They stand together and watch the ocean, Volley’s head on Pearl’s shoulder, for a long time. There’s nothing to say and too much to say all at once; their fusion was eye-opening, and surprisingly, breathtakingly intimate. Pearl has a lot to think about, and surely Volley does too. And then there’s Steven, sitting in the sand some distance away, giving them all a little space. Pearl will have to talk to him, soon—his anger in the Reef was startling and uncontrolled, and it hurts to see him struggling—but it’s not going to be solved tonight. Finally Steven gets to his feet, shifting awkwardly in the sand. “Well...I guess I’ll head in to bed.”
When he starts to turn away, Pearl gives Volley’s hand a quick squeeze before dropping it, crossing the careful distance to pull Steven into a hug. “Goodnight, Steven,” she says, kisses his forehead and tries to put everything she’s thinking into it. I forgive you, and please talk to me, and I love you all wrapped up into a knot in her chest.
After a painful moment, Steven sinks into her arms and wraps his around her. “Goodnight,” he murmurs, sounding drained, and retreats across the sand to the house. She watches him go, aching, and Volleyball takes her hand again.
“Is he much like her?”
It’s a heavy question, weighted with permutations; Pearl sighs and sits down, tugging Volley with her. “Sometimes.”
Volley stretches her legs out in front of her, idly digging divots in the sand with her heels. She’s quiet for a long time, and Pearl doesn’t want to push. Instead she stretches her own legs out beside Volley’s. Their feet tip toward each other; their shoes, Pearl notices for the first time, are the exact same shade of pink.
Slowly the moon moves across the sky, the tide coming in as they sit in silence together, foamy ripples flowing up to lap at their heels and calves. There’s so much to say, and somehow Pearl can’t put any of it into words. Any of the feeling of their fusion, the understanding passed between them when all of their memories and pains and loves were joined into one. Pearl was herself, and yet not, in a way totally unlike her other fusions; Volleyball had never fused before at all. Pearl still feels connected now, with just Volley’s hand in hers, like Volley left a piece of herself behind in Pearl and Pearl left a piece in her.
When Volley at last breaks the silence, the sky to the East is just beginning to lighten. “When I first learned about...everything I missed,” she says quietly, laying her head back on Pearl’s shoulder, “it was almost too incredible to be real. Everything you achieved. I don’t think I could have done what you did.”
Pearl squeezes her hand. “You could have. Any pearl could have. That’s what we were never allowed to know, before. Any pearl can stand up. There was nothing special about me, I just...I just fell in love.”
“Me too,” Volley says, soft and pained and wistful. “And I let her break me.”
“She always did what she wanted,” Pearl replies, “and you made her want to change. It doesn’t help, doesn’t excuse or make up for how she hurt you. But you started the rebellion. You carried on, scars and all, and forced her to live with what she’d done. You were brave.”
“Then every pearl is brave.”
“Yes. Every pearl is brave.”
In the days after the Reef, Volleyball rarely leaves Pearl’s side. Pearl takes a few days off from her classes at Little Homeschool, brings Volleyball around on a belated tour of the campus and Beach City and farther, Earth vistas that Rose loved, Gem structures that remain in frequent use. Pearl has stories for every place they go; some that she’s told Amethyst or Steven, some that she’s never told anyone. And Volley...she slowly tells her own stories. About her time with Pink, the good and the bad.
“She had so many ideas,” Volley says with a fond sort of smile as they walk through the Strawberry Battlefield. “Pearl, I have an idea, let’s throw these delicate pieces of equipment in the air and see if I can juggle them! Pearl, I have an idea, let’s have the pebbles build a maze for these little organics Yellow found on her new planet!”
“Pearl, I have an idea, let’s run away together and start a rebellion!” It’s not funny, but Volley laughs and loops her arm through Pearl’s.
“Exactly. Every new idea was exciting, even if it was a bad idea.”
“Thankfully Steven has a little more sense.”
“He seems to mean well. That’s...Pink didn’t, always.”
