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don't you let me go

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After the splatfest ends, Pearl and Marina pass out for at least twelve hours. At the studio, they change clothes by touch because they can barely keep their eyes open, scrub makeup off, smile only with their eyes because their cheeks hurt so bad, and hold each other up as they stumble to the car. At home, they stagger in and shuck off their shoes. The bed catches them as they fall. Sometimes, they sleep curled up together, sometimes Pearl sprawls out so wide that Marina has to nudge her over to her side of the bed, sometimes Marina sleeps on her back like she’s dead and Pearl wakes up just to check for her breath.

In the morning (or afternoon), Marina is usually the first one to rise. She takes a shower, brushes her teeth, stretches her sore muscles, and gargles some warm salt water. Pearl snores loudly, but only after splatfests. Her vocal cords rattle in her chest. Marina pulls the covers down and crawls back into bed to wait.

Pearl wakes eventually, but it’s slow, like she’s rising from the grave. Marina knows she’s close when she starts muttering. Then, she twitches, first her fingertips, then her arms, then her legs, then she rolls over. Her eyes flicker open eventually and the first thing she sees is Marina, peering at her with exhausted but bright eyes. Pearl usually tries to say something, but her throat is in shreds and Marina shushes her.

Pearl showers. Marina sits in bed with the blankets pooled in her lap and checks the news on her phone. It’s always splatfest related. Marina quickly gives up trying to learn anything new about the world, content that it didn’t end in the last fourteen hours.

Pearl emerges in a shirt down to her knees and with her hair pulled back. She angrily sloshes salt water around her mouth while she’s standing there, because she hates that she has to do it, but she knows that Marina will shame her if she doesn’t. After she brushes her teeth, they have breakfast.

Today it’s eggs. They don’t talk as Marina scrambles them. Pearl pulls bits and bobs out of the fridge to dump in—mushrooms, spinach, bell peppers—and she blitzes them in the food processor because she’s too tired to handle a knife. The eggs end up good if a little mushy and they eat quickly.

They don’t talk for the first twelve hours. Vocal rest is important, but it kills Pearl a little. They have to communicate by writing or texting. Marina’s handwriting is careful, exact, while Pearl’s is loopy and messy, quick scribbles because she’s impatient. She stomps around now that she’s awake and she often takes to the studio, where she slams her fists against the keyboard in an attempt to compose. No vocals though. She never really gets very far.

It doesn’t matter who won the splatfest, not really. They don’t talk about it and, at the end of the day, it’s just a festival, more for Inkopolis than for them. It’s just their job to create hype.

And create hype they do. Their voices need days to recover and their bodies are sluggish. Marina never wants to wear another pair of tights again and she always swears them off (only to begrudgingly tug them back on as soon as they get to work on Monday), while Pearl declares that she’s done with jumping. Her knees are weak, like rotten wood, but, soon enough, she’s bouncing around like nothing happened.

They spend the day by themselves. Marina likes the quiet and Pearl can’t stand not being able to talk to Marina. So, they do their own thing. Marina sits in a rocking chair and reads, glasses perched on the end of her nose, while Pearl attempts to compose, attempts to play a video game, or succeeds at online shopping. They don’t need a popcorn machine, but she orders one anyway, along with a couple heating pads and Marina’s favorite brownie mix.

Then, that evening, they go out together. Sometimes bowling, sometimes to an arcade, sometimes to dinner at a little hole-in-the-wall place that Pearl found online. Today, because it’s the day after the final splatfest, there’s a carnival in a field on the outskirts of the city. Pearl hugs close to Marina’s back as they ride out on the motorcycle, and, once they get there, vocal rest comes to an end.

Pearl hops off the bike, stretches her arms over her head, her cropped hoodie riding up to give Marina a beautiful look at her freckled stomach, and yells, “I’m gonna eat until I throw up!”

Her voice cracks in the middle and she breaks off to cough once she gets it out. Marina laughs and puts her hand on the small of Pearl’s back as they begin to walk. “Just don’t throw up on me.”

Pearl gives her a huge grin. “Then stay out of my splash zone.”

Marina shakes her head, but she can’t help but smile in return. Surreptitiously, she unzips the pocket of her leather jacket and sticks her hand inside, just to make sure that the small box is still there.

+++

This has been coming for a while. Marina’s done her research on how to propose, received a lot of unwanted advice from anyone who saw her with the ring (namely, the jeweler, a man on the train, and Callie, who squealed so loud that Marina had to fake an illness to get out of a recording session later that evening because she couldn’t hear out of her right side), and has been rehearsing everything in her head for months. Sometimes, when Pearl isn’t home, she stands in the mirror and practices, watches her own face, and feels really silly. But she wants to do this right.

She didn’t know when she was going to do it. She never planned that far—just knew that it needed to be after the final splatfest. After all that stress, all that performing, all that pretend fighting. When they were flying high on a job well done, a tradition properly brought to a close. That was the perfect time. The ending of one thing, the beginning of the rest of their lives.

She’s been carrying the ring around for weeks now, just in case. She didn’t want Pearl to find it and she was open to seizing an opportunity, even if it went against her post-final splatfest instincts. She was really winging this whole thing, had been since she crawled out of Octo Valley and took a chance on a small little inkling with dozens of piercings who wanted to start a band. It’d brought her this far, her instincts, her gut, her trust in Pearl. Who was she to look the right moment in the face and say no?

But, that never came. Instead, things went according to plan. They sang their lungs out and danced their feet off. Marina went stage blind and Pearl almost slipped off the edge a few times. They finished strong and they brought all of Inkopolis together by dividing them. And now, they’re here.

This is the night. The lights are bright, a multitude of colors that flash and dance across their skin. Pearl’s rings catch the light and she jabbers excitedly as she points out all the junk food. She pulls Marina by the hand from stand to stand and begins to rank all of the fried food on a tastiness scale that only she understands. Marina follows along and gives her opinion on funnel cake, fried mac and cheese bites, corndogs, spiraled potatoes. All the while, Pearl glances at Marina with something behind her eyes, something that Marina can’t place. It’s not bad—in fact, it warms her through, but it almost makes her falter a few times.

After they down a few slices of pizza and share some fried ice cream, they set their sights on the rides. Pearl beelines to a large saucer and it makes Marina queasy to see it spin like that (among other things). She bows out and sends Pearl on by herself.

While alone, she tugs the box out. She doesn’t dare open it. She’s looked at it enough already: a small, simple silver band, etched with P + M. It’ll match Pearl’s other jewelry, won’t be too conspicuous, and she knows that Pearl isn’t a fan of gems or sparkles. She prefers the bluntness of silver, the glint of a thick band under stage lights.

Marina takes a deep breath, holds the box between her hands like a prayer, and tries to give herself the strength to do this. This amazing, crazy thing. This thing that will ensure that things never have to change. This thing that will guarantee that they’ll always be together, no matter what.

+++

They ride a swing ride, one that flies them in a large, leisurely circle. Marina, overcome, flings her arms and legs out like a child and Pearl lets out a chiming, free laugh. She copies Marina and, together, they yell wordless joy as they go in circles. After, a few people recognize them, and they pose for a couple pictures. Pearl, always hungry for the camera, flourishes her arms out. Marina, more subdued, makes sure that her high-waisted skinny jeans are angled just so, and puts her hands on her hips.

They go back to food after that. Over a heaping plate of fried mushrooms, Pearl looks out at the crowd, at all the couples and the children and the siblings, and her eyes are shining with all the lights. Marina swears she falls in love with her all over again right there.

“Are you going to miss it?” Pearl asks after she swallows down a mushroom. Marina, unsure, makes a confused sound. “All the splatfests,” Pearl clarifies.

Marina considers that. Will she? It was something new to look forward to, something she did only with Pearl, and staying up all night writing the announcements and the results every month were some of the most peaceful, reassuring moments of her life. Pearl is quieter and softer when she’s tired, and they shared their first kiss during one of those all-nighters. Worn down, exhausted, they merely fell together that night. One second, Pearl was leaning her head against Marina’s shoulder and the next she was looking up at her with slightly parted lips. They kissed like gravity, like it was inevitable, and, after, neither was sure who initiated. They stared at each other and it was like terminal velocity. Suddenly Pearl was in Marina’s lap, shoving her cold hands around Marina’s face so she could pull her closer. Marina wrapped her arms around Pearl’s back and pulled them flush. She swore she could feel all three of Pearl’s hearts, racing each other in a rat-a-tat rhythm.

“A little,” Marina answers, once she realizes that she’s been contemplating the question for a few too many beats. Her face is warm at the thought of that first kiss and Pearl peeks at her with a coy expression that says that she knows exactly what Marina was just thinking about.

“Things change,” Pearl continues. A flash goes off as someone takes a picture of them and Pearl glances up just in time for another to go off. She scowls in their direction, ever the protector of their private moments, and the poor teen scurries off. Then, she turns back to Marina and grabs her hand, rubs her thumb along her palm. “But you’ll always have me.”

+++

Marina almost chickens out. There are multiple opportunities, but she doesn’t take them. Instead, she allows herself to be dragged around the carnival. She examines the rides with a critical eye, taking them apart in her mind to figure out how they work, and points out a few interesting pieces of mechanics. This makes Pearl smile fondly and shake her head. She squeezes Marina’s hand. “So cute when you’re geekin’,” she mutters, and Marina shoves her lightly.

They ride a few more gentle rides, including the carousel. Pearl climbs on top of an ostrich and lets out a loud whoohoo! as soon as it starts moving. Marina, on an accompanying zebra, forgets herself for a second, because the sight of Pearl so carefree does something pleasant to her insides. She smiles to herself and when she looks it up its to Pearl beaming at her, leaning all the way back with her hands wrapped around the pole. It takes all of Marina’s combined will not to lean over and kiss her right there.

Eventually, eventually, the evening is coming to a close. They snack on a few more fried desserts, share a funnel cake and lick powdered sugar off their fingers. Pearl doesn’t barf, not even after riding a few more spinning rides, and they decide to close things out on the Ferris wheel. Marina gazes up at it and she feels a stone form in her stomach because this is it. This is the moment, isn’t it?

