiage. "I feel I should not ask for clarification on this particular art… i-in any case, I'll return as soon as I can, Amethyst. I'm counting on you to make up for where I fell short, okay?"

 

"Will do," Amethyst assured with a lazy wave. "Seeya when I see ya, Peri-D!"

 

Peridot teleported to Funland, leaving Amethyst to sit in her spot while constantly monitoring a very dull and simplistic-looking device.

 

This task would be easier said than done… but thankfully, the incentive was strong enough to keep Amethyst on the straight-and-narrow.

 


 

In less than half an hour's time, Peridot returned to the Prime Kindergarten precisely from the point she teleported out from it earlier.

 

"Welcome back, my pal!"

 

Amethyst waved the younger gem over to where she had been sitting the entire time. Peridot rejoined the quartz and took a seat.

 

"My apologies for the delay," Peridot gently expressed. "It seems I'm not the only one still worried about relatively trivial matters – I was required to invest extra time consoling Steven…"

 

"Seriously? You're apologizing for that?" Amethyst could help but scoff at this. "Dude, I'd be more pissed if you just ignored him. I know Steven's prone to having little episodes here and there – usually it's Rose-related stuff causing them – but at this point, I think it's just gonna be routine thing that happens every couple of months. At least you were there for him this time."

 

Peridot nodded as she carefully absorbed this information. "Indeed; I wish to always be there for Steven in his hardest times. I've been told Steven has a history of temporarily losing certain powers and abilities – in fact, I believe he was going through a spell the night I kidnapped him. I ordered him to use his healing powers to fix a malfunctioning warp pad, and his saliva had no effect."

 

Amethyst immediately looked concerned. "Is that the deal right now, Per? Are Steven's powers gone?"

 

"Mm, not to my knowledge," Peridot admitted, though she didn't look entirely certain herself. "Past instances seemed to be indicative of a psychosomatic outage – but there is no outage of any kind as far as I've seen this time. However, Steven's ability to read anyone's inner feelings seems to have been compromised."

 

"Uh, you mind simplifying that?" the baffled Amethyst requested.

 

The younger gem sighed; her eyes cast down to the ground. "Steven accused me of lying to his face, Amethyst… b-but when I assured him I was not lying at all, he seemed to realize that was indeed the case. In other words, his aura reading is now producing false positives. I'm hoping it's short-lived; a malfunction like that could prove to be problematic in the near future."

 

All of this seemed very suspect to Amethyst… but she couldn't quite put her finger on why, yet. Peridot herself seemed a little off… but that was little more than a hunch for now.

 

"Well, Steven's powers have gone wacko-crazy in plenty of ways even before your time," the quartz pointed out. "But it's always been temporary, and if I had to guess, it's probably just what comes from being a half-n-half; especially when one half is a Diamond. I'll help keep tabs on him if you need the extra help."

 

"N-no; however this incident happened, I can't help but feel I unintentionally instigated it." Peridot hastily assured. "I won't drag you into our mess: I am the one who should clean this up."

 

However polite she was about it, this rubbed Amethyst the wrong way. But she held back on her urge to press for more information for the time being.

 

"I'm sure it's not your fault," Amethyst said consolingly. "Um, by the way, the second scan is almost done, I think. Wanna take a look?"

 

Peridot wordlessly took the device from Amethyst's hands and studied the readings closely. "Oh, thank you for monitoring this in my absence. What was the result of the first scan?"

 

"I'd rather save it until the second scan's done," Amethyst slyly told her. "We'll see if they match up and whatnot. Part of me kinda hopes they do, 'cause the first one's like, waaaay too fitting to not be right."

 

"Hm…" Peridot's eyes narrowed at the screen. "Shame on me for subjecting you to this; it's such dull task."

 

Amethyst shrugged in response. "Hey, between this and a Pearl lecture, I'd choose this every single time. You wouldn't believe the kind of boredom-torture I've lived through over the years, dude."

 

"Well, I built this machine… that makes me its creator," Peridot acknowledged, though it seemed she was talking to herself more so than Amethyst. "So with a little willpower, I should be able to channel my desire to speed up this tedious procedure."

