There's a steady drip from the ceiling. It's water, Pearl thinks, but it might just be sludge: that's the problem with being in human spheres like this. They've got no sense of safety. They're bags of meat, and dreams, and thoughts, each one easier to break then the last, and they always seem to forget they're so affected by their environment.
All it takes is one contaminated drop of water in a well to take an entire town down. All it will take is another six months for the creeping tendrils of black to bloom into something deadly across his ceiling. But Pearl has been watching the drip in the rafters, spraying a thousand different forms of bacteria down each time it hits the floor, fall for the past six hundred minutes, and no one here even cares.
When she brings it up to Rose, she just laughs.
"But, Pearl, isn't it just amazing? It's part of their wonder! I mean, look at this." Garnet and Amethyst have always been uncomfortable with her fixation. Pearl is the only one willing to indulge it, and so the two of them are the only ones in his dwelling as Rose leads her to his room.
It's ugly, her paramour's abode, and Pearl had thought, maybe, the rest would be better than the main entry, with its leaking ceiling and the death waiting above. It's not. There are boxes stacked high, and papers thrown across the floor. The entire thing smells damp. If Pearl wished to, she could refract the light just-so, to see every single spore hanging in the air, born and feeding off of the mildew growing from all this organic matter.
She doesn't wish to. She just stops breathing instead, and makes a note to reform her light-form later, to build something cleaner.
Rose doesn't, though. Pearl can see the rise and fall of her chest beside her, for all that she must know the air is filthy here. But her paramour - and isn't it right, that it should be such an ugly word, for such an ugly concept - is filthy, too, tangled up in the sheets of his bed with sweat on his skin, and Rose has no hesitation as she lays her fingers on his face.
He was tossing and turning. But he stills when she leans in and touches him, and Rose is smiling as she peers back at Pearl. "Look at this," she murmurs. She's close enough that her breath stirs the hair on his face, and.. it's so needless, part of Pearl cries. She doesn't need to breathe. The human knows this. Shouldn't every part of this farce, like her touch, like her presence, put him off the more?
But he shifts towards her like the touch of her exhale is another comfort, and -
Pearl's never been interested in humans. They're filthy, vile things, no matter what Rose thinks, no better than the lions she keeps, or the insects that seem everywhere here. Rose's insistence on touching them, on staying near them, is as peculiar as her desire for this war was, a hundred thousand years ago.
But when the human - so ill - draws such obvious comfort from even that minor contact.. part of her wonders what it might be like to feel someone's breath on her skin, that's all.
That's a filthy thought, though, and it disperses as soon as the human coughs, spittle spraying across Rose's palm. She skitters back, but her Diamond has always been unbothered by the disquieting elements of life. "They're so fragile," she says now, carefully turning over her hand. The saliva catches the candlelight, and against the pink of her shell, it looks incandescent. "And they know it. They know that they're going to die. There's no way to stop it, no way to stall it, and they're brave enough to live, anyway, even when it's literally dripping from their ceilings. Isn't it remarkable?"
"My Diamond," Pearl murmurs, more an acknowledgement than an agreement.
The artist coughs. Rose leans forward again. Her curls fall to shield her, obsfuscating her face, falling over the artist's body, and before she can think about why, Pearl is leaning forward to match. But Rose's construct has always been perfect, since the first day that she'd created it. She cannot see past it.
She can only hear:
"He told me he was dying yesterday."
When Rose looks up, for a single, ghastly moment, Pearl thinks that the human coughed in her face. There's no drips this high up in the house. The ceiling is firm here, for all that the floor is weak, and they haven't been here long enough for the humidity to gather on the exterior of their holograms. But there's moisture pooling on Rose's face, in the corner of each perfect circle of her eye. It glows in the candlelight, impossible to ignore.
Belatedly, Pearl realises: oh.
Pearl still flinches when she walks on glass. It's been a hundred thousand years, but there's something about it that makes her ache, all the way down to the center of her gem. The war has left fractures on all of them, even Amethyst, who emerged afterwards, and who's never lifted her weapon in anything but play.
