It took Pearl almost three weeks to regenerate, this time, with several false starts. More than once, Steven thought he saw her gem glow, and the faint silhouette of her form, like a paper ballerina atop a music box, only to wind up grasping at air, as Pearl faded back into her core-most self.
“Is that supposed to happen?” Connie wondered out loud. She’d gotten her parents’ permission to stay over for the weekend, having assured them she’d already done all her homework, with Amethyst promising to come in for a follow-up appointment with Dr. Maheswaran to seal the deal. There’s no way the doctor wasn’t just a teeny bit excited to examine a real live alien. (Emphasis on ‘live;’ she didn’t find Amethyst’s dissection jokes funny at all.)
“I dunno.” Steven dragged his foot through the wet, clumpy sand, then watched a wave erase the groove he’d made. “It’s not how she did it last time. Hey, do you think it’ll help if I put my headphones on her? She likes classical music. I’ve got to have it on my phone, somewhere.”
“We could put her in a tidal pool,” Connie suggested. “...Except then the tide might wash her out to sea.”
“Noooooo.” Steven clutched imaginary Pearl protectively to his chest. “No castaway adventures! She could get captured by pirates.”
“No way. I bet she’d capture the pirates,” Connie said. “She’d have her own crew in no time flat.”
“Does this mean you’d be her second in command?” Steven asked.
“Of course. I’d like to think I’d make a very good trusted lieutenant. You could be the ship’s doctor, because of your healing powers. Lion could be ship’s cat.” A gust of wind blew Connie’s hair straight back into her face. “You know,” she said after a moment, “I’m actually kind of glad I’m not the hero in this story.”
“Huh? But you’re totally heroic!”
Connie ducked her head. “Thanks. I just meant… I’m pretty sure Pearl counts as my mentor, at this point. Not that the hero always having to lose her mentor isn’t a tired old cliche. Dad says it has to do with Western media’s overemphasis on individual accomplishment rather than cooperation. ...I just lost you, didn’t I?”
“No, I think I got it,” Steven said. Ronaldo was a great guy, and he was right about a lot of things (well, except for the sneeple. Maybe.) But the Hero Standing Alone thing didn’t work so hot, in real life.
“Do you think she’ll be okay?” he asked Connie, even though there was no way she’d know.
Amethyst was the one who answered, plopping down next to them. “She’ll be fine. She’s just taking her sweet time powdering her nose and turning you all into spazzy fussbudgets like her. That’s been her cunning plan all along; whiny misery loooooves company.” She fished a Beer’n Bacon Maple Explosion Donut out of her pocket and popped it whole into her mouth.
“So nothing’s changed yet?” Steven asked.
“See for yourself.” Amethyst reached into her pocket again, pulling out Pearl’s gem, complete with a smear of maple frosting and stuck-on lint.
“What if she came back while you had her in your pocket?” Connie took the gem, trying vainly to clean it off with the hem of her skirt.
“Then,” Amethyst said, “it would suit her right. Also I’d need new pants.”
“There you are.” Garnet caught up to Amethyst, scruffing her by the back of her shirt. “And there you are,” she said, taking Pearl’s gem from Connie.
“Did you use Future Vision to figure out Amethyst took her?” Steven asked, chin in hands.
“No,” Garnet said. “She’s just predictable. Is that maple butter?”
“Real maple? No. Cruddy fake maple? Yes. Welcome to Delmarva.” Amethyst turned into a cat and hopped up onto Steven’s shoulder, rubbing her head against his ear. “I can’t wait to hear P complaining about me getting glucose and calcium deposits all over her. Like she’s not a freakin’ calcium deposit.” Amethyst hopped down, giving herself a good shake.
Garnet knelt in the surf, giving the gem a thorough wash. “There.” She deposited it in Steven’s hand.
“I’ll put her back,” Amethyst said, a little guilty, popping back into her usual shape.
Steven didn’t get the chance to wonder about the tiny smile on Garnet’s face, as he passed Pearl’s gem to Amethyst. It glinted and caught in the sunlight, erupting into rays of brilliant white light, and Amethyst suddenly found herself with an armful of Pearl and a faceful of sand as they both fell over.
“Pearl’s back!” For real, this time, and suddenly that dancing feeling flooded his bones again. “Pearl’s back!” He grabbed Connie’s hand, twirling her around.
“I’m…” Pearl blinked up at him. “...horizontal. Why? Put me down,” she told Amethyst.
“You are down,” Amethyst retorted. “Lemme up.”