 

As Peridot's stare at the scanning device hardened, her free hand clutched all sides of the screen tightly.

 

Then a subtle glow emitted from the gem's body. Amethyst suddenly caught sight of a very conspicuous irregularity in her friend's appearance, enhanced by the natural darkness of their location. She was quick to suppress her shocked expression, as now the quartz was dead certain all was not right with her best friend. But she could tell calling her out on this immediately would be a mistake.

 

"Silly me; why did I not think to do this sooner?" Peridot said in jest when the second scan was finally complete. "If I can make metal bend to my will, of course I could force machines to work as fast as possible with the power of my authoritative command."

 

"So lay it on me, Peri-D!" Amethyst urged as she showed the technician the date she wrote down from the results of the first scan. "We got a match, or what?"

 

She let out a cheeky grin when she saw Peridot's scowl.

 

"A match, indeed," the seething Peridot confirmed. "After all that time I explained the sadistic nature of the humans' calendar system and that one contrarian month in particular…"

 

"… It was just totally destiny that I'd end up with a birthday on the 29th of February, huh?" Amethyst slyly finished for her. "The friggin' day of the leap year, on top of that! –Wait, does that mean I only get a birthday once every four years…?"

 

What seemed so fitting and cool now seemed a bit unfortunate and inconvenient…

 

"Ask Steven," Peridot sharply answered. "One positive to this is that you'll have plenty of time to make a birthday wish list, at least."

 

"… Crap." Amethyst realized the other downside to this particular date being her birthday. "No party for me today – I've gotta wait like, a ton of months before we get there!"

 

"But by then, you'll have every last detail planned out," Peridot was quick to remind her. "Besides, at least you get a birthday. You're part of a very exclusive club now, so be grateful."

 

Peridot did have a point; the only other Crystal Gems with birthdays to their name were herself, Steven, Connie and Greg.

 

"O-oh, right! Thanks so much for doing this, Peridot!" Amethyst expressed with a hug so strong, she practically tackled her diminutive friend to the ground. "You're so the gem of the hour!"

 

The technician did not anticipate this strong of a display of appreciative affection. She squealed out as she found herself pinned to the ground, unable to move.

 

Amethyst had her right where she wanted her, and the larger gem knew if she didn't act now, she'd never have another opportunity like this.

 

Peridot's shades were already knocked loose and uneven from the impact of the fall. In one swift motion, Amethyst snatched them straight from her friend's face.

 

There, she saw proof that she had every right to be suspicious.

 

The gentle glow that emanated from Peridot's body earlier was innocuous enough, but not even her shades could hide the much greater intensity of her right eye's sudden radiance. And of course, Amethyst couldn't help but find it suspect that it would only affect one eye.

 

Sure enough, it wasn't a coincidence: while Peridot's left eye remained blue and ordinary, her right was now a fluorescent lime green.

 

Even if her left eye hadn't been abnormally luminescent, Amethyst still would have found this change to be nothing but suspicious.

 

After all, Peridot's right eye was supposed to be hazel, not green.

 

"A-Amethyst, you're being a bit too overzealous with your displays of affection!" Peridot protested, hoping in vain her best friend simply overlooked this very glaring visual oddity. "Would you mind releasing me and relinquish your hold on my awesomely-shaped ocular accessory?!"

 

"Peridot, would you mind telling me what Steven said you lied about earlier?" Amethyst asked in a knowing tone. "He caught on to your eye, didn't he?"

 

Hastily grabbing her shades out of Amethyst's hands, Peridot disappeared from underneath the quartz and reappeared a few yards away. She was no longer feigning ignorance; her heaving was indicative of her nervousness of being found out.

 

"Amethyst, this is not a road you want to travel down!" Peridot sternly warned. "This is no business of yours; I expect you will show the same respect you displayed earlier in regard to your agreement to not speak of the issue revolving around Jasper!"

 

"You can't seriously pretend this is anything like the Jasper problem," Amethyst countered. "Just for playing the pity card, I'll play hardball again: are you even really Peri right now?"

