Pearl looked out as she watched the waves lick the shore. Things around her were frozen at that time of the year but that one big body of water in front of the temple was not. It remained full of life and yet Pearl was the opposite. She felt the same as she did for the past sixteen months: empty. She didn't know what it was like to have a soul (or really, what a soul even was) but if she did, then she could feel it hurting right now. She had never felt as useless as she did. From the very beginning, she was meant to serve a purpose but the person behind that purpose was gone.
Greg's van had arrived and stopped on the sand. When the engine shut off, Garnet and Amethyst went over to greet the people who were about to come out of the vehicle. Greg opened the driver's door and wasted no time in being amicable.
"Hello, all!" he said.
"Hello, Greg!" said Amethyst.
Garnet had set up this visit but was good at containing any and all excitement she had.
"So where is the little dickens?" asked Amethyst.
"Be patient, Amy," said Greg, "Let me just get him out." He walked to the other side of the van and slid open the door. Sitting right there in the booster seat was little Steven, who was wearing baby jeans, a winter coat and a winter hat that had two jester-like points. "Look, Steven! It's your friends!" Steven smiled and slapped his knees wildly. Although he hadn't gone out into the cold yet, his cheeks were already as red as cherries.
"Hey, Steven!" said Amethyst.
"I'd say he's pretty happy." Greg unbuckled Steven and lifted him out of his seat. Once he was placed on the sand, he immediately began toddling. It wasn't long until he fell on his stomach, not that this killed his mood or anything.
Pearl couldn't bear to look at the child or the one who fathered him. She loved Rose so much but didn't much care for some of her choices. When looking at Steven, she didn't see a fresh-faced child exploring the world. She saw a dumb, squishy animal who usurped Rose, one that everyone seemed to love at that moment for some reason.
"Did you bring toys, G.?" asked Amethyst.
"I brought this ball," said Greg. He bent over and searched the back of the van until he came upon a rubber ball that was light green blended with shades of darker green.
Amethyst grabbed the ball from Greg's hand.
"Fetch, Steven!" said Amethyst. She jumped into the air and chucked the ball about a hundred feet, since she was just that strong. Steven, who was sitting on the sand at that point, could do nothing more than stare.
"He's not a dog, Amethyst," said Greg.
"Doesn't mean I can't be one!" With that, Amethyst glowed light purple and transformed into a fuzzy puppy. Steven raised his arms in the air and laughed when Amethyst excitingly bent the front part of her body down and wagged her tail. She panted, if only because it was the doggy equivalent of a smile. She then bounced over to Steven and licked his cheeks.
Pearl watched on and felt sick to her stomach watching such a display. To her, it was like licking a moss-covered rock.
"Disgusting," she said. She wanted to loudly object to Puppy Amethyst's display of affection but then she remembered that she was trying not to be noticed.
Garnet decided to stop to see Pearl on the way to retrieving the ball.
"Are you sure you don't want to join in on the fun, Pearl?" she asked.
"You said I only had to come," said Pearl as she looked up at Garnet, "You didn't say I had to interact with anybody."
"It's still a considerate thing to do when you're visiting people."
It was amazing how mother-like Garnet had become since she was made the de facto leader of The Gems. She had been the designated "tough one" for so long that Pearl didn't notice how patient and focused she was. Nevertheless, Pearl buried her face into her knees. She only wanted her own company.
"All right. When you feel like joining us, we'll be happy to have you." Garnet continued on so she could retrieve the toy that Greg went through the trouble to bring.
Amethyst eventually licked every inch of Steven's adorable face, causing him to lay on his back in a fit of giggles.
"I've gotta admit," said Amethyst, "Steven's become a lot more interesting lately. I mean… he's walking now." She quickly shapeshifted back to her default form.
"Just you wait, Amy," said Greg, "He's going to become more interesting soon. We've been working on words together." Greg looked at Steven, who stared back at him with shiny, cherubic eyes. "Steven, say 'Da-Da.' 'Daaaa-Daaaa.'"
Steven just looked at his dad. He didn't do anything besides stick his fist into his mouth. He would have rather watched his father pronounce simple words than do it himself.
"Hehe… well, the journey of a thousand miles begins with a few steps, right?"