Her whole body feels like it’s working on a different frequency as she climbs on next to Pearl. Her nerves sing, her hands shake, and her leg bounces. Pearl, mistaking the twitchiness for nervousness, places her small hand on top of Marina’s. Marina, with her hands vice gripped around the safety bar, merely grimaces at her.

They sail around a few rotations, staring off at the bright lights of the city, gazing down at the carnival and all the people below them. Pearl points things out, clearly trying to distract Marina from her anxiety, and Marina tries to pretend to be interested as she fumbles around with the zipper on her jacket pocket.

The Ferris wheel stops at the top. Marina nearly chokes on her own tongue as she gazes out at the dark sky in front of them, illuminated by the soft glow coming off the city. She feels like she can see forever.

“Marina...”

Everything slows down. Marina turns, hand fisting around the box in her pocket. She looks and Pearl is watching her with wide, terrified eyes. It makes Marina let go of the box.

“Pearl?”

Pearl shakes her head and grabs Marina’s hand. “Sorry, I was just enjoying the moment. Look, I have something...”

Pearl digs around in the pocket of her white shorts. Marina feels her whole body come back online then. The seat is jiggling as Pearl’s boot drums against the floor and Pearl’s hand is warm, hot almost. Just there, Marina can see a band of skin on her stomach as she shifts to get better leverage.

“You little shit... Get out of there! Ah! Got it! Okay, sorry.” Pearl smiles a little shyly and it’s the first time Marina’s ever seen that expression on her face. She looks... She’s glowing with the lights and with the blush on her cheeks and Marina literally can’t get her mind to keep up with all this.

“Look.” Pearl takes a deep, stabilizing breath. It rattles out of her chest, catches just there, and she swallows thickly. “I know this is sudden, but I can’t take it anymore.”

Pearl holds her hand out. Between her fingers, there’s a small gold band, the same color as her eyes, with a single, small stone affixed, flush, in the metal.

Marina’s mind crashes to a halt. Her perfectly rehearsed speech, her best laid plans, all leave her. All that’s left is the warm summer breeze and Pearl, looking at her with the most vulnerable expression Marina’s ever seen. It’s devastating to see.

Pearl takes another deep breath. This one comes out a little cleaner, free of all the cobwebs of nerves now that she’s got the ring out. “Look. I love you. So fuckin’ much. I love you so much it keeps me up at night sometimes... And I love it! I love waking up and seeing you there! And watching you play with your hair! And the way you tap your pencil against your lips when you’re thinking! And the way your brow furrows when you’re concerned! And the way you touch things you don’t recognize, all careful! And the way you love machinery! I love watching you discover new things about Inkopolis, and I love that I’ve been by your side this whole time! I just... I love you! And, Reena... I wanna keep loving you.”

Marina’s body takes over. Dumbstruck, she fishes into her jacket pocket, tugs the ring box free, because she can’t believe this. “Pearl...” It’s all she can manage. She holds the box out and Pearl’s brow wrinkles as she looks down at it.

Marina watches as Pearl computes everything and she recognizes the instant that it hits her. Pearl’s eyes widen and she looks up with a mouth that slowly widens into an excited gasp. “No fuckin’ way!” She darts forward, grabs Marina’s face between her hands, and kisses her. It blazes through them, from Pearl to Marina, and Marina can feel the ring’s shape against her cheek as Pearl pulls her closer. Marina’s body relaxes, her stomach releases from its complicated pretzeling, and she allows herself to be swept up. The seat sways under them as Marina pushes back, slides her hands along the bare skin of Pearl’s stomach, and Pearl laughs against Marina’s lips as she brushes against a sensitive spot. Marina, emboldened by the laugh, merely deepens the whole thing. She feels Pearl’s lips part, just there, and she almost loses herself.

Below them, a few people let out a few whoops. A woman yells a loud congratulations! and Marina pulls away, suddenly aware that they have an audience. Pearl lets out a small keening noise at the interruption but then seems to come back to herself. She grins up at Marina, unabashed, and waves over the side, to the delight of their onlookers.

“Is that a yes?” Marina asks. She feels like she’s being lit up from the inside, like she could sail up and live amongst the stars in the sky.

“I thought I was asking you!” Pearl cries, face split in two by her brilliant smile. She has tears in her eyes, Marina realizes, and it makes her chest jump.

“Yes,” Marina says simply. It’s all she can manage. After all that planning, all that rehearsal, and that’s all she has to say. “Yes,” she repeats. “Yes. Yes. Yes.”

+++

As they climb out, equipped with two new rings, the ride attendant gives Pearl a high five. Marina, giddy, overcome, can’t help but lean close as they walk away. A few people snap pictures but neither of them care.

“That was perfect. How’d you do it?” Marina asks as they walk toward the parking lot.

Pearl, knowing that she’s been had, merely grins up at her. “I might’ve bribed the dude running the ride. I’ll never tell.”

Marina lets out a chiming laugh. Pearl squeezes her hand and presses as close as she can while walking. Together, they head home.

Together, they head into the future.

Chapter Text

The week after the (dual) proposal is quiet. Pearl and Marina stay in, wrapped up in bed or leaning over puzzles or crosswords or yelling at corny human movies or sunning themselves in the summer heat. Pearl turns her phone off and leaves it off. Marina checks hers once an hour, watches as headlines hit, reads out the funny ones just to see Pearl’s face twist. Pearl is surprisingly subdued about the whole thing, posting only a few pics to her social media with the caption “WE PROPOSED AT THE SAME TIME!! I LOVE YOU REENAAAAAA!!” and she doesn’t refresh it looking for likes or comments. Instead, she puts her phone away and turns all her attention on Marina.

Marina is one of the only people who gets to see Pearl at her most tender, when she’s quiet (well, quiet for Pearl; when she’s quiet, she’s operating at a level most other people would consider normal) and gentle and has these eyes that just watch, taking everything in. She lets her guard down around Marina, makes herself relax, puts the loud, bombastic rapper away so she can hear the world for what it is. After living in a bubble of wealth where being bigger and louder got her the attention that she craved, she’s finally starting to realize that she often gets in her own way, especially when she’s alone with Marina.

That week, there’s no posturing, no big bad Pearl. She merely shoves her face into Marina’s neck, stomach, chest, side as often as she can, kisses her gently, slowly, mumbles how much Marina means to her into the dark of their bedroom. At first, it freaks Marina out a little, because she wasn’t expecting it. She expected a loud declaration, a bunch of useless trips to the grocery store just so people can see them together, with their rings, countless Inkstagram posts—a bragging celebration that would leave Marina breathless in the face of its intensity. Instead, she got quiet, gentle, appreciative Pearl.

Marina wonders, on day three of this, briefly, as she sits longways on the couch with Pearl leaning against her chest, if this is because of the final splatfest. Marina’s legs easily stick out well beyond Pearl’s and Pearl has her bare legs pressed as close as she can to Marina’s as she stares at the TV. Pearl is playing a video game while Marina watches without really taking it in, something to do with farming and rural life. Every now and then she jabbers about the game and points something out. More often, she looks down at Marina’s left hand and beams up at Marina with the full force of her smile. She’s made herself comfortable against Marina’s chest, and Marina has her arms wrapped around her middle. Together, they slowly sink down into the cushions, and Marina knows that, eventually, she’ll end up on her back and Pearl will flip over so she can cuddle her properly.

For now though, Pearl has her game and Marina has her thoughts. The final splatfest was intense, that much was sure. Even though they wrote the announcement dialogue together well before the actual event, it did something to Pearl to actually say it to the camera. After it was over, projected on the big screen in the middle of the square and on every TV in Inkopolis, Pearl grabbed Marina’s hand and dragged her out of the studio, into the stairwell, where she leaned against the railing and kicked her boot against the ground, avoiding Marina’s gaze as she uttered what Marina realized, with a shock, was an apology.

“You know I didn’t mean what I said right? I know you don’t see your life outside Off the Hook as more important— And I don’t want us to break up and—”

“Pearlie...” Marina easily put her hand on Pearl’s face, cupping her cheek. “It’s a show. I know.”

Pearl looked up at her, eyes wide and shining. She reached up and grabbed Marina’s hand, held it there so that she could lean into her palm. “I’m just making sure. Sometimes, it feels so real— And you— You know you’re important to me, right? You know I’m not gonna drop you just because of some stinkin’ splatfest that we don’t even play in.”

“Yes, I’m very aware. It’s okay. In case you forgot, I helped write that dialogue.”

“I know! I’m just—!” Pearl was clearly getting frustrated, so Marina decided to just cut that off at the pass. She leaned down and pressed a chaste kiss to Pearl’s lips.

“I know it feels real,” she says, just to reaffirm Pearl’s feelings as real. “Especially when the music gets going and you have to do that cute little scowly thing in your chair. But it’s not.”

Pearl sighed and turned her head to press her own small kiss to the palm of Marina’s hand. “You’re right. You’re always so freakin’ right.”

Pearl isn’t usually like this. Usually, as soon as the cameras are off, she’s all widened stance, arms thrown out, smug and saying things like “Did you hear that line delivery? I crushed it.” But this feels different. This feels personal. All those other splatfests weren’t about them, not really. Sure, they played it up for the camera and tried to get the hype up with ridiculous stories like Pearl’s pool of mayo or Marina’s undying loyalty to spoons, but that was all just to sell it. Usually, they said their lines and afterwards they laughed about it. But this time, Pearl was taking it personally. It probably had to do with seeing Marina so upset and saying things like “Off the Hook means everything to me! It’s all I have in the world...” Marina imagined that if she heard Pearl say that, she’d want to throw off the whole act too.

The problem with Pearl is that she feels all of her emotions fully, with all of her being. So much so that, sometimes, when she’s acting, it starts to get to her. This is doubly true when it comes to Marina. Even acting like there’s a possibility of a breakup gives her anxiety, probably because part of that dialogue—Marina having the bigger fanbase, Marina having a promising solo career if she ever wants—was true to some extent in Pearl’s mind. She gets in her own way.