 

Peridot let out a very frustrated growl in response. "H-how dare you! You, Amethyst, of all gems should never talk to me like this! Have you any idea how much it hurts to be accused–"

 

"Me of all gems should know when Peri isn't really Peri!" Amethyst countered. "And if I caught on, I bet Steven did too. So what the hell did you do to Steven?!"

 

"How dare you!" Tears streamed down Peridot's face as she used her willpower to hurl a large rock in Amethyst's direction. "I would never hurt Steven! NEVER! Accuse me of such a crime again and you'll be lucky if you come out of the experience alive long enough to regret your decision!"

 

Amethyst easily dodged the rock and remained on the defensive. She definitely didn't foresee her innocent friendly venture with Peridot ending up like this. But she couldn't back down now; something was dreadfully wrong with her best friend, and she intended to fix this as best she could.

 

Of course, the odds were highly stacked against her. Amethyst was on her own in the middle of nowhere, and whether or not Peridot was truly herself at the moment apparently had no bearing on her range of willpower-based abilities.

 

It was a little sad, in a way. Had the two been pitted against each other just a few weeks ago, Amethyst could have easily dispatched the technician. Sometimes, it was horrifying to realize just how drastically every aspect of life changed in a very short amount of time.

 

"I guess you would've had to take Bismuth out to really mess with Steven," Amethyst realized. "But how about you show me what they're doing right here, right now so I'll know for a fact you didn't hurt either of 'em? You should be able to show me that much if you've got nothing to hide, right?"

 

Truthfully, there was nothing to hide in that regard… for the most part, at least. Steven and Bismuth were still conscious and discussing ideas for future rides with Mr. Smiley at Funland. However, there was a certain part of Steven that Peridot absolutely could not risk letting Amethyst see.

 

Although, she really couldn't kid herself. There was no way for the two of them to leave this Kindergarten on good terms now. Amethyst was on to her. Drastic measures would be needed to restore normality to this situation.

 

"You're going to have to take my word for it," Peridot sorrowfully responded; more tears spilled down her face. "Amethyst, I don't want to hurt you… b-but you're honestly leaving me no choice…"

 

"Stop acting like you're not some kinda parasitic monster!" Amethyst cried out. "You're using Peridot's body as your puppet, so you're no frickin' different from White Diamond! Whoever you are, I'm gonna purge you outta my best friend's body if it's the last thing I do!"

 

Peridot immediately disappeared and reappeared behind Amethyst. She would not dignify this response with words – the technician was furious, but all she could offer was a dead stare as she clutched the quartz on both sides and squeezed her as hard as she could, all the while charging an electric current through her opponent's body.

 

It wasn't long before Amethyst vanished in a puff of smoke, leaving only her gemstone behind.

 

Following that, Peridot dropped to her knees. After securing the amethyst within a lime green bubble, the younger gem clutched it to her chest as she finally broke down into a fit of sobbing.

 

"Wh-why did you make me do this to you, Amethyst?!" Peridot bawled out. "Why couldn't you leave well enough alone?! Th-this isn't how I wanted us to end up!"

 

The technician grit her teeth through her tears as she tried with all her might to comprehend her actions… and what to do from here.

 

"I acted too early," Peridot wearily realized. "B-but I can't take any of this back… a-and this is your fault!"

 

The agonized green gem smacked herself in the face.

 

"Th-this is all on you for making me a persona non grata! You deserve to be blamed for this, b-but I'm not going to sink that low… yet," she growled. "This is on both of you, for reducing me to someone with nothing left to lose! You're gonna find out the hard way later tonight… this is not a problem you can just will away!"

 

She glanced down to the poor, unfortunate quartz in her arms: the collateral damage from a certain couple's poor conduct and decision-making.

 

"B-but I'm not going to take this out on your friends," she said in a shaky tone. "Unless they pose a direct threat like Amethyst just did. She's a better friend than you deserve, so I'm going to fix this as best I can… only for her sake and my own."

 

"Peridot" closed her eyes and concentrated her energy on the bubbled amethyst in her grasp. Soothing green energy was absorbed into the bubble and transferred directly into the gemstone.

