The first time they spar after returning from Homeworld, Connie focuses on colors. The electric blue flash of Pearl’s new jacket. The orange tufts of her hair. The pink of her shoes. It’s easier than looking at her face, which is bright white—it had always been white, hadn’t it? And she’d never noticed before, had never had cause to notice before, but now, after...it’s not only noticeable, but also a distraction, opens up a pit in her stomach, which is qualitatively different from the adrenaline butterflies that normally flutter there when she grips the hilt of a sword.
“Eyes on me,” Pearl reminds her mid-parry, and Connie forces herself to comply, prying her gaze from her mentor’s moving feet to look her in the unwavering eye.
(If she’d just kept her eyes on her before like she was supposed to…)
Pearl’s pupils are blue, but the face around them is white, bright white.
(Pearl had been entirely white when she came at her with a spear, had worn a vacant smile on her face, had knocked her sword away and…grabbed her, held her fast by the shoulders as she desperately squirmed, stifled her, and then White Diamond had…had…and Steven…!)
Connie falters, stumbles, falls forward.
And then it happens quickly: Pearl lets her sword clatter to the ground, and catches Connie’s shoulders, grips them firmly to brace her from falling, and the instant she does, Connie’s body goes rigid.
(Pearl had grabbed her and then held her fast while White Diamond had...had…Steven…and she hadn’t been able to move to help him, had had to watch…)
The Gem recoils, instinctually throwing her hands up like a surrender. “Connie?”
“S-Sorry!” Heat rushes her cheeks. It hadn’t been Pearl’s fault—she’d been possessed, an unaware puppet on a string made of blinding light.
(But she hadn’t known that in that the first instant when Pearl charged at her. And even if she hadn’t been in control of them, it had been Pearl’s hands that had restrained her. And those hands felt the same then as they did a moment ago.)
“Are you hurt? I’ll go fetch the First Aid kit, or we can find Steven and—”
“No, no, I’m fine, I just...”
Pearl takes a step toward her. Connie retreats with a step backward in time—footwork and rhythm the same as the basic form Pearl had taught her the first time they’d trained.
(Right foot. Left foot.)
(Parry. Parry. Thrust.)
“Connie, what’s wrong?” A pause. “Perhaps I can help.”
“I…” She hesitates. Wouldn’t the truth just hurt Pearl?
But no, she realizes, sighing. Over and over again, the thesis statement of her friendship with Steven had proved itself to be the importance of talking honestly about her feelings, and allowing him—and others—to do likewise. She’d experienced that here, in the Sky Arena, as Stevonnie. And with her mom, in the hospital parking lot. She’d even advised the Diamonds as much on Homeworld, hadn’t she? And she’d be a hypocrite if she didn’t follow her own credo now. Besides, if Steven was to be believed, hadn’t Pearl been hurt enough by secrets in her life?
Connie lowers herself onto the stone stairs behind her and lays her sword down on her lap. She waits as Pearl slowly follows suit, folding her legs delicately, almost reluctantly, as though she’s afraid that her proximity might cause Connie further pain even if she can’t possibly fathom why. And when Connie speaks again, she’s not sure whether, despite her desperate attempts, she manages to keep her voice from shaking.
“Did Steven tell you what happened in White Diamond’s Head? While you all were—”
“Yes.” Pearl closes her eyes, bracing herself against the image in much the same way she’d braced Connie from falling. “I…Even picturing it is…I cannot fathom what it must have been like for you to have had to witness that. Especially alone. I’m sorry.”
“What did he...” She pauses. She doesn’t want Pearl to have to say what White Diamond did to Steven, and frankly she doesn’t want to hear it reiterated herself. “Did he say where I was, when White Diamond…?”
“He said that you carried his human half to his Gem half, while he was…” Pearl gulps. “When he…when that part of him wasn’t strong enough to move himself.”
“And before that?”
“Did he say where I was before that?”
“No. Why, what…?”
Connie breathes. “I…You…It wasn’t your fault Pearl, I know it wasn’t, and I don’t blame you or anythin—”
“What did I do?”
“It wasn’t you—”
“Please, Connie. Tell me.”
“You…” Connie looks at her knees. “After we fought—”
“You and I fought?” Pearl’s voice is a quiver in the air.
“Did…Did I instigate it?”
