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Lingering

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Pearl finds Garnet on the porch, leaning contentedly against the guardrail and gazing at the spot on the beach some distance away where Steven tosses a volleyball with Amethyst and the increasingly-less-hesitant Biggs and Snowflake, her form more relaxed than Pearl can ever recall seeing it.

Part of this, she’s sure, is an illusion of Garnet’s new form—the starburst of her new visor, which seems so naturally suited to the optimism that she now knows Garnet has for millennia needed to work to project—and part of it, too, is the legitimately newfound comfort she has with herself since Ruby and Sapphire made the active decision to choose to fuse, for themselves and not because their fusion was the answer to the question Garnet never even knew Rose was asking. But mostly, Pearl knows, it’s because Biggs and Snowflake are here, in front of them, sentient, and free, and learning to be happy again, if not quite whole…

And then, of course, there’s Steven.

“He’s amazing, isn’t he?” Pearl asks, joining her. “And suddenly so…fourteen years is nothing, and yet in that time, he’s become…he’s…”

“Steven’s not a child anymore,” Garnet says without turning to look at her. Even so, Pearl can hear the grin in her voice. “He grew.” A smirk. “So did we.”

Once, this too would have been a revelation to Pearl—the thought that she, a Gem, a Pearl, could grow? Did grow? It would have made her flush blue, stammer in disbelief. But now, she merely smiles, says: “Yes.”

“You fused with him.” Garnet’s grin widens. Her gaze follows a laughing Steven as he projects himself into the air toward the ball. “You never said.”

Now Pearl’s cheeks do flush slightly. “You didn’t know?”

“I was poofed.”

“But I thought…your Future Vision…”

“I can’t see things that might happen while Sapphire is disincorporated.”

“Oh…Then how…?”

“Steven told me.” A pause, and then, beaming, she finally turns to look Pearl in the eyes. “Now, you tell me.”

“I...What?”

“Fusing with him. Your experience of it. Tell me.”

“I…It was…different than fusing with Rose. I knew it would be, and, for so long, I dreaded that. That it would be a final confirmation that she really was gone, and when we did fuse, I’d only be able to feel that loss.”

“But you didn’t.”

“No.” A smile pulls at Pearl’s lips. “In that moment, when we fused…I just felt pride. Proud of him, of course, of how far he’s come, but also…proud of me. Of how far I’ve come as well. It’s as if…” She pauses. “As if, for a moment, I saw myself as Rose always wanted me to. But more than that, I…” Pearl glances toward Steven on the beach. “I think I saw myself as Steven always sees me, as he always has seen me…and it’s…I’ve never…all the things that used to make feel defective, like I needed to be replaced, suddenly…they felt wonderful. I was proud of them.”

Garnet’s grin is so wide now that it seems to radiate beyond her face. “That lingers.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean, when a fusion is that strong, what you feel when you fuse stays with you after you un-fuse.”

Pearl fingers her new jacket. “Yes, I suppose it does.”

A brief silence falls over them both. Waves crash. In the distance, Snowflake laughs.

“And you?” Pearl asks once the moment seems to pass. “What was fusing with him like for you?”

“It was…refreshing.”

“Refreshing?”

“Yes.” Garnet glances away. “When Ruby and Sapphire first fused, I felt awkward. And when Rose told me that I was the answer, I stopped allowing myself to feel that way, because I didn’t think it was an option. Too many Gems were relying on me to be an example to them. That was what mattered—leading by example, keeping everyone together. When we all discovered the truth about Rose, I…it shook me. And when Ruby and Sapphire decided to fuse again—for themselves, rather than for anyone else—I felt awkward again.”

“Really?”

Garnet nods a single nod. “I felt happy, but awkward. Like I did when I—I mean when Ruby and Sapphire—first fused. In some ways, at my wedding, it was like they were fusing for the first time again.” She turns her gaze away from Pearl—toward Steven, Snowflake, the sea. “Perhaps I never really stopped feeling that awkwardness. Or I never dealt with it. I just stopped thinking about it because I thought too much depended on my fusion. It was easier, when I didn’t have to exist for myself."

That’s an idea so achingly familiar to Pearl that she can’t help but start. “I…yes!”

“But despite that, Ruby and Sapphire love each other. I love being alive as me. Even when it’s hard.” A pause, then she grins. “But it’s not hard for Steven. He loves himself and loves being himself so naturally. He always has. Even when circumstances made things difficult for him, even when he questioned everything else, he never questioned that one underlying assumption. And when we fused, I felt that for myself too. That natural ease with which he loves himself. And I…I was able to love myself just as easily as I love him. As Sunstone, I was able to turn that love outward. Like Steven does.”

Pearl looks up, and her reflection—her tentative little smile—bears back into her from Garnet’s visor. “And now?”

But she needn’t have asked—she may not have Future Vision, but she knows how Garnet is going to respond.

“Like I said. When a fusion is strong, what you feel when you fuse stays with you.”

In the distance, Biggs passes Steven the ball, and her shoulders, which have been tense since she emerged from Fountain—and for as long as Pearl had known her before, during the War—gradually begin to relax. Steven tells a joke, and Snowflake—who used to be so solemn—laughs again. He’s helping them to grow, Pearl thinks, just as he’d helped her, helped Garnet, helped Amethyst.

“Steven lingers,” Pearl says.

“Yes,” Garnet agrees. “He does.”