Garnet draped one of Pearl’s arms over her shoulders, lifting her to her feet. Pearl slumped against her, looking worn out. “There was just too much foreign energy. It was,” she gave a shrill, nervous laugh, “quite an adventure. Is it over now. Please tell me it’s over?” Her outfit hadn’t changed at all. Even the bow of her sash seemed to droop.
“It’s over,” Garnet said, and Pearl let out a desperate, relieved noise, which sounded a lot like crying, even though her eyes were perfectly dry.
“Are we all… back?” Pearl looked down at her hands for the first time, like she’d been afraid to look before.
“See for yourself.” A flap of wings, and a white, purple-gemmed owl landed on Pearl’s shoulder. “Hey, Pearl, imma lay an egg on your head.”
“Oh, don’t you dare!” Pearl swatted at her halfheartedly. “That’s not even biologically possible.”
“You’re breaking my heart here.”
“We don’t have hearts.”
“Factual evidence cannot harm you. It can only uplift you from your ignorance- Ow!”
Amethyst had nipped her ear. “So, how about a thank you?” Pearl looked confused. “Wormlons, lasers, me saving your stupid lack of a butt? Don’t tell me you’ve got amnesia.”
“My butt is not- You know, I’m not even going to finish that sentence.” Amethyst’s words penetrated at last, and Pearl’s look turned to blue-tinged mortification.
“Oh course I knew what you meant. You…” Pearl’s eyes softened. “You had me worried sick, running up the mountain in that heat, with your body compromised. You could have collapsed, and I wouldn’t have been there to help you!”
“Oh, who cares?” Amethyst tumbled from Pearl’s shoulder, regaining her own shape when she hit the ground. “Look, here’s me. Back in the purple, and I’m so done milking my booboos for sympathy.” She viciously clipped off her words, and turned to go.
“Amethyst, wait!” Pearl stumbled toward her. “I didn’t mean-”
“She said you were awesome.” Okay, so Steven couldn’t remember Pearl’s exact words, but the look on her face when she realized what Amethyst was doing had definitely been admiring. “I think you’re awesome.”
“You think rocks are awesome.”
“Yeah? And you’re a rock!”
“Heh. I guess you’re right. But Pearl’s not you.”
“He’s right,” Pearl said quietly.
“You bet your butt bow he’s right. He’s… Wait, what?”
“You acquitted yourself admirably in that battle,” Pearl said. “You formulated a plan - a good plan - in the middle of an emergency, and you acted without hesitation. You didn’t freeze up.” The way I did. Unspoken, the words still hung in the air.
Amethyst turned around at last, hair in her face, hiding her expression. “Not like it’s a big deal. I just didn’t want to leave G-dawg alone up there. Didn’t matter, anyway. I didn’t make it in time. If not for Garnet being kickass, and Sapphire thinking quickly…” She trailed off.
“You saved Pearl’s life, either way,” Garnet told her.
“For what? So she could go poof and maybe not come back? She did, sure, but that had nothing to do with me.”
“That was my fault.”
It wasn’t until Steven heard Pearl’s cry of “Steven, no,” that he realized he’d spoken out loud.
“I should have bubbled us, when you were changing, or I should have seen that wormlon coming at us. Or both.”
“You messed up,” Garnet said. She was right, and she was just echoing what he’d said himself, but it still hurt coming from her. Maybe because she was right, but mostly because she was Garnet, and the thought of her being disappointed with him was gut-churningly terrible.
“It wasn’t his fault,” Pearl protested. “You didn’t have to say it like that!”
“We all mess up,” Garnet continued. “It’s what you do afterward that matters.”
What did he do afterward? Steven couldn’t even remember, except for the part where he failed to stop Heliodor from reverting to her corrupted form.
“You protected Pearl’s gem,” Garnet said. “You found Amethyst and put an end to the fight. Spectacular recovery, as far as I’m concerned.”
Pearl smiled at him warmly. “I’m sorry to have missed it.”
“Yeah,” Amethyst said. “It was a wild party all right. People gonna be talking about it for years.”
“Heliodor’s gone,” he said. Pearl wouldn’t know. How could she, if nobody told her.
“Our house guest. Oh, Steven, I’m so sorry.” Steven wondered what she imagined happening. Maybe that Heliodor had died to protect him. It’s what Pearl herself would have done, no matter how much he didn’t want her to.
“She turned back, but she couldn’t turn back into a Gem.”
“That’s not true,” Garnet said. “She was always a Gem, whatever she might have said.”