“She got a little better at that.”
“I’m glad.” Volley bumps their shoulders together as they walk. “I’m glad that someone got to have a better Pink, even if it wasn’t me.”
“I did, and I didn’t,” Pearl says with a sigh. “I still got hurt. But I’m really trying to move on. To have a life for myself that doesn’t revolve around having her or losing her, or revolve around her at all.”
“I’m sorry,” Volley says softly. “I shouldn’t have—”
“No, no, it’s all right, we can talk about her. We should talk about her. It’s...it’s a relief to talk to someone who...gets it.”
Gently, as if Pearl’s a skittish animal, Volley twines their fingers together. “I felt so lost, when White first released me. I didn’t understand how Pink could be gone, how so much could have changed. I came here with the other pearls because it seemed better than staying there, in all the places she used to be with me, but everything was so strange here, and busy, and bright. And...at first I think I tried to avoid you, I didn’t know how to deal with...with being replaced.”
“I understand,” Pearl assures her, squeezing her hand. “We have a shared history that’s very difficult to broach. I can’t tell you how many times I thought that I should reach out to you, but I just didn’t know what to say, and I was afraid of opening old wounds. I should have—”
“I should have too,” she interrupts. “But it’s okay. You’ve got me now.” Her face is serene, so different from the forced, bland pleasantness all pearls know intimately.
“I’m very glad.”
They walk for a little while longer, arm in arm, and at last Volley smiles again. “The Earth really is beautiful. It’s so chaotic, and free.”
“I know just the place to take you next,” Pearl says, watching her face as she nudges an enormous strawberry with her foot and grins at the splotch of red that stains her shoe. She radiates...something. Something calm, and kind, something that draws Pearl in.
She’s beautiful, Pearl realizes. We’re all made beautiful, but she’s...oh.
She lets that thought sit in her mind for a moment, a shimmery, bright thing. It’s not unfamiliar. She’s lived a long and strange life, and been drawn to many people, with varying degrees of intensity and satisfaction. Of course, above all, there was Rose. There was always Rose, whether she was there with Pearl or not. But Pearl’s always had an eye, an appreciation, and Bismuth’s told her often and fondly that she’s an unconscious flirt.
But she’s never even considered someone so like her before—not romantically. She spent so long being told, and believing, that she was beneath other gems. That kind of baked-in self loathing takes millenia to overcome.
Now, as she examines this idea in her mind, feels the flutter of it in her chest, she finds it...pleasant. Warm. Intriguing. Ground she’ll have to tread carefully, but...Pearl’s no stranger to risk.
“Come on,” she says softly, and Volley looks over at her with a smile; the sun is going down, and it paints her pinker with low warm light. “I want to show you something, it’s best to see it at night.”
“Okay.” They stroll back through the strawberries in comfortable silence as the sun goes down behind them, keeping pace with the same long stride. It’s dark by the time Volleyball steps up onto the warp pad, tugging Pearl with her and smiling. “Every place you take me is more interesting than the last. I can’t wait to see what’s next!”
“I hope you’ll like it,” Pearl says with an answering grin. “I think you will.”
They step out of the warp into a verdant grove, awash with nighttime blues and greens and lit by beams of moonlight filtering in through the canopy. The bushes around them are dotted with pale, delicate blossoms unfurling in the dim light; softly blinking fireflies hang in the air and the greenery like tiny stars. It’s just as beautiful as the first time Pearl brought Rose here, and every time after.
Volleyball gives a soft gasp, her hands rising to her mouth, and steps off the warp to turn a slow circle in the grass. “Oh...it’s beautiful! Almost like being underwater. Like looking out the windows of the Reef.”
Pearl looks around, consideringly. “You know, I never thought about it that way, but...you’re right. These lunar blossoms even look a little like starfish.”
“I’ve seen those on the beach! But the flowers are prettier,” Volley says with quiet awe. She leans in close to smell one, then turns back to Pearl and reaches for her hand again. “Pearl. This is wonderful.”