Pearl has wept three times in her life, and all of those were for the fallen. Rose has never wept, even when her shield had nearly shattered under the Diamond's final barrage, and -
There's an ache all the way down to her gem. When she speaks, her voice comes out shaking. "Rose," she tries, uncertain. "Rose, I'm so sorry. I know you've become, ah, attached -"
"It's just - it's tragic, Pearl." When Pearl had cried, her Diamond had wiped away the tears from her eyes. Pearl's fingers itch to do the same, but properiety keeps her back, and the tears spill down Rose's cheeks instead. They're starting to flush with the same rose-red light as her gem, steadily but surely. "It's so sad," she says, and oh! Her voice is breaking too, uneven and throaty in a way that she can't stand. She's never heard Rose like this before.
She's never seen her cry over anything, not even when their people had corrupted around them.
Pearl doesn't know what to say. She doesn't know what to do, after a thousand years of etiquette have drilled her on what she shouldn't, and so she steps in close instead, lays her hand on Rose's back, and stands there while she weeps over the death of one man.
He doesn't die.
Rose sets them to fixing the house, afterwards. Garnet takes to it with her usual gusto. Amethyst, less so.
"Garnet, this is so boring," she wails, after the third hour of nailing. "Why are we doing this? Can't we do something else?" Rose had brought in supplies. Garnet had stripped the ceiling beams away in the first hour, and ever since, they've been working steadily to fix all of the holes, and plug in all of the drafts. It's a job that would've taken humans the better part of a month, if that, and their work would've been shoddy.
Everything about the Gems work here is perfect, from the cut of the boards to their placement in the ceiling. They're making quick time of it.. but it's made slow by the fact Amethyst hasn't stopped whining, ever since Pearl had taken the nails from her and told her she couldn't eat them.
Being surrounded by humans, Pearl thinks, has done Amethyst no favours over the centuries. Amethyst is not a child. Gems do not have children, and their soldiers - for all proper gems are still soldiers, at the heart of it - come out of the ground fully formed, fully shaped, with every ounce of knowledge they may ever need. But Amethyst thinks of herself as one, and she acts the part, no matter how much Pearl has tried to guide her otherwise.
It's what endears Amethyst to Rose, Pearl thinks. Her Diamond is fonder of the quartz than she ever was half of their soldiers, and if the thought aches, it's an old pain by now. But Diamonds live forever, and Rose has always liked the young, long after Pearl had outgrown the concept.
"We're doing it for Rose," Pearl reminds her now, and then she has to pause, her hammer hanging midair. Amethyst's making a face at her. This, in itself, isn't strange. She's always making faces.
The thing sticking out of her mouth, however, is.
"What," Pearl says slowly, "is that? Garnet! What is that? Does she have something in her mouth again? I told her not to eat things -"
Garnet pauses in her work, looking over. Her brows knit, thoughtful. "I do believe that is a tongue, Pearl."
"Yes, well, of course it's a tongue -" Amethyst wags it. She inhales sharply through her nose, painfully aware of each and every grain of dust the motion captures. "What is a tongue, Garnet? We don't have tongues!"
"I dunno, Pearl, why don't you ask Rose?" Amethyst jeers, finally pulling her tongue back in. "She made one first!” She’s always had an issue of being too expressive. Now, she tosses her hair, eyebrows arching high as she adds: “- y'know, for sticking down Tomois's throa --"
Garnet clears her throat. “Amethyst.”
For one crystalline moment, the entire world is brittle-bright, and the only thing that Pearl can focus on is the image that Amethyst’s words summon. She’s never paid attention to what Rose gets up to with her pets before. It’d never seemed important, honestly, but now --
Hard-light constructs are a delicate thing to hold. Too much emotion, and they falter. It is not a problem that she has faced often in the past, but now, Pearl's hologram thins. As the blue light of her gem shines through, saturating her skin, Amethyst bursts into laughter, clapping both hands over her mouth. "Garnet!" she shrieks, wide-eyed and pleased. "Garnet!"
"Oh my god, she’s blushing!"
Tongues. Blushing. Breathing.
They're all such thoroughly human things, and now that Pearl is paying attention, Rose copies all of them perfectly.
She does everything perfectly. When she wanted to be a Quartz, she shaped herself so flawlessly into one that no one has even ever wondered. When she wants to be a human, she takes it on with the same ease. Rose is the first to figure out how to build her construct bare, in the same way humans are born. She's the first to start wearing their clothing, and to figure out how to eat their food.
She's the one who comes up with the idea of having the gems cover themselves around humans. Garnet falters, the first time that Rose tells her to wear gloves, but Amethyst takes to it easily.