“But there must have been another way.” Steven looked up at Garnet.
“There were several timelines where she stayed human,” Garnet said. “None of them turned out well. As for timelines where she reverted to the Gem she once was: there were none. She was broken, Steven.” So many layers of meaning, in that one word. "As a human, she was simply broken in a way humans sometimes break. No more, but no less."
“I was afraid of that,” Pearl said. “Rose’s healing powers weren’t enough to undo corruption. The transformation was a wild card, but even that was always a long shot.”
“So I didn’t actually help her at all,” Steven said.
Garnet shook her head. “She’s never stood down from a fight before, in all the time I’ve known her. Even when she knew she was outnumbered; when there was no way for her to win. Meeting you, talking with you made her stop and reconsider. She couldn’t reach her soldiers as a human. They wouldn’t understand or recognize her. As a wormlon, she could protect them from us.” A trace of guilt snuck into Garnet’s voice. “And if it meant protecting us, her former enemies, from them, then so be it.” Steven remembered the way Heliodor had tried to talk to the wormlon back at Fish Stew Pizza. Garnet was right. She hadn’t recognized her, and it wasn’t just because Heliodor wasn’t making much sense at that point in time.
“I guess…” Steven shuffled his feet. “I guess she didn’t like us much, even after all that time.”
“She liked you,” Garnet said. “You weren’t an old enemy. You were something new. I don’t know if she really understood what, but either way, she didn’t hold it against you.”
“Hey, Steven…” Connie’d been keeping quiet all this time, ever since the start of Pearl and Amethyst’s fight. Trying to make herself as small and unnoticeable as she could. But now the fight was over, and she spoke up again. “Can I metaphor at you for a bit?”
Connie glanced over at Amethyst, head cocked as she thought her words through. “Do you remember episode seven of Under the Knife?”
“The one with the hiker?”
“That’s the one. Amethyst’s arm made me think of it.”
Amethyst made a face, windmilling her perfectly healthy arms. “Yeesh, let it go already.”
“Eh.” Amethyst shrugged and flopped backwards into Connie’s lap.
“But anyway. Remember how that hiker had been lost long enough for her leg to start healing? Sort of, anyway.” She went into some detail for those not-Steven, who hadn’t seen the show. “It had set all wrong.” Stiff and brittle, and a little crooked. The show’s prosthetics weren’t that great, but Steven’d gotten the jist of it. “Remember how they had to re-break it, before setting it?”
“No?” Steven covered his eyes at the memory. “Too much closeup. Bleh.”
“You get the idea, though. You said,” she pointed to Garnet, “that Heliodor was really set in her ways, right?”
“And it kind of sounds like the wormlons were already getting a little better on their own.”
“I don’t recall them communicating before,” Pearl agreed.
“So maybe their minds are starting to heal, from whatever corruption does. But maybe it’s not really going that fast, or maybe something’s still going wrong with it. And maybe Steven - maybe you - are that second break. Maybe talking to you, and getting to know you, and realizing you’re not a bad person, and changing because of it will mean she heals faster after this. Not as fast as you’d like, but better.”
How long would it take? Steven wondered. Years? Centuries? Centuries were kind of like years, to Gems. Pearl talked about being gone for fifty years like it was just a weekend. Would he even be alive, by the time Heliodor and the others turned back?
The ocean stretched out in front of him, crystal clear and offering no answers whatsoever.
Something warm and soft wrapped around his legs, and Steven bent down to scoop Amethyst-kitty, burying his face in her fur. “You did good,” she said.
“I just wish…” He trailed off, not even sure how to finish.
“I know,” Garnet said. And, after a moment, “Me too.”
Connie reached out to take his free hand, twining her fingers with his. He wanted to say something, and he didn’t, and he didn’t know which words could possibly stand in for all the feelings bubbling up in his chest. “We did okay,” he tried, “even without powers.”
“Mm. Much as that’s not an experience I’d like to repeat anytime soon,” Pearl said. “We managed.”
Under Steven’s shirt, his gem pulsed warmth where his bellybutton used to be. He could feel the soft cotton of his shirt brushing against it; skin and stone each feeling just as much as the other. He’d never thought of it that way, before. Was this what ‘normal’ felt like?
Behind him, Pearl reached over to tuck the tag back into his shirt, her fingers cool on his back. “Let’s go home,” she said, and Steven snuck one more look at the vast stretch of water which held and hid so many old, lost friends, before turning and following the others down the winding path toward the house.