“Really,” Volley says, earnest and quiet. “The last few days have been...the best I think I’ve ever had.”
“Oh…” Pearl squeezes Volley’s hand, feeling a blush start to bloom on her face. “Even with the Reef?” she says, her second unfunny joke of the night. Get it together, Pearl.
Volley steps a little closer, hesitant. “Even with the Reef. I actually...would you—” her hand tightens around Pearl’s, “—would you fuse with me again?”
Pearl blinks. “Oh.”
“Only if you want to, I mean, I don’t really understand how it works, or, or what it means, but—”
“Yes,” Pearl interrupts, catching Volley’s other hand as it flutters anxiously. “Yes. I’m sorry, I just didn’t expect...that was your first time fusing, right?”
Volleyball nods. “It was...wonderful,” she breathes, the smile coming back to her face. “I’ve never felt so strong, and confident...is that what you feel like all the time?”
A laugh burbles out of her before she can stop it. “Stars, no! Strong and confident wouldn’t be the first words I’d use.”
“Well, you should,” Volleyball replies with sudden intensity; she’s very close now, their hands clasped together in the narrow space between them. “You’re incredible. You must know that.”
“You too,” Pearl insists. “You’ve survived, just like me.”
Volley inches even closer. “I want to be her. I want to be us. Show me how.”
“Well.” With a steadying breath, Pearl gently disentangles her hands from Volley’s and lays them lightly at her waist. “Here on Earth, we usually start by dancing.”
“Oh,” Volley says, her hands sliding up Pearl’s arms. “That, I can do.”
It’s as simple as breathing to dance with her. She goes loose in Pearl’s hold, supple as a willow branch as Pearl sways and spins and lifts; Pearl is precision and Volley is spontaneity, but they wind together in moments as if they’ve been dancing for thousands of years. It’s...intense. Their gems glow like the fireflies between them as Pearl dips her low, Volley’s legs folding around her waist, and when she draws her back up Volley curls close against her chest, even closer as their bodies go blurry and bright at the edges, and then
She opens her eye.
She is standing in the grove in the watery moonlight, head and shoulders above the tops of the lunar blossom bushes. They’re just as beautiful from up here as she, as they—
There’s no danger this time, no red warning lights, no restraining wires grasping at her. Just the quiet grove, fireflies dancing around her feet. She sinks down to sit amid their blinking, remembering the quiet peace of the beach, finding it again in the cool touch of the grass on her legs. There’s so much inside her, and no Steven here to focus her attention on. Instead she reaches out for the lunar blossoms, plucking some and weaving them together into a garland. Those memories are close to the surface; Rose, placing a crown of flowers on her head, Amethyst and Garnet giving her one so many years later. She places this one in her own hair alongside the crown she already wears; the petals tickle her gem and she laughs just to hear her own voice.
“What an incredible night,” she says into the still air.
“I’m so glad I’m here. I didn’t know I could feel so…”
“Is that all right?”
A breeze weaves through the grove, rustling the greenery and tugging at her cape; delighted, she sprawls out on her back to watch the treetops move, revealing stars between them in tantalizing glimpses. She can see homeworld’s galaxy from here; she watches it peek in and out through the leaves, lets herself think about it. There’s so much to remember, and so much she can’t; she lays there for a long time, cautiously exploring the landscape of her mind.
Hours later Pearl breathes in deep, the night air and the blossoms’ scent, and exhales as two Pearls curled side by side. The crown they made is draped lopsidedly on Volley’s head, and she reaches up a hand to touch it. “So this is a human invention? It’s lovely.”
“Mm,” Pearl hums, watching her. “Humans have many lovely ways to show affection.”
“Oh, is that what it means?” Volley asks with a coy smile and a faint pink blush. “What else do humans do?”
An answering smile tugs at Pearl’s mouth. “Well. They kiss, for instance.”
“Kiss? Oh,” she says, “like you kiss Steven goodnight?”
“Yes, that’s one kind.”