But things went back to normal after that, for a while. They prepared for the splatfest, they pre-recorded the dialogue for the results, they hosted the fest, they blew out their voices, they danced on the helicopter, Pearl screamed her guts out, they huddled together under a blanket to watch the results on Marina’s phone because they missed it live. Then, they got engaged.

The recording session for the results dialogue left Marina with a little shock of her own. Pearl’s “I love you” and everything after wasn’t originally in the script, mostly because the producers wanted to keep the news as neutral as possible, but when they recorded both versions of the results, she said it both times, and Marina had to pretend not to be surprised, not to be knocked down. She improvised, she actually teared up both times, because that wasn’t something Pearl did lightly. That was a sign to everyone: Pearl loved Marina.

It was neutral enough for the producers, so they kept it in. Plus, it had the emotional payoff, which was sure to make ratings spike. More importantly, it was what strengthened Marina’s resolve to propose that next evening.

She should have seen Pearl’s own proposal coming, all things considered. That little line change was huge. That was Pearl taking a stance. That was Pearl being genuine. She wasn’t posturing; she wasn’t ribbing—she was being serious with her feelings in the most casual way possible. She was making up for her anxiety about the announcement dialogue and she was telling everyone—mostly herself—that even a fake argument couldn’t stop her from loving Marina.

“I’m gonna pet this fuckin’ turtle,” Pearl says, drawing Marina back to the present. “Maybe it’ll finally let me bring its ass home.”

Marina watches as Pearl guides her character toward a couple green pixels. The turtle gives off a little heart, which makes Pearl let out a cute little gasp, but then it walks away at a trundling speed. Pearl tsks and drops the controller.

“I pet that thing like twenty times! Let me love you!”

Marina chuckles and tightens her arms around Pearl’s waist. “Gladly,” she cracks.

Pearl laughs once, a high-pitched chime of a sound. “Oh, you’re being really fuckin’ cute, huh Rina! You’re doing it to distract me! I’ll get this turtle! Then I’ll deal with you!”

Marina shoves her face into Pearl’s hair, just so that Pearl can feel her smile. Pearl doesn’t react, which really isn’t acceptable, so Marina tightens her grip again and sinks down, shoves her body so that she’s lying on her back. Pearl squawks as Marina slides under her; she’s dragged down too, pulled tight against Marina’s chest, and she wiggles to get free.

Cheating! You’re cheating, Marina!” Pearl squeals as she tries to flip over. Marina loosens her arms just enough and Pearl manages to get onto her stomach. Now they’re nose to nose, staring each other right in the eye, Marina with her back against the couch and Pearl on her stomach on top of her.

“That wasn’t fair,” Pearl says, right to her face. “Now how am I supposed to achieve my ultimate goal, huh? That turtle is all I want right now.”

Marina pouts her lips out a little. “But what about me?”

“I already got you!” Pearl kicks her feet a little. “See this?” Pearl holds her hand up and Marina is treated to the sight of her ring. “It’s done. I got you and you got me. But what I want is the turt— Mmp!”

Marina presses her lips to Pearl’s, cutting off any other talk of turtles. The sight of that ring is just too much for her to handle. Pearl gives in easily, allows herself to be drawn in to the slow, languid rhythm that they’ve established over the last few days. There’s no teeth, just their lips, familiar, and a little tongue. Pearl gets a little exploratory with her hands, and she slides them under the hem of Marina’s shirt, looking for skin. She presses her palms, warm from holding the controller, to Marina’s stomach and stops just there, just to feel Marina’s breaths probably. Marina hums against Pearl’s lips, and that makes Pearl’s fingers curl a little.

Eventually, Pearl pulls away. Marina lets out a little sound of discontent, but then Pearl wiggles up a little. Her hands come out from under Marina’s shirt so she can plant them in the cushions and hover over Marina. “So, what’s the game here, Rina? What’s up?”

Marina scowls. “I can’t just kiss you because I want to?”

Pearl grins a sharp grin. “You can, but I can see it on your face. You’re fuckin’ awful at hiding your expressions sometimes, babe. Or am I just fluent in Marina?”

Marina sighs and lets her head fall back against the armrest. “You’ve been quiet lately.”

Pearl’s expression is unreadable. “Yeah. What of it?”

“It’s not you.” Marina places her hand on Pearl’s face. “What’s going on? Aren’t you happy?” She rubs her thumb along Pearl’s cheek.

Pearl lets herself bounce softly back onto Marina’s chest. “I am!” She scoots up and places a small kiss on Marina’s neck, right on the most sensitive spot under her jaw, which just makes Marina’s fingers tighten. “I just wanna spend time with you! I don’t want all those other chumps getting in the way!”

“Chumps? You mean all of Inkopolis?”

“Yeah!” Pearl kisses her again, this time letting her lips linger for a second longer. “We’ve got like two weeks off from work, we both proposed at the same time, and I just wanna be with you! What’s wrong with that?” She goes back to her ministrations, letting her kisses last longer and longer with each pass. Marina feels like she’s going to jump out of her own skin.

“Pearl, you know I—mnh—you know I—gah! Would you quit! Mmm... I’m trying to talk!”

Pearl grins up at her. “And I’m trying to show you how happy I am!” She goes in for another and Marina sits up, toppling her back into her lap.

N-no! Stop trying to distract me. Are you upset about the splatfest?”

Pearl, rumpled, pink, and warm from the last two minutes, suddenly goes ashen. “W-what? No!”

“Then why are you acting so... so weird?”

Pearl doesn’t answer right away. Instead, she crawls back into Marina’s lap. She straddles her legs and laces her arms around Marina’s neck. “It’s been bothering you?”

Marina leans forward and touches her forehead to Pearl’s. “Of course it has,” she whispers. “I expected you to be running around Inkopolis screaming, but you’re just sitting around the house mooning after me.”

“Well I love you!” Pearl rears back throws her hands up, not that Marina can see it, because they’re behind her head. She settles them back down into their place easily though. “Excuse me, I didn’t realize moonin’ was illegal. You sound like my elementary school teacher. And, for your information, I’m— I just want to get used to it first, okay?”

Marina gives her a critical glance over, just to make sure that this is her Pearl she’s talking to. “Uh huh...”

“Listen here Rina... When we met, we didn’t have all this... This shit, y’know? We just had each other, and it was super nice to get to know you without a bunch of people watching us! I’m not fuckin’ complaining about our jobs or our music or anything! I meant it when I said I wanna try new stuff and that we’re gonna be together until the end of the universe, but sometimes I just wanna have a quiet moment with you!”

“Oh... Pearlie...”

“And—And—And— Yeah maybe the splatfest announcement is still bothering me! You were so upset, and I know it was an act, but I hated seeing you like that! And when you pulled your ring out on that Ferris wheel, I was just— I was like holy shit! After everything, she loves me too! ME! And I just wanted to spend some time with just you.”

Marina can feel her brow furrow. Pearl is getting worked up and Marina can feel her hands move as she speaks, but she never removes them from their place where they’re loosely draped around Marina’s neck.

“You doubted that I loved you?” Marina carefully wraps her arms around Pearl’s waist, just to keep her from falling back in her anxious rambling.

“No! No, never! I just... I don’t know what I was thinking. I just... I just wanna be with you, okay? Next week, I’ll get back to screamin’ about how amazing you are. But, for now, I just want this.”

Marina smiles then, a soft thing. Pearl can get so lost in her own head sometimes. Here she is, usually the headstrong, strong-willed MC, but when it comes to Marina she turns into a small pile of worrying goop. She really does want to do this whole thing right, and that warms Marina all the way through.

“I’d love that,” Marina says. “Just you and me, like old times.”

Pearl gives her a look that’s all relief. She falls and lets her head land against Marina’s shoulder. “Fuck... That was hard to say. Emotions are disgusting.”

Marina laughs and hugs her close. “Maybe so, but you’re getting it... Unlike that turtle.”

My turtle!” Pearl leans back, doesn’t break Marina’s hold, and grabs the controller. On screen, the character starts to move again. Pearl easily wiggles so that she’s turned the other way and she settles right back in her spot against Marina’s chest, like she carved it there herself.

Maybe she did, Marina reflects. Or maybe they’ve just figured out how to slot together perfectly.

Chapter Text

A couple weeks after returning to work, Pearl and Marina fall back into their familiar routine. They do the news live between the hours of nine in the morning and six in the evening and record all of the other announcements in their downtime. In the evenings, Marina cooks dinner and Pearl cleans up afterwards. They sit across the table and throw around song ideas, or discuss the top 100 results, or watch a movie on Marina’s laptop. At night, they play a video game together or Marina reads and Pearl browses the internet. They fall asleep at the same time, curled up together, and get up to do it all again.

It's all bliss. They start talking about wedding venues and catering, along with the invite list. Marina doesn’t have many opinions, to be honest, while Pearl has many, many opinions. But still, it’s fun just to browse the internet looking at things, trying to get a feel for what they want.

Then, Pearl catches the flu.

“Don’th thee how ith’s justh me,” Pearl says around the doctor’s tongue compressor. Her voice is snotty and rough, and she takes every opportunity to glare at the doctor as she does her job. Marina stands nearby, hands twisted together. It was her idea to see the doctor, mostly because she’s never seen Pearl this sick before. Usually, it’s just a head cold, or an upset stomach after too much bad food, but this time it’s everything—her throat, her head, a fever, vomiting, muscle aches, coughing, sneezing. Call Marina cautious, but she’s never seen Pearl so pale and worn out. Even after the last splatfest Pearl had her usual pep.

“Your lymph nodes are definitely swollen,” the doctor says as she extracts the compressor. She reaches up and feels Pearl’s throat, massaging just below her jaw. It makes Pearl fidget.

“Forreal doc! Why didn’t Marina get it too? We’re always together! And, we’ve been really close recently, if you catch my drift.”

Marina feels her face heat up. “Pearl!” she admonishes, and then turns to the doctor. “I’m so sorry. She usually has more tact than this.”