 

"I'm so sorry, Amethyst… I don't deserve to ask for your forgiveness," the gem glumly apologized. "The best I can do is cut and edit this horrific moment between us, for both our sakes."

 

"Peridot" flinched as she willed for one of the many injectors firmly pinned into the cliff to fall down and crash just a couple of yards away.

 

"That should be an adequate cover for your poofing," she acknowledged. "Amethyst, I know it's unforgivable of me to mess with your memories… I wouldn't resort to this unless I had no other choice. Please understand there's more at stake here than you realize. I have to protect everyone."

 

Once the process was complete, "Peridot" winced and brought up a glowing hand to her forehead, covering her own gemstone.

 

"S-see, Amethyst? I'm subjecting myself to the same punishment!" she cried as fresh tears streamed down her face. "Wh-when we wake up… this moment will have never happened! You'll still have your birthday, a-and… we'll finish "hanging out" the right way."

 

The alleged technician sighed with resignation as she altered her own memory in the same manner she did to Amethyst's.

 

"I hope one day you'll forgive me for dragging you into this nonsense, Amethyst. In spite of what happened between us… I don't want to ruin this friendship before it ever started."

 

The bubble was popped. Seconds after Amethyst's gemstone made a soft landing on the ground, a now-unconscious Peridot fell much more harshly right beside her.

 


 

The two would wake up (or reform, in Amethyst's case) a short while later. Both had no recollection of anything that happened after Amethyst's birthday confirmation. Amethyst's memory was specifically altered to erase the moment she took notice to her friend's conspicuous glowing eye.

 

But the presence of the nearby collapsed injector jogged their doctored memories of Amethyst saving Peridot from getting flattened… at the cost of being flattened herself.

 

"You really didn't need to put yourself in danger just for my sake," Peridot worriedly expressed. "Honestly, I really need to work on my reaction time; I could have saved us both the trouble if I thought to use my power to protect us."

 

"Eh, that sounds like something we gotta train you on," Amethyst suggested. "But honestly, dude, don't even start up the blame train again. You'd do the same for me, and in the end, we're both A-OK. I got a real birthday on top of that, so that's all that matters!"

 

Peridot smiled and nodded to her friend. "Yes, I suppose we've accomplished our mission. Perhaps that fallen injector is a sign that we should vacate the premises and have fun somewhere a little safer… and preferably a bit more sunlight."

 

"Yeah, this place feels hella depressing after a while," Amethyst agreed. "So you'll get the birthday for my fam figured out later, right?"

 

"Of course," Peridot gladly assured. "But for now, I'm more than ready to take a break from this abomination known as the Gregorian calendar and the leap years. Shall we hang out elsewhere?"

 

In the back of Peridot's mind, something still didn't feel right… but she couldn't put her finger on it. Still, she couldn't deny she was eager to leave this dreadful kindergarten.

 

"Whatever keeps you away from Rabid-Mode Pearl, eh?" Amethyst teased in jest. "You can count on me, dude!"

 

"I always can." Peridot smiled, reassured that Amethyst always made good on her word to be there in her time of need. "A stroll through Beach City should offer endless possibilities for squandering time. It feels like forever since I've been there, anyway."

 

Amethyst smirked at this suggestion. Peridot was correct that, much like Steven, she almost entirely neglected Beach City's existence.

 

"Ooh, this day's gonna be packed. Peri-port us to Beach City, then! Who knows, we might even run into Steven and Bismuth!"

 

The pair teleported out of the dark, dreary kindergarten and reappeared at the edge of the city limits of Steven's hometown.

 

"Steven…"

 

No matter how much Peridot wanted to reconnect and catch up with her friends, her desire to reunite with Steven was stronger than ever.

 

She didn't stop to think how odd it was to feel that way when she had visited her boyfriend less than an hour ago; it just seemed like common sense to Peridot that she would be this desperate to join with Steven once more.

 

To be in his loving arms, to kiss and caress the young man… to be one with him.


[ NEXT PHASE: LAPIS & 5XF ]