It is not God who kills the children. Not fate that butchers them or destiny that feeds them to the dogs. It's us. Only us.
-Alan Moore, Watchmen
The explosion had taken out a barracks in the east, district 31. When the fire was put out, the smoke cleared and the crater left behind examined, they concluded that 40 Jaspers, 3 Flourites and 6 Kunzites had been lost. There was no sign of the weapon used to blow up the building.
"No sign?" Yellow growled, looking over the dossier. "Nothing? 40 Jaspers gone and that's all they had to say?"
She threw down the dossier so hard the screen splintered and buzzed.
"They were very thorough," White told her. She looked gravely serious, an odd look for her. "Pink oversaw the whole operation."
"I had the Kunzites sweep every corner of that crater. Twice," Rose said.
"One of the Peridots suggested a build-up of francium in the ducts," White offered. "They were warned to keep those ducts swept but..."
"Francium," Yellow scoffed. "Next you'll be telling me it was too much oxygen."
"Well, what else combusts and doesn't leave a trace?" White asked her, waving her arms wildly with frustration. "Even if it was a planted incendiary it would need a frame to detonate!"
The conversation went around in circles this way until they could no longer deny that they just didn't know what had caused the explosion. They left the meeting room, frustrated and sick at heart.
Blue had been quiet for most of the meeting, only opening her mouth to offer agreement. She shared a luger with Rose on the way back but didn't speak to her, just stared pensively out of the window.
"Let's hope the next meeting will be more productive," Rose groaned. "There should be more information by then, the Kunzites..."
"The meeting's over, Rose," Blue snapped. "There's no need to discuss it now."
Rose glanced over at Blue curiously. She was tense, breathing harder than normal.
"Have your patches been working for you?" she asked carefully.
"They've been working fine," Blue bit out.
Rose decided to leave it at that. Even when they'd fought together they'd never been particularly close. Rose wondered if she had any friends at all.
"Well, I'll be glad to get home, I have a lot to do," she changed the subject airily. "I assume you got your invitation?"
"Only you would think to have a party at a time like this," Blue muttered.
"Oh, does that mean you're not coming? I'll have you know the invitations were sent out before the explosion," Rose replied.
"No, I won't be coming. Enjoy your little party," Blue told her. "I think it'll be the last one you'll get to throw for some time."
When she got home, Rose raised her face to the ceiling and groaned loudly, dramatically. Pearl looked up from where she was running her fingers through the sulphate barrel (again.)
"No need to stop, carry on," Rose told her. "I need to figure out what we need for this blasted party."
She dragged up her commu-link screen and found her order list, frowning when she saw all the items had been ticked off already.
"That's odd," she mused. "I don't remember ordering these..."
"I placed the order for you," Pearl piped up. "I didn't know when you'd be back, so..."
Rose laughed, delighted. Only a few cycles ago Pearl wouldn't have dared to place an order without Rose's direct command.
"You've saved me a lot of time," she said. "Now you must help me find a use for all this time. Come over here, please."
Pearl left the barrel and sat beside Rose on the low couch. Rose let out another indulgent groan and slumped over onto Pearl's lap.
"Everything out there is a mess," she mumbled. "What am I supposed to do with all this madness?"
Pearl offered no solution, no reply, but Rose felt her slender fingers thread through her hair and gently rub soothing circles across her scalp. Her free hand stroked Rose's arm, feather-light, barely there at all. Rose smiled and melted at the touch.
They stayed like that right up until the first guest arrived.
"Great party," a Larimar Rose didn't know slurred at her as she stumbled past.
Rose was working the room. Her face ached from holding her smile for so long, Topaz had backed her into a corner and talked at her about the terrible signal of her commu-link for far too long, and there was a puddle of oxide spreading across the floor. The door signal went off, and she struggled through the crowd to answer it.
But Pearl had already opened the door, and was being poked at by Almandine. Two pearls stood behind her.
"Almandine," Rose cooed. "I didn't think you'd make it!"
"Wouldn't miss it, my dear," Almandine told her, still clutching Pearl's head in her tapered hand. "This is your pearl, is it?"
Rose had to resist the urge to smack Almandine's spindly hand away. She couldn't make a scene.
"Yes, she's mine," she said sweetly. "And you've brought yours."
"Interesting colour palette, very soothing," Almandine mused, finally releasing Pearl's head. Pearl sank back down onto her heels with a tiny relieved breath. "These two are my new ones. I brought them along in case your party needed some oomph."