“Oooh, no I fuckin’ don’t, yo. You can’t blame the fever, babe. You fell in love with someone who tells it like it is! And the fact is that I love my girl and— Mmph!

The doctor shoves a thermometer into Pearl’s mouth. “Hold that under your tongue.” She turns to Marina. “It is strange that you haven’t gotten it. No symptoms?”

While Pearl pouts around the thermometer, the doctor places her hand on Marina’s forehead and then feels on her throat, just to be sure. “Hm, yeah, nothing. How strange. Maybe you have a natural immunity, or you caught a similar stain before.”

“Lucky...” Pearl mutters around the thermometer. She’s hunched down on the table, clearly uncomfortable, and tears the thermometer out as soon as it starts to beep.

“Yeah, that’s a fever.” The doctor says as she takes it from Pearl’s eager hand. “Let me listen to your lungs to make sure you haven’t developed complications, but I think it’s just the flu. Bed rest, fluids, and soup. Have you had trouble sleeping?”

Pearl glances toward Marina and it’s all heat; she grins in a way that makes Marina flush. “I been sleepin’ fine. We just got engaged a couple weeks ago, ya feel me?”

Pearl!”

Pearl doesn’t back down, just cocks an eyebrow and easily lifts her shirt so the doctor can get under it with her stethoscope. She only winces once at the cold.

“No pneumonia.” The doctor loops the stethoscope around her neck. “Just take it easy for a few days. You should be better in one to two weeks.”

Two weeks!” Pearl screeches, but it quickly turns into a coughing fit. She hacks and it wracks her whole body, bending her double. Marina quickly darts to her side so she can rub her back and hold her up. Pearl groans when it’s over and leans into Marina’s stomach.

“You two might also want to exercise some distance,” the doctor says as she marks something down on Pearl’s chart. She points her pen directly at Marina. “You haven’t gotten it yet, and you might not, but there’s always the chance.”

Marina and Pearl look at each other. Pearl looks exhausted after her coughing fit, but she also looks devastated. Marina bites her lip and tries to smile at her, to reassure her.

“We’re screwed,” Pearl mutters darkly.

+++

Pearl steadily gets worse over the next few hours, even if she refuses to acknowledge it. Marina tries to get her to rest, but there’s only so much she can do when Pearl is dead set on doing just the opposite. Pearl follows Marina around, sniffling, coughing, and bothers her every chance she gets. Marina, trying her best to clean up a little, just to remove a few of the germs, strips the sheets off the bed and Pearl sits on the pile of fabric once Marina throws it onto the floor; Marina scrubs at the kitchen counters and Pearl hops up and drums her heels against the cabinets. When Marina gets to that spot and patiently asks Pearl to move, Pearl glares at her with red-ringed eyes and petulantly wipes at her nose with the back of her hand.

Eventually, Marina has enough. After Pearl impedes her attempts at making dinner by standing in front of the open fridge (“It’s helping cool my fever, Mar!”), Marina breaks and scoops Pearl up around the waist. She wraps her arms around Pearl’s small body, throws her over her shoulder, kicks the fridge closed, and marches her into the bedroom.

“Hey! Hey! Kidnap! This is kidnapping! Not cool, Marina! Unfair! Put me down!” Pearl calls weakly, smacking her fists lightly into Marina’s back. She can’t yell very loud or else risk a coughing fit.

“Fine!” Marina drops Pearl onto the bed and Pearl bounces with an oof before sitting up and glaring at her. “You’re making this harder than it has to be.” Marina tries to keep her voice modulated because she understands what Pearl is doing. She doesn’t like to be stationary or vulnerable and she absolutely hates the idea that a little illness can take her down. But, at some point, her pride is going to have to take a backseat so her health can improve, so now Marina has to be the health police.

“I’m not doing anything,” Pearl shoots back, petulant. She crosses her arms but doesn’t try to get out of bed. She looks especially tiny today, alone in their big bed and dressed in her largest hoodie.

“You are. Pearlie, you need to rest.” Marina carefully cups Pearl’s face in her palm. She almost winces at the heat that meets her.

“I don’t need no rest.” Pearl looks away, trying not to make eye contact because she knows that seeing Marina’s begging expression will break her. “I feel fine.”

This is punctuated by a loud cough. Pearl lets it out into her hand and glances, sheepish, toward Marina.

“Yeah, you sound perfectly fine,” Marina says. She sighs and puts her hands on her hips. “Listen, you’re not making this any easier on me. When you follow me around looking all pathetic like that—”

“I’m not pathetic!”

When you follow me around you make me want to hug you. And you heard the doctor—I can’t. Do you want me to get sick too?”

It’s a low blow but it’s the only ammunition Marina has that will work. Pearl sniffles a few times and for a second Marina is scared that it’s because she’s going to cry, but then she shakes her head once, still refusing eye contact.

“Fine. You win,” Pearl grumbles. She crawls up the bed and throws the clean sheets back so she can burrow inside. “I’m not gonna sleep though.”

“That’s fine.” Marina pulls the sheets up to Pearl’s chin. “As long as you’re here, warm and safe, that’s fine.”

Pearl sighs and looks up at Marina with a cloudy, sick gaze. There are giant bags under her eyes and her cheeks look sunken in. “I’m sorry, Rina... I’m just frustrated.”

“I understand.” Marina decides to risk it and she drops one easy, light kiss on Pearl’s head. The fever that meets her lips is so intense that she almost rears back. “I’m gonna go get you some medicine and juice,” she says to Pearl’s worried face. “We need to break that fever.”

Pearl doesn’t argue that, so she must’ve felt how cool Marina’s lips were against her head. She looks a little frightened and Marina can’t blame her. As far as she knows, this is the sickest Pearl’s ever been.

When Marina returns, Pearl is asleep. It’s a light and fitful sleep and she already has the covers kicked off—probably because her fever is making her hot—but it’s something. Marina places the juice and pills on the nightstand; she’ll wake Pearl when dinner’s ready to give them to her.

As she’s leaving, she hears Pearl mumble in her sleep: “Rina... Don’t... I miss...

Marina flips the light off and closes the door as quietly as she can. She tries not to feel guilty about leaving Pearl alone.

+++

That first night, Marina sleeps on the couch. Pearl kicked up a little sick fuss about that, declaring that if anyone had to be on the couch it should be her, but Marina put her foot down. There was no way she was letting Pearl anywhere near the couch and she couldn’t very well argue with her. She could barely keep her eyes open.

Marina doesn’t really sleep that night—the couch is in a strange room with strange shapes in the dark and she’s still a trained soldier deep down. She can’t relax, and, besides, she’s too worried about Pearl. She lies there and listens, counts every cough, holds her breath through every wheeze, rises to help Pearl get to the bathroom when she needs to, tucks her back in. Pearl’s fever persists despite the medicine’s best efforts and she clings to Marina as she brings her back to bed after her second bathroom break. “Noooo,” she says, voice hoarse and thick in her throat. “Please stay. I don’t feel good.”

It breaks Marina’s hearts, but she has to put Pearl back under the sheets and leave her. She can’t risk getting sick, because then who will take care of Pearl? And besides, she knows that if she ends up sick Pearl will blame herself.

So, she tucks Pearl back in and helps her drink more juice. She needs to stay hydrated, especially with the risk of vomiting mounting, but Pearl fights the whole way. She tries to make deals, like “I’ll drink it if you’ll stay. You can have your half of the bed and I’ll stay on mine. Don’t want you on the couch!” but Marina is steadfast.

In the end, Pearl gives in just because she’s so wiped out. She drinks the juice and falls back onto the pillow. Marina sits there until she falls back into her fitful sleep and lays one hand on Pearl’s head, checking her fever. It never lessens.

Eventually Marina does manage to fall asleep and she wakes with a jolt sometime after sunrise. She’s incredibly warm, there’s sweat covering her body, and there’s something heavy sitting on her chest and legs. For a second, she almost panics, but then she remembers where she is and what’s going on and she recognizes the weight for what it is: Pearl.

Sometime during the night Pearl stumbled her way out of the bedroom and crawled right into Marina’s chest. Marina, too exhausted to fight, let her, and they both fell asleep that way, Pearl with her feverish head shoved into Marina’s neck and Marina with her arms wrapped around Pearl’s body.

Marina sighs and tries to detach herself without rousing her sick fiancée. Pearl grumbles but doesn’t wake as Marina shifts her to the side. Carefully, Marina slides her body out and steps out of the room as quietly as she can.

She brushes her teeth and takes a shower because she has work in a few hours, and when she pulls the shower curtain back it’s to Pearl sitting on the bathroom counter, staring at her phone. She almost gives Marina a heart attack and she has to resist the urge to yell at her.

“Sorry,” Pearl says, sheepish again. “I figured the steam would be good for me.”

She has a point, at least when it comes to her congested chest and throat, so Marina can’t be too mad. Instead, she wraps her towel around her body and swipes some steam off the mirror. “How are you feeling?” she asks as she pulls her hair up into a topknot.

Pearl shrugs. “Crummy. I think I can go to work though.”

Marina’s arms fall and she pins Pearl with the hardest glare she can muster. It makes Pearl shrink back. “No, absolutely not. I don’t care how big your ego is. You’ll get everyone else sick.”

Pearl deflates quickly, because she’s a lot of things but she’s not flagrantly disrespectful of other people’s health. “Fine, but I’m not staying in bed. I’m sick of it.”

“Fine,” Marina echoes. She looks at her own face in the mirror, takes in the giant bruises under her eyes, and reaches for her makeup bag. “You can stay on the couch.”

Ugh.” Pearl jumps off the counter and lands squarely on her heels. She stumbles a little as her knees almost give out and Marina reaches out to catch her, but Pearl shrugs her off. “I’m a big girl. I can take care of myself.”

Marina watches her leave, feeling queasy—and not because she’s sick. She’s seen that Pearl before. That’s the hardheaded Pearl that refuses to listen to reason, who’s hellbent on proving everyone wrong, who thinks that she can defy nature.