Volley’s coy grin is back, softer; she leans so close their noses almost touch. “Like you kissed Rose?”
Pearl lets out a slow breath, reaches out to curl their hands together. “Yes. That kind too.”
The request is so sweet, and there’s no hesitation in her face. Gently Pearl brings Volley’s hand to her lips, kissing the back of it softly; Volley sighs and curls closer, their legs overlapping. Pearl lifts a hand to her face, to the small cracks that still show, and leans in to lay a tender kiss there. Trembling now, Volley reaches for her and Pearl draws her in, tipping her face to press their mouths together. Just a touch, at first, and then another, little tastes that Volley matches with soft, surprised sounds, but it’s like the dancing—soon they’re tangled together from lips to toes, openmouthed, and Pearl can’t remember the last time she was so hungry.
“Is this okay?” she gasps between kisses, a hand buried in Volley’s hair where it’s coming loose from the bun, the other in the small of her back, keeping her close.
Delicate hands fist in the back of her jacket. “Please,” Volley replies, which isn’t quite an answer but it’s answer enough. It’s hard to tear herself away from the warm mouth chasing after her own, but Volley’s slender throat and the dip of her neckline prove equally distracting. Then she feels the softest touch of lips against her gem, like the tickle of the flower crown, and shivers softly; she slides her hand to Volley’s stomach in answer, brushing the edge of her gem with her thumb. “Pearl,” Volley murmurs against her, a tender sound, and Pearl’s chest aches. Blinking back tears she turns her face up to find Volley’s mouth again.
They make their way back to the beach as the sun is rising, and Pearl leads Volleyball into the house by the hand. “I should get back to my classes today,” she says with a reluctant sigh, “but you’re welcome to come along and join them! Oh, good morning Steven.”
Steven looks up from his breakfast—yogurt and granola, Pearl will have to remember to get more if that’s what he’s into now—and smiles. “Morning, Pearl. Morning, Volleyball! Are you thinking about enrolling at Little Homeschool?”
Volley’s grip on her hand tightens, but her face shows no hesitation, just a shy smile. “Well...just Pearl’s classes, to start. What did you call it?” she says, glancing at her. “Auditioning?”
Steven looks perplexed, but smiles gamely anyway. “Okay. If anything else strikes your fancy though, just let me know and we can get you set up with a class schedule.”
“Okay,” Volleyball agrees, and she’s not precisely hiding behind Pearl, but she’s not entirely relaxed either. Pearl laces their fingers together.
“Everything’s still very new for her,” Pearl says, unable to help the little smile that creeps onto her face. “We’re...she’s taking things slowly.”
“Sure,” Steven says slowly, looking between the two of them. “So...where were you both all night?”
Volley flushes magenta and snorts a tiny laugh, then hides her face in Pearl’s shoulder; Pearl can’t help but laugh too. “Oh...we...ah…”
Steven is grinning now, and it lights up his whole face in a way Pearl realizes she hasn’t seen in a while. “I see,” he says, drawing the word out into at least four syllables with a waggle of his eyebrows.
“Oh, Steven, honestly,” Pearl says blushing now herself; with an arm around her shoulders, she guides Volley toward the temple door. “Come on, I’ll show you my room, we have a little time before I have to be at the school.”
The door glows and slides open to reveal her familiar tiers of fountains; behind them, Steven giggles. “Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do!”
“We’re both millennia old, Steven,” Pearl calls back, ushering Volley through. “We’ve done plenty of things I hope you’re not doing.”
Volleyball chokes out a laugh; “Gross!” Steven shouts as the door slips closed behind them.
It feels almost narcissistic, to have Volleyball in her arms. To want her there. To cage the narrow span of her waist in both hands, to draw her in gently by the back of her neck, to kiss her so carefully and feel the brush of her very distinctive nose. Pearls are all unique, because pearls are all bespoke—and of course because they, like all gems, are individuals—but there’s a comforting sameness in the precise way their limbs fold together on the couch, the way their fingers lace.