Pearl lifted her head from her knees and took another look at the child. Amethyst was right in that Steven was becoming a bit more relatable. But all he could do was move around on his own. Whoop-dee-do. But then again, change was change. That was what Rose liked about humans, how they changed, learned and grew. He did this in little more than a year. Soon, he would grow to full human size and lead The Gems.
However, no matter how much Steven's condition would improve, he was still a downgrade from Rose. He needed clothing to keep him warm. He needed sleep to be alert. He needed to consume resources to stay alive. All of this was wildly inefficient compared to gems, who only needed their stone and their light. If she were to compare him to human technology, it would be like switching from light bulbs to whale oil.
Also, he was Steven and Steven was not Rose. Steven was part of Rose and part of Greg, so by that logic, he would be partially like Greg when he grew older. Greg was the one who took her good friend away from her. What if Steven were to do something similar? Why would anybody want someone like that as a leader?
It wasn't change she disliked. It was uncertainty.
After Steven became sick of playing with the ball, he paid more attention to Garnet. Garnet sat cross-legged and made faces at Steven. She then played the game most humans who were new at existence enjoyed: Peekaboo. Garnet's hands were big enough so that she could cover all three of her eyes with them.
"Where's Steven?" she asked.
Steven watched and waited on baited breath for something to happen.
"There's Steven!" Garnet took her hands off her face and revealed surprised eyes.
Steven laughed and clapped. When Garnet put her hands back on her face, he stopped laughing and looked confused.
"Puh-puh-puh," babbled Steven, "Puuuuuh…"
"Where's Steven?" asked Garnet.
He was dismayed at Garnet's "disappearance" but paid full attention like someone would at a suspenseful part of a movie.
"There's Steven!" she said once more as she took her hands away from her face.
Once again, Steven laughed and clapped. He was just as entertained by the playful ruse as everyone else was at watching him be entertained.
Pearl was baffled as to how someone could laugh at someone covering and uncovering their face. Did that dumb animal actually think that Garnet disappeared when she did that? Even if he did, how could he possibly be entertained by it over and over again? Surely he would know that the same thing would happen every time? She had to tell herself that Steven was on a different mental level that she couldn't possibly understand his train of thought.
After fifteen minutes of burying her head back into her knees, she felt a tiny hand grab at her outfit. This frightened her out of her funk and caused her to turn her head. Little Steven was standing there smiling at her for no apparent reason. Or maybe there was a reason but there was no way for him to communicate it.
Pearl did her best to ignore him but he kept pestering her. He continued to tug at her outfit. Then he poked at random parts of her body. Pearl hoped that Steven would stop bothering her if she ignored him enough but this creature maneuvered around her like a swarm of mayflies. Finally, he reached in between her knees and grabbed her nose. At this point, she had enough of this gross violation of her personal space.
"Stop bothering me, you walking sack of meat and bones!" shouted Pearl. It felt like hot steam was coming off her body. "Don't you know that you remind me of everything I've lost?!"
Steven froze. This reaction invoked tears in his eyes and he started openly wailing, his face now redder than it was before. As he cried, he toddled over to his dad , who was in the process of walking up to Pearl. Greg knelt down to hug his son.
"You know, Pearl," he said. "You don't have to be here right now." It was startling how he went from friendly and amicable to stern in no time. That was just one of the powers that a parent held.
"I didn't want to come here!" said Pearl, "Garnet forced me!" Not feeling like arguing with the man she despised, she stood up and marched away.
"You know, you're acting more like a baby than Steven is!" shouted Amethyst.
Pearl made sure to pick a new spot far away. Now, she couldn't hear the sounds of their voices anymore. It was mostly just the waves along with the yelping and cackling of the seagulls. She could feel tears welling up in her own eyes, not that she felt bad about how she blew up at Steven. She wanted to forget all that and focus on something new… like the sand beneath her.
She scooped up a pile of sand that was far enough away from the shore so that it was still dry. Some of it spilled over the side of her hand but a substantial amount of it remained. Much of it was white in color but some of it sparkled. Then she remembered that this sand was once rock… quartz to be exact. Just like Rose was. This quartz broke down from years of weathering and transported itself to the shore via the wind. Sentient gems may not change but gems in their original forms do it all the time, even if the process was slow.