+++

Luckily for Marina, Pearl falls back asleep after breakfast. No matter how angry or determined she is, Pearl can’t resist her body’s exhausted temptation and she slips into a doze on the couch while watching the news.

Marina leaves for work with only a little bit of trepidation. Pearl was right about one thing: she is a big girl and she can take care of herself. Marina doesn’t have to worry about her up and dying while she’s at work, but she does feel like she should worry about her doing something stupid. There’s no telling what boneheaded thing Pearl will get up to while Marina’s gone, especially if she feels like she has something to prove.

But Marina honestly can’t worry about that too much. She’ll have to trust Pearl not to give in to her feverish whims. Instead, she focuses on the road as she drives, guiding her motorcycle between traffic. When she arrives, it’s with a clear head and a good idea of how she’s going to handle doing the news alone.

It’s rare that one of them is out and Marina’s only had to do it once before. Back then, she merely made up her lines, tried to tell as many jokes as she could without falling flat, and it went okay. It wasn’t her best performance but there wasn’t much she could do. Today though, she has an idea.

Because she did her makeup at home, she doesn’t have much to do to prepare. She changes into her costume and checks her equipment, informs the crew that Pearl is sick but that Marina herself is clean, just in case they didn’t see her email, and quickly gets to work on her soundboard. She just needs a few samples...

At nine in the morning, she goes live by herself. Pearl’s chair is conspicuously empty and Marina grins at the camera, waits a few beats to give respect to Pearl’s line even if she’s not here, and then says her half of the intro: “It’s Off the Hook, coming at you LIVE from Inkopolis Square! Well, it’s just me today! Pearl is sick but she’s here in spirit, right Pearl?”

Marina hits a few buttons on her soundboard, and Pearl’s voice plays from the speakers scattered through the studio. “That’s right, Marina!”

That makes a few of the crew members chuckle and she gets a few thumbs up, so she plows ahead. She announces the Turf War locations and makes up gags on the go. When Manta Maria appears on screen, she says “This stage is great for dualies, huh Pearl?” And hits a few buttons, all of which are mapped to various screams and yells in Pearl’s voice. What she ends up with sounds something like “WOOO YEAAAAAH!!! AAAAAAH! WOOO!” and it catches the cameraman off guard. He almost falls over, clutching his stomach, as he laughs as silently as he can.

She can’t help but smile to herself and she finishes the news like this, stringing together sentences with random samples. The crew ends up in stitches and she even hears some the teens outside the window behind her let out a few whoops of laughter.

When she finishes, the producer gives her a big smile and she falls into her seat, relieved for the first time in twenty-four hours. She checks her phone, just to make sure that Pearl didn’t try to call, and there are no notifications. Maybe, just maybe, Pearl will sleep all day. That would be absolutely perfect.

+++

Pearl doesn’t sleep all day. Marina comes home to her doing yoga in the living room. She’s barefoot and leaning as far as she can to the side, stretching herself long. Marina drops her keys in the bowl near the door and crosses her arms.

“What on earth are you doing?”

Pearl jolts upward. “Rina! I’m doing yoga, duh. It’s good for circulation.”

Marina squints at her. She looks freshly showered and she’s wearing new clothes. Also, her hair is green.

“Why are you green?” Marina takes a few steps toward her but stops when she gets a better look at her. “Is that my shirt?”

Pearl backs up bit, hands rising in a weak attempt at shielding herself. Yeah, that’s one of Marina’s pajama shirts, a large green one that goes all the way to her knees. Pearl has it tied up in the front and back, but it still looks like she’s wearing a tent.

“I missed you!” Pearl says in self-defense. Her voice is at least ten times worse than it was this morning and that makes Marina squint. She decides not to argue because that’ll just rile Pearl up more so she just sighs.

“I hope it’s comfortable.”

Pearl relaxes, happy that she’s not getting fussed at for borrowing Marina’s clothes without permission (again), and moves toward Marina with her arms spread. “Not as comfortable as you are.”

Marina holds out a hand, palm forward. “Smooth, but you remember what the doctor said.”

Pearl pauses and glares at the hand. “I slept on top of you last night and you’re fine. You ain’t catchin’ this shit babe.” She gives Marina the most pathetic, sad, manipulative eyes she can. “Please, Mar? Just one hug? I’ve been good all day. I stayed inside and I slept on the couch and I read a book.”

Marina chuckles at that last one and holds her arms out. “Fine. Just one.” She can’t very well tell Pearl no when she looks that sad anyway.

Besides, she could use the hug too. All day she felt off balance, like she was missing her left arm, and she found herself constantly looking down for Pearl when something funny happened or she wanted to tell her something or hand her something. Every time, when she realized Pearl wasn’t there, she felt a pang and impulsively checked her phone for any sort of messages. None came.

Pearl sails into her, and for a second Marina is impressed by how spry she is even deep in the thralls of the flu. Marina catches her, laughing, and Pearl buries her face in Marina’s chest. They squeeze each other like they haven’t seen one another in months and Marina finally feels like she can breathe again. She bends down and places a risky kiss on Pearl’s head and Pearl peers up at her with her lips poked out.

She’s still slightly feverish and, despite her energy, looks wrung out, like she spent the day running a marathon. Marina frowns at her, worried again.

“How are you really feeling?” Marina asks as she pushes Pearl’s hair away from her face.

“Like shit. I think I slept too much. I’m groggy and everything hurts. And I missed every single time you went live! I know you killed it though.”

Marina can’t help but chuckle. “It was okay. I was worried about you though. I couldn’t really focus.”

Pearl smiles up at her. “You liiiike me,” she sings, and then breaks off to cough.

Marina holds up her left hand and waggles her ring finger so her ring can catch the light. “We’ve established this. When was the last time you ate?” She tries to step away, but Pearl tightens her hold. “C’mon Pearlie. I’m hungry.”

“But I wanna hug you!” Despite her argument, she lets go because she cares about Marina’s needs. She sticks close to Marina’s heels though. “Being sick bites! I wanna cuddle and shit because I don’t feel good, but I can’t! Who designed this?!”

Marina laughs and tows open the pantry. Inside, there are rows and rows of canned soup, picked up from the store on their way home yesterday, and she grabs two. “That would be the universe.”

“Well the universe sucks! Damn you, germs!” She lets out a loud cough, which quickly turns into a hacking fit. Marina grabs her arm and can feel her whole body shake with the coughs.

“Pearlie, I know you want to wage war against the tiny intruders in your body, but can you please stop screaming? You don’t want to ruin your voice.”

Damn you, germs...” Pearl whispers and is rewarded by Marina’s chiming, worried laugh.

+++

The next few days go... poorly. Pearl quickly grows bored of being cooperative and she starts to rebel against her role as sick person. She decides that she’s had enough sleep and pushes herself to stay awake, often late into the night and then all day. When Marina calls to check on her, Pearl tells her that she’s over naps and that she won’t be taking one ever again. Marina always hangs up frustrated and worried.

On the second day, Pearl finally manages to catch the news live and she calls the studio while Marina is announcing the stages. The producer patches her through over the speakers and she declares that she’s going to co-host from home. Her voice is weak, goes in and out, and she sounds like she swallowed a frog, but Marina can’t argue with her live on TV. So, instead, she pulls her best smile and says, “That’s great, Pearlie!”

It’s not great.

Every two hours, Pearl yells—or what can constitute as yelling in her sick state—into her phone’s receiver and Marina has to pretend that this is fine, that she’s not worried, that she doesn’t wish, more than anything, that Pearl was asleep, or resting her exhausted body, or soaking in the bath, or drinking orange juice, or reading a book, or anything that isn’t getting all wound up about Blackbelly Skatepark.

At night, Marina tries to put her foot down, tries to make demands, but Pearl is so sick and phoning in her lines makes her so happy. Marina is too weak, and Pearl is too sick for Marina to argue with her. They reach an impasse.

The only way to get Pearl to sleep is to guilt trip her, which just makes Marina feel bad but she’s at the point where she’s so worried she’s sick to her stomach. She has to say things like “If you don’t sleep, I’ll be worried about you tomorrow. How will I focus on work?” That always gets her. Pearl cares more about Marina’s emotional well-being than her own.

On day five, Pearl’s body gives up and she starts to drift in and out of consciousness. She gets delirious, sends Marina voice memos and leaves voicemails that usually entail “Rinaaaaa, I love you sooooooo muuuuuch!” or “Rina I wrote you a song... Do you wanna hear it? Oh... I forgot it. I’ll call back.” Marina can’t tell if it’s the lack of sleep or the fever, which only breaks when Marina reminds Pearl to stay on top of her medicine.

Honestly, Marina is shocked by how self-destructive Pearl is being. But then, she also knows how frustrated Pearl can get when things don’t go her way, when she has to sit still all day, when she’s not allowed to do what she wants or when someone tells her she can’t. She’s the most stubborn person Marina’s ever met, and she’s attacking this sickness like it’s a hater or an obstacle—not something that requires time, patience, and rest. She thinks she can brute force her body into getting over it, and, in the process, she’s making it worse.

On Friday, Marina floats through the day. She gets a new voice memo every thirty minutes and Pearl’s voice is slurred and quiet. She coughs more often than she talks, and her nose is clearly stuffed to the brim. She declares her love for Marina every time and Marina stands in the corner of the studio with her hand white knuckled around her phone. She’s about had it, to be honest, so during her lunch break she almost punches her phone as she calls Pearl up. She storms out of the studio while it rings and slams the door to her dressing room behind her.

“Heyo! It’s Marina!” Pearl’s poor voice has seen better days. She’s basically whisper-yelling at this point and it hurts Marina just to hear.

“Hey Pearl. What the hell do you think you’re doing?”

It comes out harsher than she intended, but Pearl is so loopy that she doesn’t pick up on it. “I’mmmmm watching the news! Or I was! You’re killin’ it out there, beautiful!”

“No,” Marina says, “what the hell do you think you’re doing to yourself? You need to rest.”

“Aww Rina, you’re so cute when you’re worried! I’m fine.”