There’s a satisfaction in simple contact, in idle conversation or comfortable silence, with someone so fundamentally like her. Pearl was never close to the others; she had quite enough to do, managing Pink. Blue and Yellow’s pearls spent time together, moved and sang in an easy synchronicity Pearl was never a part of. She took no notice then—Pearl was single-mindedly devoted—but now she wonders if she was missing out on a little bit of light, a little bit of understanding from the only others who could actually understand.
She’s only ever known equality with other gems. It was never demeaning when Rose swept Pearl up into her arms, or Garnet tossed her in the air, or Biggs hugged her so hard her feet left the ground, or Bismuth flexed while Pearl sat primly on her huge bicep. It was always safe, with them, respectful and fond. When Amethyst was new, she climbed into Pearl’s arms like it wasn’t nonsensical for a pearl to carry a quartz around on her hip; when Steven was younger, she carried him around too. But she’s never had this closeness with someone of her own type, someone she can wrap up safe in her grasp, someone she can curl into when the new life they’re all living is overwhelming.
They sit in Pearl’s room on one of the water towers, Volley sitting across Pearl’s lap, Pearl’s head tucked against her chest. Pearl breathes, because it’s calming; Volley hums, something old and half-remembered, running her fingers through Pearl’s hair.
“I remember you now,” Volley says softly, her thumb tracing the edge of Pearl’s gem. “From before.”
The featherlight touch scrambles Pearl’s brain a little, and she winds her arms closer around Volley’s waist, just barely brushing the gem in her stomach. “Before?”
“When you were White’s,” she says, mild, matter-of-fact. Pearl’s eyes, drooping closed, now pop wide; Volley pulls back, uncertain.
“Oh. I…I don’t. Remember.”
“You weren’t a puppet, like me,” Volley says, cradling her face with sudden concern. The were you? goes unasked.
Pearl forces her tense limbs to relax, turns her cheek a little into Volley’s hand. “I was rejuvinated, for Pink.”
Volley pulls back, a hand to her mouth. “Oh no, I’m so sorry, that was incredibly rude of me—”
Pearl holds her tighter. “No, it’s all right, I couldn’t care less about old Homeworld taboos. It’s...useful, to hear it for certain. Pink would never tell me—I mean, I guessed, gem placement, and I could see my boot file, you know, I’m the fourth iteration now actually, but the other pearls would never say either and White probably doesn’t even remember—”
“Shhh,” Volley soothes, and Pearl realizes she’s babbling. The silence that follows is awkward for a moment as Volley watches her, considering, then leans in for a soft, chaste kiss. “You were kind,” she says, “as kind as you could be. But I’m glad to have this you now.”
“I’m glad to have this you,” Pearl replies, warmed, and Volleyball smiles, and kisses her again.
They’re touching almost all the time. Volley’s arm around her waist or Pearl’s palm on the small of her back, shoulders or knees or feet brushing. Volley stays within arm’s reach, their hands tangled together whenever they’re idle. When Pearl is teaching, Volley sits on the sideline of her classes, attentive and distractingly engaged, learning how to use a cell phone or how to say no to a former “superior” or how to sublimate anger through weapons training.
In spite of her enthusiasm for all of Pearl’s activities, she doesn’t actually wield a weapon at class in the sky arena; instead she pulls her ribbon wand from her gem and dances, a one-gem cheering squad for Pearl and the students. It’s extremely charming. Sometimes Bismuth drops in to join her, and the combination of earnest flattery with good-natured catcalling is almost more than Pearl can withstand. It’s not a class where she can afford distractions—there are gems fresh from Homeworld here, still coming to grips with the changes thrust upon them by Era 3, angry that they’re losing status or angry that they never had any before. It’s a challenge to direct their energy, but one Pearl feels well-prepared for; she’s been directing her anger into martial skills for six thousand years, after all.