But Amethyst has never seen the homeworld. She doesn't know what Rose is asking her to do.
Rose has asked a hundred things from Pearl, but she doesn't ask this. And so Pearl doesn't wear a scarf over her gem. She lets Rose say that she's from the Indies when the humans take in the lot of them, and they are content to leave it at that. Why should they question it? She and Garnet are never quite able to pretend to be human, even the times that they try, but Rose fits in so seamlessly, no one ever thinks to question the rest of them.
After a few centuries, Amethyst begins fitting in as well. Perhaps that's why the two of them get along so well, and so easily. Perhaps...
When she's alone in their latest home one night, while Garnet is communing with her two halves, Amethyst is eating, and Rose is off with one of her humans, Pearl finds herself standing in front of the mirror, staring at her face.
She's never thought about her appearance before. It is what it is, ultimately. Pearls aren't true Gems. They don't emerge from the kindergartens, like a Quartz, or a Sapphire, or even like the Diamonds did, a few thousand millennia ago. Gems form in the ground. Pearls form from organic life, the only gems molded and sculpted by Larimars specifically to fit their owners needs.
Pearls features are the same as the others made for the Diamonds. They all have the same nose, the same chin, the same large eyes, and the same graceful build. The Diamonds like their servants as indistinguishable as possible, matched to them only in hair and clothes. Pearl has always appreciated her features, because it links her to Pink in a way that, even if everything else changed, would always stay the same between them.
Except her Diamond is gone. Pink is dead, and Rose has different tastes.
She finds herself staring in the mirror a lot after that.
The only real part of a gem is in their stone. The rest is malleable. Pearl doesn't enjoy shapeshifting - every time she stretches herself too far, or too thin, she remembers that night, and something in her balks. So she sticks to small traits, instead. She spends one month watching the way that Rose's latest paramour's hair falls across her shoulders, and then she learns how to make her hair form strands, instead of one smooth crest. When they have to pull humans out of the water and into their ship one night, far out at sea, Pearl takes careful note of the rise and fall of their chests as she pumps water out of them.
She takes note of the holes in their skin, too, but when she thinks of making them..
No. She’s done a great many things for Rose, but she can’t quite bring herself to do that.
She builds a tongue. She builds teeth, with as many of the small imperfections that she’s noticed and can abide. She forms fingernails at the tips of her fingers, and nailbeds for them to rest in, and, although it takes a month, she learns how to create eyelashes, one strand at a time.
Amethyst notices, but she doesn’t understand. She curls into Pearl’s lap one day, her head tucked neatly under her chin. Pearl knows the reaction she’s after. They’d both seen the woman at the market yesterday, her arms wrapped around her child, and with the newfound victory of her eyelashes warming her, Pearl allows it.
“Y’know,” Amethyst murmurs, “you’re pretty okay! Like, overall.”
She doesn’t quite understand what she means, not until Garnet takes her to the side after a mission. There’s a gem they used to know in a bubble, an Amethyst that she knew. Pearl’s a little surprised when Garnet pulls her away: their Amethyst is the one shaken, after her first time facing one of her own cycle in combat. There’s nothing wrong with her. Pearl can barely remember the last time one of these battles truly upset her.
Red Amethyst is resting, for now. The corruption puppeting her gem has nothing to do with any of them, or the girl that she once knew. And Garnet should know that. Garnet’s the one that told her that.
“I’m not upset,’ she says, as soon as they’re away from Rose and Amethyst. She smiles up at her, a laugh at the edge of her words. “If that’s what you’re worried about. Ah, but it was a little startling, wasn’t it? How many more of our compatriots do you think we’re going to find?”
“Thousands,” Garnet says, “but I’m not here to talk about that.”
She reaches up, and for one breath-catching moment, Pearl thinks she’s going to touch her gem. But the back of Garnet’s knuckles brush gently against her cheek instead, soft as a feather. Pearl’s breath escapes all at once, in a sigh that she quickly transforms into a laugh.
She hasn’t tried to make skin, but even a hard-light hologram can feel warmth. And fusions run so much hotter than any other gem.
“When did you start breathing?” Garnet asks, and oh, she sounds so confused.