Marina glares at her own face in the mirror. She looks shallow and wan, as if the stress of the last few days is taking a physical toll on her body. “You’re not. You’re pushing yourself too hard. You need to sleep, and you need to leave me alone. If you love me so much, you should take care of yourself. It makes me feel bad when you don’t.”

Pearl is silent on the other end. For a brief, horrified second, Marina almost takes it all back because she feels incredibly mean. But she also knows that she’ll never be able to have this conversation in person; it has to be done over the phone so she doesn’t have to see Pearl’s crushed face. The reality is that Marina would let Pearl do whatever she wanted—within reason—but this whole thing is starting to get to the point where Marina has to put her foot down. If Pearl isn’t going to take care of herself, then Marina will have to force her to.

“Pearlie...” Marina sighs into the phone. “I know what you’re doing. I know that you don’t like to feel so useless—”

“Like a log, a sleepy log.”

“—but your body is fighting a big war right now and you’re not giving it the rest it needs. It needs to refresh and restock so that it can fight off the virus. You refusing to sleep and trying to act like everything is normal is actually making it worse. Plus... I don’t like to see you so sick. It makes me so, so worried.”

The only sign that Pearl is still there is her wheezing breath. Marina falls onto the dressing room couch and lets out a hard sigh.

“I’m sorry, Rina.”

Pearl doesn’t say more, but her voice is so quiet, so tired, that Marina hears something behind it, something so broken and full of acquiescence that it makes her feel instantly better. Maybe this is exactly what Pearl needs—someone to tell her that she can give up, that she can give in, to give her an excuse to stop being so stubborn.

“No, I’m sorry Pearlie. I’m sorry I let this go on for so long. It’s just that I feel so bad for you that I don’t want to force you to do anything you don’t want to. But... you’re wrong and I’m right. You need to sleep.”

Pearl lets out an airy little laugh. “You’re always right.”

Marina can’t help but smile. “So, you’ll try to get some rest?”

Pearl lets out a wet, sick breath. “Yeah.”

“Go climb in bed. I can handle the news.”

Pearl snorts. “Yeah, that whole soundboard thing? That’s funny shit. Where’d you get all those soundbites?”

“We’ve been doing this show for two years... You talk a lot.”

“Yeah... I guess I do...” Pearl trails off and Marina can just hear her turn the TV off. “Marina...? I really am sorry. I don’t like it when you worry.”

Marina leans her head back against the couch. “It’s okay. I don’t like it when you’re sick. Just get some rest, okay? I’ll see you when I get home.”

“Okay. I love you.”

It’s the first time Pearl’s managed to say it with such clarity since she fell ill, isn’t just the ramblings of a fevered, lovestruck fool, and it warms Marina through. It’s a good sign that she’s on the road to recovery.

“I love you too, Pearl. You know that I do.”

Marina can practically hear Pearl’s grin. “Yeah, I know.”

+++

Pearl is passed out on the couch when Marina gets home. She’s got the blanket kicked off and her shirt hiked up so that her stomach is exposed. One leg is thrown over the top of the couch and she’s breathing out of her mouth because her nose is so stuffed. Marina huffs out a small laugh as she toes out of her shoes and pads across the room. Pearl lets out a loud snore.

Marina wants to leave her alone, but she needs to see if the fever is still raging. It’s been pretty hit or miss, mostly because Pearl tends to forget her medicine, so Marina puts her hand on Pearl’s forehead, just for a quick check. It’s cool, which brings Marina so much relief that she feels like she needs to sit down, and she smiles to herself.

Pearl shifts under her hand but doesn’t wake. That’s a good sign, because Pearl’s been sleeping so light and fitfully that even a small sound will wake her. Maybe she’s finally, finally getting the rest she needs.

Marina keeps herself busy while Pearl sleeps. Mostly, she reads. Since Pearl isn’t nearly long enough for the couch, Marina perches herself next to her feet and loses herself in the quiet and in her book. Every once in a while, she looks up and watches Pearl sleep, watches her twitch with dreams, watches her face as it begins to slowly get some of its color back, watches her breathe, in its slow, content rhythm.

It’s the most relaxed Marina’s been all week and she only hopes that it’ll keep up, that Pearl will finally learn her lesson and let herself rest. She loves this scrappy, rowdy girl and she wouldn’t change her for the world, but Marina can’t help but hope that she won’t be so stubborn, just this once.

Pearl is still wearing her ring, has been this whole time, and her hair is still green, a reflection of Marina’s own preferred shade. It makes Marina smile to see, because despite everything, Pearl is still the same little squid in love, the same little inkling whose emotions are sometimes so big that they can’t fit in her body and all she can do is scream about them, the same girl who loves Marina more than she can put into words. The reason she’s fighting so hard is to be with Marina. The reason she wants to stay up is because she wants to be with Marina, doesn’t want to nap while Marina’s awake, wants to go to work and sit in her chair and overact for the camera just to see Marina laugh. She’s frustrated because she wants physical comfort, wants to crawl into Marina’s chest and live there, amongst her beating hearts, because she’s achy and snotty and cold and hot and exhausted.

But she can’t, and that’s what’s got her all tied up in knots. If she can’t have what she wants because of her sickness, then she’s going to starve it out. She’s going to fight it in the only way she knows how—with action, by refusing to give in to the exhaustion that it causes, by doing yoga at five in the evening, and by worming her way onto the couch with Marina at four in the morning. This is Pearl’s logic; it might not be conscious logic, but Pearl has always been a creature of instinct. She reacts to things emotionally first, and the emotions here have her feeling vulnerable, lonely, and panicked. The only way to fix it, in her mind, is to tackle it head on.

Marina sighs and closes her book. Her own ring, gold like Pearl’s eyes and still so new and unfamiliar on her finger, sits there, unassuming, pressed into her skin. The promise of more of this, of a life of this, of sitting vigil on the couch, of sleeping tied up together, of sickness, of stubbornness, of exhaustion, of laughing together, of Pearl giving her that look, just there, out of the corner of her eye that makes Marina’s hearts jump and her skin want for touch, of Pearl’s attentiveness, her dedication, her companionship.

With a smile, Marina leans her head back against the couch. She wouldn’t have it any other way.

+++

Marina must have fallen asleep sitting up because she wakes to something squirming its way into her lap. It’s dark out and the room is illuminated by only the kitchen light. For a second, Marina doesn’t know where she is and she almost panics, almost pushes herself up, ready to fight, but then a hand lands on her face and it’s slightly warm and small and familiar. She blinks, shakes her head, and there’s Pearl, looking up at her with a flu-addled gaze.

“S’only me,” Pearl says. Her voice is barely there, less voice and more the air of consonants and vowels. She winces when she hears it and leans away from Marina so she can cough in an attempt to clear her throat.

“What time is it?” Marina slurs, still slightly groggy.

“Just after eight.” Pearl is whispering, which seems easier on her. It makes Marina’s chest hurt a little to hear. Here she is, Marina’s loud, screaming warrior, reduced to a whispering version of herself.

Marina’s brow furrows. “When’s the last time you ate?” She reaches up and pushes Pearl’s hair back so she can feel her forehead. Still no fever, so maybe it’s broken for real and not just because of the medicine.

Pearl smiles at her. “Lunch.” Her eyes are bright, despite how far away her gaze seems. It’s almost like she’s looking at Marina through a foggy window. The illness has erected a barrier between them, kept them from each other in more ways than the physical—Pearl can’t smell, her hearing is muffled, and her body aches, which dulls her sense of touch. She’s operating from somewhere far away, somewhere Marina can’t reach her.

“I should go make something to eat,” Marina says.

Pearl snuggles close, as close as she dares, puts her head in the space under Marina’s chin, and wraps her arms around Marina’s shoulders. “You don’t have to.”

Marina sighs. She knew it wouldn’t be this easy. Pearl will always be that stubborn creature of habit. “You need to eat.”

Pearl wiggles closer. “I know. You don’t need to cook though.”

Why—”

“Because I already did.”

Marina tenses for a second, trying to compute what those words mean, exactly. “You— Wait. You... made dinner?”

Pearl pulls away just enough to give Marina a hurt look. “Don’t act so surprised! It was just canned soup. I just heated it up. But, you’ve been putting up with my stubborn ass all week so I figured I should do something to thank you. Besides, you were so cute asleep on the couch with your head back and your mouth open. Did you know you snore?”

Marina can’t help but laugh. “Everyone does when they sleep like that. I can’t believe you cooked.”

Pearl shrugs. “S’no big deal. C’mon, let’s go eat. I’m hungry.”

Marina happily obliges her.

+++

In the end, that’s the turning point. Pearl actually takes what Marina said to heart and she gets rest, sleeps more than she needs to, takes the medicine, vomits only a few times, eats slowly but with purpose. Marina, for her part, finally gives up on any sort of physical distance. They don’t kiss but she sleeps in bed and lets Pearl crawl all over her, grants Pearl the physical comforts that she desires, and that seems to help dull the angry part of Pearl’s brain that just wants, the primal place that reacts, without thinking, to the things that she’s missing, that she so desperately wants. Besides, Marina is pretty confident that she’s not going to catch anything. It’s been a week and every other night Pearl ends up snuggled up against her somehow; Marina hasn’t so much as sniffled in that time.

The weekend passes in a sort of haze. They spend most of it cuddled up on the couch or in bed, catching up on TV shows they missed or playing video games. Well, Marina plays. Usually, Pearl lounges against her chest, groggily watching, and then eventually falls asleep, head lolled and propped up by Marina’s body. Marina, with her glasses pushed up her nose, loops her arms around Pearl’s small form and plays that way, controller resting on Pearl’s stomach.

When she’s awake, Pearl tries to be helpful and sweet. She uses her precious few hours a day to help cook, to stay on top of her medicine, to clean up as well as she can. She doesn’t have much strength so she can’t do much, but Marina appreciates the effort and she knows that Pearl likes to feel useful, like she’s not just dead weight, and she loves to show Marina how much she cares.