Every gem who chooses her training is different and comes to her for different reasons, so she spends each class rotating from student to student as they work through drills she’s set them, correcting form and praising their efforts. It’s different from training rebels; it’s different from training Steven, or Connie. There are gems here entrusting her with their fury, their pain, their instincts for violence in an era of peace. She tries to keep the atmosphere light and positive, tries to channel their emotional energy into physical exertion, and mostly succeeds.
There’s a citrine who perpetually seems on the verge of explosion, newly arrived from one of the far-flung colonies where Steven’s message of equality only recently reached. She’s having trouble taking instruction from an ownerless pearl, which is nothing new or surprising, and she’s not adjusting well to the idea of finding new ways to occupy herself in peacetime. She trains with a morningstar, viciously spiked, and when it’s time for sparring practice Pearl has to set the quartz-model holograms she designed last year at nearly lethal levels to present a challenge.
It’s that, or volunteer herself. “All right, everyone,” she calls, lifting her voice above the noise of half a dozen gems practicing. “You’ve all done really well today!”
Volley twirls, her ribbon fluttering in circles above her head. “Great job!” she cheers, and the little goshenite with the throwing daggers blushes.
“Now let’s pair up and work on the two-gem forms we learned on Wednesday for our cooldown. Remember, take it slow. Get your position right at quarter speed, and it’ll be second nature at full speed when it really counts.”
As her students shuffle around, bowing to each other and setting up their stances, Pearl draws a spear from her gem and approaches Citrine. “I know last time you practiced with a hologram, but I thought you might like to have an actual gem partner.”
Citrine looks her up and down with thinly veiled skepticism. “An actual gem?”
“Yes,” Pearl confirms with a slight, but respectful, bow. After a moment’s hesitation, Citrine bows as well, and slides into her ready stance; Pearl nods approvingly and matches it. “Begin.”
They sweep steadily through the first few beats of the set, quiet clicks of their weapons for each strike and parry, circling each other. “Good. Make sure you’re hitting solid leg positions as you move, or you’ll be off-balance.”
Citrine gives a dismissive grunt, swinging her morningstar around for an overhead strike. Pearl meets it, a little higher than it should be. “Try lowering your shoulders as you strike. Good posture will give you more power.”
Pearl’s next tapped strike is blocked with a tiny snarl; when Citrine swings at her side, it’s got momentum behind it. “I’m not really worried about a lack of power.”
“There’s always room for improvement,” Pearl replies, sweeping into a slow upward strike. “That last swing was better.”
Citrine knocks her strike away, forcefully. “Then let’s speed this up.” She spins the morningstar in her hand and comes too close, too fast; Pearl brings her spear up to block and the shock of the hit vibrates down her arms.
“Did you not hear what I said five minutes ago?” A little bit of frustration creeps into Pearl’s voice as she springs back to put some distance between them, but Citrine doesn’t give her a chance to disengage. In moments the set form has devolved into a full-strength fight, and she hears her students scattering to the stands as Citrine forces her across the arena floor.
Pearl’s not worried. She’s fought bigger gems, stronger gems, more skilled gems than this, and won. She parries and dodges and leaps, faster and more flexible than Citrine, but it only seems to wind her up; it becomes clearer every second that this is more than just blowing off steam. “Stand still!” Citrine growls, swinging hard at her side.
“That’s enough,” Pearl scolds, dropping to the ground to get beneath the swing and thrusting her spear upward. Citrine only barely parries, looking shocked and then furious as Pearl pops to her feet with a quick succession of blows that harry the larger gem back. Even after thousands of years, somehow people still underestimate me. It’s an effort, but not too much of one, to get under Citrine’s flustered defenses and knock the morningstar flying out of her hand with the butt of her spear; in the same fluid movement she swings the blade back up, the sharp tip poised less than an inch from the gem at the base of Citrine’s throat.
“Yield,” Pearl says with steel in her voice; Citrine’s expression is absolutely mutinous, but she goes completely still. “You’re still new, so we’ll consider this a first warning. You will treat every gem with equal respect, and if you continue to study with me, you will follow my instructions.”