Rose could have been insulted, but Almandine's great privilege was to be insufferably rude to just about everyone with no consequences, as long as she kept pumping designs and generating money.
Rose glanced at the pearls, noting that like all the pearls Almandine had owned before them, they matched perfectly but for contrasting colours. The pale yellow one was dressed in a long purple sheath, the purple one in an identical yellow sheath.
Almandine launched into one of her long stories about her many achievements, but Rose paid more attention to the pearls. They were gesture-talking to Pearl, all slightly fluttering fingers and flickering eyelids.
She was jolted out of her staring when Almandine took her arm and lead her back into the crowd.
"I haven't been here for so long," Almandine drawled. "Let's see what you've done with the place."
One quadrant before the dawn of a new cycle, there were still guests slouching around, fuzzy and languid, full of compound and gallium and oxide. Rose scanned the room to make sure everything was in order. Almandine had placed her two pearls on a ledge and was explaining something to a bored Topaz in great detail. One of the west district Flourites was flirting with two Larimars. The other was lying across Rose's couch with a Lapis Lazuli inching away from her...
...a little blur distracted her just then, and she turned just in time to see Pearl disappear around the corner into the rest pod room.
"I think your pearl has a glitch," a familiar voice called across the room.
Rose crossed the room and sank down beside her old friend. She hadn't seen her for some time.
"I haven't spoken a word to you all-cycle!" she laughed. "What's this about my pearl?"
"I think she's got a glitch," Emerald shrugged, smiling her easy good-natured smile. "I was just talking to her, and then whoosh! She rushed off. Some scrambled protocol, I'll bet."
"Well, you would know," Rose laughed. Emerald had gone through more pearls than anyone she knew.
"No big deal, she probably just needs a drip. My last one had a bunch of drips before it was stolen. Cost me an awful lot of cash."
Inwardly, Rose fumed a little. She'd asked Pearl to put up her blank facade, and for most of the party she had. But Emerald was the worst person to drop it in front of, her eyes were sharp even when her wits were chemically altered.
She'd have to have a stern talk with her later.
Pearl didn't emerge until the last guest had left, and when Rose turned around after closing the door she was already cleaning away empty containers and frowning at the crack in the low table.
"Drop that for a moment, please," Rose called, and something had crept into her tone that made Pearl visibly nervous.
"Why did you run off like that?" she asked, laying the sweetness on thick so as not to frighten her. "Didn't I ask you to be extra-careful for this party? What happened?"
"I tried," Pearl mumbled. "I did my best..."
She trailed off, looking at her hands, trying to resist the urge to talk with them.
"You did very well," Rose admitted. "But you lost it in front of Emerald, and she did notice. She wouldn't have done anything to you but..."
"She did do something to me," Pearl blurted out. "She called me over to talk to me, she put me on her lap and..."
A faint buzzing sounded in Rose's ears as she listened to Pearl talk.
"...she put her hands up my skirt..."
Pearl broke off, unable to continue. She gestured, and for once Rose understood what she was saying. Understood, but didn't believe it.
"Emerald does get quite excitable after some oxide," she said tersely. "But she is an honourable gem, she wouldn't hurt you. Perhaps you mistook her intentions..."
Pearl shook her head frantically.
"No, no, I know what she wanted, I've seen it! I've seen the other Pearl's memories, I know what she does to them..."
"Emerald is my friend, you must be confused..."
"...I didn't want her to do that to me, I was afraid, I'm sorry..."
The shout took them both by surprise. Rose was gripping Pearl's shoulders hard, and distantly she wondered when that had happened. She spoke through clenched teeth.
"Emerald has been my friend for over a hundred orbits," she said with all the authority a Diamond could muster. "We fought off the Homeworld threat side by side. She saved my life countless times. I will not have you talk about her in this manner. Have I made myself clear?"
Struck dumb and paler than ever, Pearl nodded.
"Good," Rose sighed. "Let's get this place cleaned up and put this behind us."
It took her less than the span of a full cycle to feel awful about what she had said.
Mostly because all traces of Pearl's emerging personality had slipped back into hiding. She couldn't look Rose in the eye, wouldn't talk unless asked about something and even then the answers she gave were short and subdued. Rose knew she had stopped dancing, she even kept her distance from her beloved sulphate barrel.
And her words, frenzied as they were, remained in Rose's mind as a faint but repeated echo.
I know what she does to them...I didn't want her to do that to me...