A gust of wind blew by and carried off the top part of the pile of sand. As far as Pearl knew, those sand grains were gone, gone from her hand and bound to disappear from her memory. But were those grains of sand really gone? What was "gone" exactly? They may have been gone to her but still present to someone else, like a small fish in the ocean. Even if Pearl had no way of finding it again, it didn't disappear. This was much like how Garnet gave the illusion of being gone to Steven when she covered up her face. Pearl finally understood why Steven was so happy when she "reappeared."
By this logic, Rose wasn't really gone. She hoped she was right.
She meditated on this thought for a little bit until something snapped her out of it.
"Baaaaaaah," said a familiar voice.
He was back. The small child had not been deterred from Pearl's reaction to him, at least not for long. He still had that smile and that playful attitude. This time, however, he was holding something.
"What do you want?" asked Pearl.
Steven held up the item in his hand. It was a dead crab he had found. It was intact enough so that all of its legs were still there but was caked in sand, a sign that it had been near the shore for quite some time.
"What am as supposed to do with this?"
Steven shook the item. He wasn't going to be satisfied until she took it from him. She pinched the crab with her thumb and forefinger and held it by the leg. It dangled there, which made it more disgusting.
"Thank you…" she said with a fake smile, "Ick…"
Steven cooed with delight.
"Puh," he said, "Puh-puh-puh…"
"Please go away, Steven," said Pearl. "I can't even understand your ridiculous baby language."
Steven stopped smiling, more of a reaction to her tone than to her word.
Since Steven wasn't going to listen to her, Pearl got up and walked farther away. At this point, Steven started following after her and whining. Why? Was she hiding candy somewhere on her body? She wished that she could float away like the grains of sand. All the while, she held on to the dead crab for reasons that were unknown even to her.
"Will you stop following me?!" asked Pearl. She was almost certain that Steven would start crying again but he didn't.
"Puhpuhpuh," he said.
"I told you, I don't understand you. What are you trying to say to me?"
Meanwhile, Steven's name was being called out by Greg, Amethyst and Garnet. This baby had wandered farther than he was allowed in order to see Pearl again.
"He's over here!" shouted Pearl. At this point, she was willing to be helpful, if only to make this awkward situation less awkward.
Greg, Garnet and Amethyst ran over to Pearl and Steven as fast as the sand would let them.
"There you are, Steven!" said Greg, "Why did you wander off?"
"I guess he was interested in giving me this dead crab," said Pearl. She held the lifeless crustacean up for all to see.
"He's just telling you to stop being such a crab!" said Amethyst.
"It looks like he likes you, Pearl," said Garnet.
"Even after I yelled at him?" asked Pearl.
"Perhaps he's not one to hold grudges."
"Puh-puh-puh…" babbled Steven, "…Pearl!"
Everyone's jaw dropped, including Pearl's.
"Did he just say what I think he said?" asked Amethyst.
"I don't believe it!" exclaimed Greg. The smile on his face grew until it turned into a laugh. "He just said his first word! Maybe that dictionary you gave him last year came in handy after all."
Pearl looked down at Steven completely dumbfounded. Her own little theory was true: Rose wasn't gone after all. Her turning into Steven was just an illusion, much like the rest of gem-kind. As she was trying to ignore Steven, Rose was reaching out from afar. There was that tiny essence of her. She was not the kind to show herself all at once; rather, she did it tactfully and gracefully, much like how she went about her former life. Whether or not that essence would grow or stay its tiny size was something that only time could answer. Either way, Pearl had never wanted to hug a walking bag of meat and bones so badly.
"Rose!" she said as she knelt down, "You're still here!" She wrapped her long arms around Steven, who was more than happy to engage in the embrace. She rubbed Steven's tiny, stubby nose with her large, pointed one and Steven bore his still-emerging teeth in delight. "It's a sign!"
"I didn't think you were the kind to believe in signs, Pearl," said Greg.
Garnet placed her hand on the man's shoulder.
"Let her have this moment," she said.
On that very beach, during the winter that was not nearly as brutal as the year before, Pearl tasted a drop of hope. The old and the new came together and danced a beautiful dance before the old went away for a while. That was a summary of Earth, after all: the new crushes and buries the old but the old is still there waiting to be rediscovered. Nobody had to tell Pearl that everything was going to be all right. With Rose gone, she was gaining the independence and self-sufficiency to convince herself that.