Pearl vomits only a few times, which Marina takes as a triumph. All day, she sips on juice or ginger ale through a straw, giving her stomach a fighting chance, and she doesn’t get nauseous or dehydrated. Instead, she keeps most of it down, and the times when she can’t, Marina rushes her to the bathroom and holds her hair back and rubs her back. Otherwise though, things are pretty calm.

Pearl doesn’t talk much, but she doesn’t have to. She hums along with the music of the game and snuggles into Marina, almost purring she’s so content. In the evening they shower together so Marina can scrub Pearl’s back and wash her hair and Pearl can do the same in return. Marina kneels down so Pearl can reach the top of her head and Pearl works against her scalp with short fingernails. Every time, with the hot water beating against her back, Marina almost dozes off. Pearl chuckles lowly at her and Marina has the undeniable urge to stand and kiss her. Goodness, she can’t wait until she can kiss her again.

On Monday, Pearl sees Marina off at the door and promises to behave. She texts Marina every few hours with updates but doesn’t call the studio to phone in her lines. Every day, Marina comes home to Pearl either asleep or making dinner.

By Thursday, Pearl’s starting to feel better.

+++

The day the doctor gives Pearl a clean bill of health, they barely make it to the car before the gravity that’s bound them together brings them on a crash course. Marina didn’t want to bring Pearl on her motorcycle just in case she still had any leftover sickness hanging around, so Pearl called up her old driver. This is both a good and bad thing because they don’t have to wait to get home, but also because their seatbelts immediately go unused.

The door slams shut behind them and Pearl clambers into Marina’s lap. Her hands grab Marina’s face and she drags her down into a tight, desperate kiss. Pearl pushes against her, pressing Marina’s lips into her teeth, and Marina can feel her tongue, impatient, nudging just there against her bottom lip.

Mmn— Needy,” Marina breathes into Pearl’s mouth. Pearl quickly seizes that opportunity and nips at Marina’s bottom lip, just to get a rise out of her. Marina lets out a small gasp, which causes her mouth to open further, and Pearl skillfully deepens everything, finally getting her tongue where it wants to go. Marina meets her, never one to be outdone, and they lose themselves for a couple seconds. Marina wraps her arms around Pearl’s body and snakes a hand up against the back of Pearl’s neck so she can pull her even closer. Pearl goes easily and they barely notice when the car starts moving.

They also don’t notice when they arrive at home. They don’t do more than make out, but Pearl’s hands end up almost all the way up Marina’s shirt and Marina ends up leaving a bright red spot on Pearl’s neck. When the driver opens the door to let them out, it’s to Marina with her mouth on Pearl’s shoulder, muffling a few gasps and giggles, while Pearl lays kisses up and down her head and neck. Marina is the first to see the driver and she lets out a little eep! of panic, which makes Pearl shoot away.

Oh no...” Marina moans and hides her face in her hands. She really doesn’t like to be so intimate in public, and even Pearl’s gentle teasing and innuendo can be too much sometimes. Pearl, for her part, usually tries to mitigate this embarrassment as well as she can, but today she’s clearly too happy to be able to kiss and touch Marina as much as she wants again, so she just glares at the driver.

“Do you mind?” she barks, which just makes Marina’s face heat up even more.

The driver, probably used to this kind of thing from Pearl, merely sighs. “It’s nice to see that you’re feeling better. I’ll wait out here.”

N-no!” Marina cries, and she pushes Pearl lightly on the shoulder to get her to get off. “We should get inside.”

“Things were going fine,” Pearl mutters to herself. Marina ignores her.

Marina grabs her bag and clambers out of the car, ignoring the driver’s eyes. He smiles at her and she knows that he’s fond of her; they’ve known each other almost as long as Marina’s known Pearl, but this is too much for her. She doesn’t wait for Pearl and scurries inside.

Pearl follows at a sedate pace, probably because she has to thank the driver, and Marina carefully makes herself busy in the kitchen. When Pearl comes in, she beelines it and pulls Marina into a hug.

“Sorry,” she says in a voice that’s cheeky and clearly not very sorry at all, “I was excited, and I couldn’t wait to kiss you.”

Marina sighs and holds her tight. “I was too. Clearly, because I didn’t stop it.”

“Mm...” Pearl looks up and cranes up on her toes. “Should we pick up on where we left off?”

That causes Marina’s whole body to heat up and she can feel it pooling in her lower back. She shivers once, unintentionally, and that makes Pearl grin her toothiest grin.

“Is that a yes?” she asks in a low voice. She elevates ever higher, and Marina can’t take it anymore.

Yes,” she breathes, and melds her lips to Pearl’s.

Chapter Text

1.

Off the Hook’s first post-splatfest concert is also their first time making a major appearance outside of the news. Starfish Mainstage is the venue and both sides of the stage are packed, the crowd a mass of color and movement. Marina stares out at it with something like trepidation in her chest. She spins her ring around her finger anxiously and watches as Pearl bounces around, checking to make sure everything’s set up properly.

It’s not that Marina is nervous about the performance—they’ve done this countless times already—it’s that this is their first time really, truly out in the open. Before, there was a veil of hidden truths that shielded them. After all, until the final splatfest was done, their contract was explicit: no relationships, with each other or anyone else, at least publicly. And Pearl and Marina held up their end of the deal. They kept it quiet, kept it behind closed doors, until Pearl made Marina cry on television. After that, the secret was out; social media was abuzz: Off the Hook... More Than Just Friends? Then, of course, Pearl’s Inkstagram post about their dual proposal cinched the deal.

Their lives, already so under the microscope, were zoomed in on. Analysis after analysis of casual conversations on Inkopolis News popped up everywhere; Pearl’s social media was swamped, and Marina set hers to private; congratulations sailed into Pearl’s DMs faster than she could read them. Marina isn’t exactly sure why it was so shocking. They weren’t exactly subtle. Sure, they kept it under wraps but there was plenty there, just under the surface. Their familiarity and gentle teasing, the way Marina said Pearlie, the way Pearl looked at Marina...

But people want to see what they want to see.

Honestly, Marina is still flying high off of the engagement, even six weeks later. There’s just something about seeing Pearl playing with her ring or plucking at her guitar with it on that warms Marina from the inside out. That whole day feels like a dream, from the carnival to the food to the rides to the actual moment, up there on that Ferris wheel, and sometimes Marina can’t believe that it actually happened, that they actually did that—two proposals, planned for the same day, at the same time.

The first time they went outside after the proposal, a whole week after, Marina was nervous. It was just a simple grocery run because they needed food, but Marina felt like every set of eyes was on them. Pearl, meanwhile, seemed oblivious to it all as she squinted at the expiration dates on jugs of milk and compared two different kinds of mayo. Marina stood next to her with the basket looped over her arm and felt incredibly self-conscious about her own body, dressed in its loose, white shorts and bright yellow tank top. It wasn’t that she wasn’t used to being looked at, just that she didn’t like to be watched while doing something so simple and personal.

That’s the thing about fame that no one wants to talk about: even when you’re doing something in public that should be anonymous (like grocery shopping), it’s not. People feel entitled to your time, to your body, to your relationships. Marina was prepared for it, she was used to it, but that didn’t mean she had to like it.

Pearl, meanwhile, had grown up with eyes on her. As the sole heiress of the Houzuki fortune, she was always a sort of small celebrity. Almost everyone knew what she looked like, at the very least, even if they didn’t know who she was, on the inside, until Off the Hook hit it big. So, she was used to people watching her, pointing at her, staring at her. Granted, she wasn’t super used to it happening in the grocery store because she had a personal shopper for most of her life, but she was adaptable. Sometimes, she even welcomed the attention.

That day though, she was steadfast in ignoring the eyes. Pearl was dressed in her overalls and she had them half undone so that the front panel was half-drooping, allowing full view of the small graphic on her white shirt—Marina’s green symbol—and she had on her favorite snapback, a bright pink one with a crown on the brim. It was an outfit that was so different from what she normally wore on stage that most people had to do a double take, but then they saw Marina and her long legs and her big eyes and her hair and they knew exactly who they were looking at.

Only a few people approached, and Pearl glared at them while Marina attempted to keep the interactions as short as possible. Mostly, it was congratulations. From one or two, it was thanks for all their hard work. Only one said something negative, and it was across the store, which garnered quite a few glares from other patrons.

It was that last one that spooked Marina though and she looked down at her ring. “No one cares!” the man had yelled, which really wasn’t all that terrible. Marina was expecting much worse, but it was enough to make her nervous.

Pearl, meanwhile, saw her look down, saw her tense, and she whipped around. “Apparently you do if you feel like you gotta tell us, buddy!”

That got a few chuckles from some of the other shoppers and the man, an older inkling with a basket full of fruits and vegetables, blushed and scurried away, as if he didn’t realize that they were real people who could fight back. Clearly, Pearl spooked him with her quick, fiery reaction, almost as if he expected them to be their accommodating, cordial selves from the news, and that didn’t surprise Marina either.

Pearl looked up at her and grabbed for her hand. “You okay?”

Marina, still staring off after the man, forced herself to blink and look away. “Yeah,” she said to Pearl’s worried face, trying to pull her most reassuring smile. “I’m fine. I knew this would happen.”

That was the nature of celebrity. Some people got excited for you, some people were ambivalent, while others reacted negatively, either because they were annoyed that you were dominating the news cycle or because they didn’t like you. And they were dominating the news cycle. This was the biggest news to hit Inkopolis’s gossip rags since Callie went missing.

Pearl grinned at her. “Ya see why I wanted to spend a week just the two of us?”

Marina couldn’t help but laugh. “Yeah yeah. Let’s go get some bread.”

Back then, Pearl’s nonchalance and relaxed demeanor kept Marina from worrying too much. After all, no one could really do anything except yell at them, and Pearl would just yell back twice as loud and as snarky. Now though, they’re primed for their first concert as an engaged couple and Marina’s anxiousness is rearing its ugly head again. She considers, for half a second, just taking her ring off and pretending like nothing’s changed.