“Ah! Well. You see, that’s a funny story, but -” She’s seen humans bite their lip before, and hadn’t understood. Now, with teeth in her mouth, the realisation that she could just physically stop herself from talking is almost irresistible. “I just thought it’d be nice, maybe - you know, to take in the air - all of these fragrant smells -”
Garnet’s just looking at her. The words deflate in her mouth, and Pearl’s shoulders twitch back as she clasps her hands in front of her. That’s one boon born of her servitude, she supposes. As many thoughts as she has fluttering through her head, clattering against her teeth to escape, she can always fall back onto silence.
If she’s going to get lectured, then she’ll take it. There’s always the risk of that from Garnet! For all that she’s scarcely older than Amethyst, as far as things go, sometimes Pearl thinks that she’s the wisest of them all. And - oh! She knows what Garnet will say, and what she must be thinking. All of this is so foreign to her. Every time the wind catches her hair, or her teeth clank together, it makes her want to shudder.
Every time she breathes out, she still can’t help but count the number of viruses that are coating the interior of her shell.
Rose will never notice most of this, she knows, but every new feature brings Pearl a little closer to what she wants, and that makes it worth it. It’s like the first time she’d summoned up a weapon for her, or the first time she’d taken a blow. Every exhale makes her feel as if her gem is splintering, one piece at a time, but she grew to love fighting, and the thrill of the war.
If she gives it enough time, she’ll grow to appreciate this, too. But part of her still wishes --
Garnet’s hand drifts, gently cupping Pearl’s chin with her fingers. That’s a strange thing about hair. When Garnet lifts her face up to peer down into her eyes, blue and red to black, for all that it’s made of a thousand different strands, Pearl can’t pay attention to that. The way it brushes back against her cheeks should be distracting. It should have all of her focus, but she supposes that’s how humans tolerate having all these parts: they just block out the unimportant ones.
And Garnet’s fingers are very warm.
“It can be nice,” Garnet says, agreeable. She doesn’t bother shapeshifting teeth, or a tongue, or anything else. Rose is fascinated by humans. Amethyst half-thinks she is one. Pearl's always tried to keep herself apart. But Garnet's the only one of them all who's always been comfortable among them, solely as she is. “You’ve done a lot of work, Pearl. It looks nice.”
It's remarkable. But Garnet always is.
“I - thank you,” Pearl manages, and pulls away.
“I’m so sorry,” Rose says, cradling his face between her hands, “but this is for the best. You’ll see. You need room to flourish. To grow.”
“I can grow with you,” her paramour says. There’s tears in his eyes. “We could grow together.” There aren’t always, when she leaves them. Some of her humans manage to be stoic. Some are angry, in a way that Pearl can almost understand.
If you had perfection, she thinks, why would you ever leave it? How could you ever let it go?
But this one isn’t angry. Pearl can almost understand the anger, even if it reeks of ingratitude and desperation. This one is just sad, and it makes her shift from foot to foot, her hands worrying dents into each other through the needle-prick of her nails.
“No. You can’t.” Rose lets go of him, finally. “Gems don’t grow,” she says gently. She’s always so gentle with them, even with the rare ones that rage. “That’s what makes your people so special. You’re unique in this universe. Your lives are so full of possibilities.. and I want you to explore each splendid, shimmering one. It’s been amazing, knowing you.”
Gems don’t have things. Humans are always weighed down by all the things that they need, or that they want, but Amethyst is the only one who’s ever fallen into the trap of desires. She whines when they leave, a bag of debris hauled on her shoulder, but the rest of them are bare-handed.
Garnet carries the only two things she’s ever needed in her hands, and she never lets them go. Pearl only has one thing she has ever wanted, and she will never be separated from it. And Rose..
It strikes Pearl, later that night, when they’re halfway across the continent and waiting for Garnet to tell them where to go, that she never learned the name of Rose’s latest paramour.
She doesn’t let herself linger on the thought.
It takes another two months for her to decide it’s time to try. They’ve spent a week down in a mineshaft, hunting down a swarm of corrupted Peridots, and the last one was finally bubbled away deep in a valley within the caves. It would’ve been easy to head back up to the surface, afterwards, but then Amethyst had found mushrooms.
And Rose - always curious - had been fascinated.
“I didn’t know that life could thrive this deep,” she marvels now. The only light this deep is the light of Pearl’s gemstone. In it, Rose’s face is soft, her eyes sparkling as she peers down at her hand. If she shifted her shell slightly, refracted the light to magnify, she could see exactly what Rose is peering at.