“You were—White was trying to stop me from helping Steven.” It’s supposed to be a helpful statement, something to dull the blow, as if admitting that Pearl’s puppet-master had some sort of motivation, had been operating on some sort of internal logic, would be something like a justification, an excuse. But saying it out loud makes it sound worse.
Connie waits for moment, as if Pearl might respond, and when she doesn’t, continues. “I took my eyes off you for a second—I know I wasn’t supposed to, you always told me that in a fight, I should never do that, but Steven was—”
“Connie, nothing that happened was your fault. This…this wasn’t a regular fight.”
“But I’ve fought you dozens of time, and you always say—”
“We’ve sparred. It’s different. The thought that I attacked you with the intent to harm…You never should have had to counter that.”
Now it’s Connie’s turn to sit silent, allowing the weight of the words to soak into her ears, her brain. After a moment, Pearl eventually continues, prompting her gently, tentatively, even, Connie thinks, fearfully. “What happened after you took your eyes off me?”
“You…you knocked my sword away. And grabbed me. By the shoulders. And then picked me up so that I couldn’t move.” Her hand tightens around the hilt of her sword, and she watches her knuckles pale themselves accordingly. She doesn’t want to keep going, doesn’t want to enumerate what occurred after that. But she has some vague sense that she needs to, that if she doesn’t give voice to them now, the events will remain lodged in her lungs, her heart, forever. “You…you put your hand over my mouth so that I couldn’t talk while White Diamond was saying all these horrible things to Steven…And then when she…his Gem…I couldn’t move, and…I…You…You made me watch.”
When Connie finally manages to pry her gaze from her lap back to Pearl’s face, she sees that the Gem has tears in her eyes. “Oh, Connie. I am so sorry.”
A lurch of guilt. “No, Pearl, I didn’t mean you made me watch, I meant—”
“I know.” Pearl breathes a watery sigh, as though trying to push down her own hysterics, raises a hand on to lay on the girl’s shoulder, but then thinks better of it and refrains, flexing her fingers instead as she continues. “But even if I wasn’t in control, and even if I can’t remember, it was me. Someone whom you trusted. Or, at least, someone whom I hope you trusted—”
“I did! I do!”
“And that must have made it—all of it—even more terrifying and painful than it already was. And I’m sorry.”
“Thanks.” Connie glances down. Then, another silence. The sun glints pink off of her new sword, catches her in the eye, and she squints. When she eventually finds her voice again, it’s to ask, tentatively: “Was that…what it used to be like for you? As a Pearl?”
The question catches the Gem off-guard. “I…No, not precisely—I wasn’t controlled in the same way, I had my own mind, it’s just that my mind was supposed to align perfectly with that of my Dia—”
“No, not what White Diamond did to you,” Connie interrupts. “I meant…being stifled. By someone you trusted. And then…not ever being able to say anything. For thousands of years.”
“Ah.” Pearl clenches her hands in her lap. “Not…not entirely. For one thing, I was stifling myself—”
“Steven said that you couldn’t control it. That you didn’t have a choice after Pink Diamond ordered you not to talk about it.”
“I…that’s true, but it was still my hand, not like—”
“But, it wasn’t really your hand, was it? And,” In her mind’s eye, she sees Pearl bobbing in the water, hands wrapped tightly around her mouth, tears streaming down her cheeks, merely able to watch as Steven hands himself over to likely torture and execution on Homeworld for a crime she knows his mother didn’t commit. “it still hurt, didn’t it?”
A pause. A breath.
“Yes,” Pearl whispers, finally. “It still hurt."
(It sounds, Connie thinks, like an admission millennia in the making.)
“I...I’m really sorry you went through that.”
A sniffle, cheeks flushed blue (not white, not anymore), then a tentative, watery smile. “Thank you.”
A final silence falls over them, this one slightly more comfortable than the last. The sun paints the sky beyond the Arena orange, the shadows of the rubble dance on the ground.
Eventually, when her eyes are almost dry, Pearl speaks. “I’d understand, if you didn't want to train anymore. I wouldn't take it personally. ”
“No,” Connie replies, aware only as she says it that it’s the truth. “The sword-fighting—I think it makes me feel strong.”
Several minutes later, they’re on their feet, sparring once again, gazes firmly focused on each other.