...I've seen the other Pearl's memories...
The other pearl. The one that was now in Sodalite's care.
It was a big risk, now that she knew she was being monitored by someone, but she took it anyway. She hired two separate lugers just in case, and although it might have done Pearl some good to be with her fellow pearls for a while, she left her in the apartment.
Sodalite looked up, surprised, from where she was sharpening her tools.
"I wasn't expecting you," she said. "Did something happen?"
"There's something I want to know about, I think you can help me," Rose said, as smoothly as she could manage.
"I'll try. What can I do for you?"
"Emerald's old pearl. Is she here still?"
"Sure she is," Sodalite said. "You want to talk to her? She's mute, I'm afraid."
"I just want to see her."
Sodalite fetched the pearl from the next room. She seemed to bask in Sodalite's presence, sticking as close to her as she could manage without being physically attached. Sodalite lifted her onto the surgery table.
"It might help if you tell me what you're looking for," Sodalite offered.
Rose inspected the pearl. Her gem was fully intact, no chips or cracks. But she was missing all of the fingers on her right hand and a good chunk of her ear.
"Is she in good condition?" she asked.
Sodalite whistled low through her teeth.
"Do you want the full report or just the basics?"
"Just tell me," Rose snapped.
"Well, if you take a look at her gem it looks intact, but it's actually got some scorch marks across the rim. She's been given a few drips to fill in any damage, but I have to say I've never seen this kind of damage on a pearl before. At a guess, I'd say it was nitric acid."
Rose's heart sank. She felt sick.
"Oh, and you'll see she has no fingers on that hand. That's not a problem with her gem, they were removed deliberately and then cauterized to stop her retreating to reform. So when she did reform, they didn't grow back. Takes a pretty sadistic mind to come up with that."
A sadistic mind.
A memory came to Rose, unbidden. Her smiling friend, weary after a long battle but pointing towards the beautiful sunrise. They'd made it through another cycle. Together.
A sort of madness, maybe a little shard of sadism had infected her, but she leaned in close to the pearl. She would test her. This couldn't be true, and she would see...
"I think," she began sweetly, "that if you are quite well now, we should send you back to Emerald. She misses you a lot."
The pearl reacted as soon as she heard the name. Her mouth flapped open and shut with no sound, she clapped her hands around her head as it shook from side to side. She spasmed, hard. Her face was a mask of pure terror.
Sodalite shoved Rose to one side and gathered up the pearl in her arms, holding her as still as she could.
"You should leave now," she growled. "And if you're coming back to torture any more pearls, how about you tell me first, okay?"
She made her way home in a haze of pained disappointment.
Emerald. Her beloved friend.
A gem who had laughed with her, cried with her, almost died with her. A gem who had stood proudly by her side as she took her Diamond title.
A gem who had deliberately poured acid on a pearl's gem. A gem who had cut off her pearl's fingers for her own gratification.
A gem who had talked Rose through her first crises of command. A gem who had leapt in front of her to deflect an attack that would have shattered her.
A gem whose pearl was so desperate to get away from her that she damaged herself and crossed the city looking for safety.
When she entered her apartment, she couldn't see Pearl. For a brief, awful moment she actually thought Emerald might have come back and taken her. Irrational as it was, she knew things now...
Shefound Pearl hiding behind the arm of the couch, looking out at the stars. Pearl looked up as Rose approached and scrambled to rise to her feet, but stopped as Rose held up her hands.
"Don't get up," Rose sighed, and sank to the ground beside her. "I've just come from Sodalite's hideout. I needed to see for myself."
Pearl shrank in on herself more as Rose spoke, she winced to see it.
"I'm sorry I shouted at you. You didn't deserve that. And...I'm sorry I didn't believe you."
Pearl didn't seem to react, but Rose saw her straighten up just a little.
"Emerald has been my friend for so long... I couldn't imagine her doing something so awful. I would have rather believed you were lying than believe she was..."
Rose broke off, unable to find the words. She felt hot, stinging tears prick her eyelids.
"I'm sorry, I'm so sorry," she gasped out before the first sob broke loose. "Please forgive me."
The sobs racked her mass painfully. She couldn't even see Pearl anymore through her tears.
Please forgive me. If I don't have you I have no-one.
She was pulled forward to spill her tears on the front of Pearl's dress. Once again she felt Pearl's graceful little fingers sink through her hair to stroke her head. Despite herself, she managed a watery smile.
It didn't need to be said. She knew she'd been forgiven.