She’d done so briefly enough to take in the individual hairs on the microscopic animal’s shell. That, she’d decided promptly, was all that she actually needed to see. But she doesn’t need to see to appreciate Rose’s enthusiasm.
And she’s the only one here to do so. Amethyst had gotten bored of examining insects barely an hour in, and Garnet had led her away into the deeper tunnels to explain the mineral deposits around them. Amethyst had never been on the homeworld. It’s up to all of them to teach her the things that she doesn’t understand, but Garnet and Rose have always borne the brunt of that responsibility.
She might’ve resented the way it’s led Garnet away from Rose, in this case. Her interests are amazing, for all that Pearl can’t understand them fully. They should be appreciated! Aren’t they the reason they all fought this war, in the end? Rose’s fascination with freedom, with agency, with all the things that life here possessed, and gems never dreamed of having.. that’s why they won the Earth. But she can’t bring herself to be upset right now.
This is the first time in months that it’s just been her and Rose again.
“They’re amazing,” Rose says now, “aren’t they? Even the smallest thing on this planet. Sometimes, I think I should have regrets.. but how could I? Even the smallest creatures here are so full of life. It was worth it.”
She looks up, her curls falling over her shoulder. And Rose’s illusion is perfect, as always. When she smiles up at Pearl, the skin under her eyes creases in a hundred fine lines, each line as perfect as light rippling through a gem. Pearl has never appreciated the imperfections of humans, because there’s always been so many. But no matter how persistently that Rose works, no matter how many flaws she layers into her lightshell to copy the people around her, somehow it’s endearing.
Rose can do as she wishes. Pearl knows that, underneath all of that, she’s still perfect.
“It was worth it for you,” Rose murmurs now, warm in a way that still makes Pearl’s gem pulse, even after millenia of hearing it. She should be used to it by now, but somehow, it feels new each time. “I’m so glad you came with me, Pearl. I’m so glad you’re here, right now.”
She had wanted this moment to be perfect, when she thought about it. Pearls were created to replicate perfection, on every scale from the smallest to the largest. Nothing she has ever produced has had flaws. Nothing that she has ever produced has been subpar, but that’s what’s had her lingering, all of these months. Pearl is not a human. No matter how soft she makes her illusion, or how many strands she separates her hair into, or how many tongues she creates, she’s still a Gem, and Rose has always prized humans for a reason that she can’t understand.
But standing here, looking at the soft bunch of skin under Rose’s eyes, and the dappling of light across her cheeks, it strikes her:
Rose has always loved imperfections, in every form.
Pearl arches up and kisses her.
It’s not as bad as she thought. There’s no saliva, and part of her is giddily, desperately grateful for that - she’s done a great many things for Rose, but there is a limit, she thinks, even she must strike. No, there’s nothing but the warmth of Rose’s construct pulsing against her. Fusion is giving herself up to Rose, and allowing herself to be subsumed into the whole, to be made into something better.
This isn’t giving up anything at all. It just feels like knowing her, in ways both physical and not. Pearl can recognise, logically, there’s a gap between two of Rose’s teeth, the sort of meticulous flaw that her Diamond has always pursued.
She can recognise, emotionally, that this is the sort of intimacy that she’s craved. It’s different than fighting. It’s Rose’s hand on the back of her neck, pulling her in. It’s the reflexive rise and fall of her against her, the catch of breath that neither of them needs, but seems so necessary.
She can feel the warmth of Rose’s quartz - of her Diamond - like this. And that’s different than fusion, in a separate sort of way. No one touches each others gems. The fusion dances are dips and spins, twirls and lunges that keep them at a distance, even when they’re merging together. On the homeworld, she’d be shattered for this.
On Earth, the only one who would ever have the right is Pink Diamond.
Pink Diamond is dead. The only person left is --
“I’m so sorry,” Pearl breathes, breaking away. Her lightshell is flickering. There’s blue flooding her face, and - no, she reminds herself. It’s not that.
She’s blushing. She’s blushing, and Rose’s flushed to match, her eyes half-lidded as she stares at her like she’s some mystery to be unlocked. “Pearl,” she says, marveling, and then she reaches out, cupping her face in her hand. “I don’t regret it. Do you?”
She should. It’s the worst kind of impulsivity. She didn’t have a plan, she didn’t even know what she was doing. But --
The only person left here is Rose Quartz, and she’s always appreciated flaws.
“No,” she says, and Rose leans in to kiss her again.