“Fine,” Citrine spits, and Pearl pulls her spear back and puts it away.
“Thank you.” Then she takes a chance, and turns away; the rest of the class, including Volleyball, are watching from the stands in various states of openmouthed shock. “Okay, everyone, let’s—”
Someone gasps, and a fraction of a second later a hand fists in the back of her jacket, swinging her violently off her feet and arcing into the air. It’s too uncontrolled and too fast to correct for—all she can do is reach out, trying to find the ground as she’s suddenly plummeting back toward it, and keep from hitting it gem-first. As if in slow motion, there’s a snap and a hot flash of agony in her wrist, then another in her nose, then the sickening tap of her gem against stone as she’s slammed into the floor. Muffled beneath the sudden ringing in her ears she hears a shout of her name; though she’s stunned by the impact, instinct sends her scrambling backward.
A moment later she’s back on her feet, and still no attack comes. When her vision clears, she can see why—Citrine is wrapped tight and straining in a fine, inexplicably pink chain. A weighted end dangles where it’s looped around itself to keep her trapped, and Pearl’s eyes follow the length of it back to Volley. In one hand she’s holding the slack; in the other, the chain connects to a pale pink braided grip topped by a shining scythelike blade. Her stance is uncertain and her face is terrified, but her hands are sure on the weapon as if it belongs there.
“Volley, let go now!” she shouts and twists into a sweep, taking Citrine’s legs out from under her; the momentum swings the bladed end into the air and Pearl snatches it, planting a foot on Citrine’s chest and pressing the wicked curve up against her neck. “Yield now,” she says, her voice gone cold, “or be expelled from my class. Your choice.”
A tense moment of absolute silence follows, Citrine staring her down and Pearl unflinching; finally the other gem lets her head fall back against the ground, eyes closing. “I yield.”
“Then I expect you back in class next week,” Pearl says, unmoving, “ready to try that again at quarter speed.” Then she drops her hold on the weapon, and the whole thing disintegrates into sparkles. Citrine still doesn’t move, though she could with only Pearl’s foot on her chest keeping her there; satisfied, Pearl steps back. When she looks up, her students are clustered in a little half-ring around them, gaping. “Class dismissed. I’ll see you all on Monday.”
Volleyball is suddenly there at her elbow, and that’s when Pearl realizes that she might be swaying a little; careful arms come around her, guide her to the stairs. There’s silence behind them, around them, as Pearl lets herself be led out of the arena. She doesn’t glitch until they’re through the doorway and out of sight of the students; Volley grips her tighter with a quiet oh and then sweeps Pearl into a bridal carry and hurries down to the warp pad.
“I’ll be fine,” Pearl tries to assure her, though she thinks she might be slurring; her wrist and face and head are all throbbing, increasingly painfully now that adrenaline is wearing off.
“Pearl,” Volley replies, a plea and an admonition at once. She steps onto the pad, and then they’re in the bright, cold space of the warp.
“That was incredible. Your weapon. It’s called a kusarigama. I—” she glitches again, “—I think I have one in my collection, but not as nice as that.”
Volleyball makes a choked little noise. “Pearl, please stop talking, you sound strange and it’s very upsetting.”
They arrive on the warp pad outside Rose’s fountain, and Pearl shifts a little in Volleyball’s hold. “At least put me down and let me walk.”
“Don’t be stupid, you can’t even stand up,” Volley scolds, and she’s crying, which is awful to see. Pearl closes her eyes against it, but gives in and leans her head against Volley’s shoulder as she hurries to the fountain’s edge.
“Every pearl can stand up. You were very brave.”
Volley lowers her gently into the water, and the relief is immediate; Pearl groans softly as her gem repairs itself and her bruised and broken parts go pleasantly numb. When she opens her eyes again, Volleyball is watching her with a tear-streaked face. Then she kneels down beside Pearl in the water, gathering Pearl’s hands into her own, and gently kisses her gem and her nose and then, tenderly, her mouth. “I wasn’t brave. I just fell in love.”