But that makes her feel awful, terrible, like she’s betraying Pearl and their relationship. Besides, it’s not like anyone will be able to see it with how packed this place is. It gives her strength too. It’s silly, but that small little bauble, wrapped tight around her finger, makes her feel like she could take on the world. It’s a symbol of Pearl’s dedication to her, of her dedication to Pearl, and it draws an invisible line between them, tying them together against everything else. They could lose their careers tomorrow and Marina would be fine, as long as she still had Pearl and that ring.

“You ready, Rina?” Pearl finally stops her excited darting around. She looks up at Marina and her zipper glints under the lights of the venue.

Marina lets out a small breath. “If I say no, will that change anything?”

Pearl’s brow furrows, just there, and Marina has to resist the urge to reach out and smooth it. “What’s up? We’ve done this so many fuckin’ times, babe.”

“It’s not the performance...” Marina holds up her hand. “It’s these.”

There’s no reason to try to hide it. Pearl deserves to know what Marina’s worried about, especially right before going out on stage. That’s the one place where they absolutely have to be on equal footing, because they rely on each other to keep the set going, to keep the show pumping, to hit their cues, to improvise if things go south. Going out there without telling Pearl that she’s worried would be tantamount to betrayal of the highest order.

Pearl’s expression darkens. “If this is about that guy in the grocery store—”

“No no.” Marina lets her hand drop and looks down at her zipper. She fiddles with it just to have something to do. “I’m just worried about something more... explosive.”

“Rina...” Pearl grabs her free hand and rubs her thumb along Marina’s palm. “Don’t worry about them. They don’t matter. Besides, all of these people came here to see us! They came to hear you play your keytar and hear my sick bars. You really think they’d go through all the effort of buying the ticket, traveling here, going through security, and clumping up in that crowd just to be a bunch of haters? C’mon babe.”

Pearl is making sense, which just makes Marina smile. “I guess not...”

Pearl grins up at her. “They love us, Rina. I bet a lot of them are just as excited as we are! And if there are haters, I already told you. I will fight someone.”

Marina squeezes Pearl’s hand. “I guess you’re right.”

“You guess? Come on, Marina. You know I’m right.”

Marina laughs then. It’s just that easy. Pearl can assuage her fears and worries just like that. “Maybe you are. Don’t get cocky.”

Cocky? ME? Puh-lease!”

Marina shakes her head and pulls Pearl into a small hug. “No, never,” she mutters into the top of Pearl’s head.

Pearl cranes up and smacks a quick kiss on her lips. “Never, exactly! Now, are you ready to rock or what?”

Marina can’t tell her no now. She’s starting to feel the energy of the crowd and Pearl is practically vibrating in her arms she’s so excited. Marina nods once, a jerky thing, and Pearl grins at her again. Another kiss, for luck, and they get ready to superjump to the stage.

Once they land, Pearl grabs the microphone and holds it as close to her mouth as possible. “Ayo Starfish! It’s Off the Hook! Guess who just got ENGAGED!

The crowd goes absolutely wild. They scream and jump, waving glowsticks and posters over their heads. The sound of it is deafening and Pearl looks back at Marina with an expression that’s all stage fever—bright eyes, huge, stupid smile, gleeful and excited. It lights Marina up from the inside, drags her out of her worries, and she grabs the mic from Pearl.

“We did!” Marina yells over the crowd. Somehow, they yell louder still, and it fills Marina’s whole world with sound.

+++

2.

Sometimes, Marina wonders what people see when they see her and Pearl together. There’s the obvious, of course: Off the Hook, one of the biggest bands in town right now; or, Pearl Houzuki and some strange, exotic looking woman if they’ve been living under a rock. But what Marina wants to know is if they see them—do they see the way they look at each other? The way they’re familiar with one another? The way Pearl always has her hand somewhere on Marina? The way Marina hands things off to Pearl without conscious thought? The way Pearl glares at anyone who looks at them wrong? The way they angle toward each other? The way they smile at one another?

There have been a lot of pictures taken of them, but some of Marina’s favorites are the ones they take themselves. Pearl loves selfies, will take them any chance she gets, in any mirror she crosses, and there are countless floating around in their phones of them cheesing it for the camera, Marina leaning over, Pearl craned up on her toes, blurry, posed, casual. These are the photos where they let go, relax, because no one will see except the two of them. They press their faces close together so they’ll both be in frame, or Pearl angles the camera just right so that only her eyes are visible at the bottom of the frame while Marina poses above her, or Marina will hold it up, way above them, and they crane their heads back and smile like they’re looking up at the sun.

Marina wonders how many pictures there are of them out there, how many have been taken without their permission, how many capture the casual, everyday versions of them. She’d really like to see them.

Case in point: two months post-engagement, Pearl has a date idea. She packs a basket and wakes Marina at nine in the morning, tells her to get dressed, and Marina stumbles through the motions, brushes her teeth, pulls her hair up into a high ponytail, tugs on a long skirt and a flowy blouse, pushes her ring onto her finger, and follows Pearl, dressed in a short skirt and crop top, right out the door without asking a single question. They take the train to the park. Pearl presses close to Marina, leans her back into Marina’s stomach to hold Marina, still sleepy, up as the train sways.

Someone takes a picture then. The flash jars Marina out of her daze and she blinks away the spots while shaking her head. Pearl, with her basket, merely glances in the eager teen’s direction and decides that it’s not worth kicking a fuss up over. After two years of this, they’ve grown used to it.

The difference between the past two years and now though is that there’s no pretext. Everything is out in the open. Before, what would have been misconstrued as two good friends going out is now coded differently. Pearl’s casual lean is loaded now, the action of someone in love, someone physically intimate with the person she’s leaning on, the person she’s holding up. Marina’s sleepy face, her closed eyes, her reliance on Pearl to watch the world for her, means something completely different than it would have before.

And... Marina likes it that way. It’s so nice to have everyone seeing them as they are, not as they were paid to be. No longer do they have to keep a suitable distance between them, and Pearl can grin up at Marina in the way that she usually reserves for private—the soft, gentle one that makes Marina feel like she’s the most important person in the world—and Marina can run her nails up and down Pearl’s back the way she likes, and they can stand way too close and lean on one another when they laugh and they can stand tall in the face of everything and declare “That’s my fiancée,” and then smile the goofiest smiles at each other.

Marina wonders, belatedly, as they clamber off the train with a large crowd of people in suits, just what that picture looked like, just what everyone will see when that teen shows her friends, her family, her classmates. Will they see Pearl’s face, relaxed and at ease because she can feel Marina’s body pressing into hers? Will they see Marina, at ease in public only because Pearl is there? Or will they just see Off the Hook, dressed in casual clothes and heading to some unknown destination?

The picnic is a simple affair. The park is crowded, especially this early, with families, joggers, couples, and another set of breakfast picnickers. Pearl pulls a checkered blanket out of the basket and smooths it on the grass while Marina watches a pair of children play near the edge of the pond. They’re two blobs of color, nothing more than a few tentacles, a mantle, and giant eyes, but they rush around each other on unstable legs in a strange game of tag that Marina can’t make sense of. One almost falls in the water and Marina sees their mother swoop in out of nowhere to order them to be careful. They look chagrined and nod before going right back to the game.

“C’mon Mar,” Pearl says, drawing Marina out of her watching. “Let’s eat! I’m starving!” She holds up a container of bagels and shakes it invitingly.

Marina kneels next to Pearl and happily accepts a bagel. Pearl hands her some cream cheese and Marina spreads it carefully, unable to focus. She’s sure there’s countless eyes on them, analyzing their every move, cataloguing what flavor bagels (everything) and cream cheese (vegetable) they’re eating. She takes a small bite and avoids Pearl’s eager gaze. This is a really cute picnic and Marina is impressed that Pearl managed to put it together so spur of the moment. She needs to be positive, so she swallows and gives Pearl her best smile. Then, she looks back down at her bagel.

“Rina,” Pearl says softly, so softly, so unlike her, and Marina forgets everything else when Pearl puts a hand on her leg. Pearl is sitting on the blanket with her legs crossed and she beams up at Marina. “I just realized that I never actually asked you to marry me.”

Marina’s whole world freezes and she feels her hands curl into fists. “What are you talking about? On the Ferris wheel—”

“See, we both proposed, but neither of us actually said the words. We just kissed and said yes. So...”

Pearl clambers up onto one knee. Her skirt is tight around her legs and she’s eye to eye with Marina. They’re both kneeling, but Marina is sitting back on her feet, and Pearl grins and holds a hand out. Marina’s eyes widen and she drops her bagel so she can cover her gaping, shocked mouth, because it doesn’t matter if they’ve already been engaged for a while. Pearl is still on her knee in public; the gesture is clear. Marina can’t feel her legs, and her hearts are playing a rapid drum solo in her chest.

“Marina Iida...” Pearl says. She smiles right into Marina’s face. “Will you marry me?”

Marina can’t help the giant smile that splits her face right in two. She bites her lip and glances away, just to keep herself from giggling like a loon. When she looks back, Pearl is smiling too, the giant one that she only uses when she thinks Marina is being especially cute. “For the second time, yes!”

Hell yeah!” Pearl cries. “I would offer you a ring but all I have is bagels so—”

Pearl doesn’t get to say anything else. Marina tackles her, pushes her onto her back, and lays one on her right there, right in front of all of the late morning parkgoers. It’s the first time they’ve kissed in public since the proposal and they kiss slowly, lightly, not too deeply because they’re in public and there are children around, but it’s one of the best kisses of Marina’s life. Pearl cups her face, presses her palms into Marina’s cheeks, and Marina can’t help the laugh the bubbles up.

When they separate, Marina leans her head on Pearl’s chest, listens to her hearts and her breathing.

“You know they took pictures of us, right?” Pearl asks as she stares, dumbfounded, up at the sky. Her face is pink and flushed, smile gentle and intimate.

Marina cranes up and looks around. There are at least three phones pointed right at them. “Let them,” she says, and leans down to kiss her again.

Later, when they’re back home, Pearl shows Marina a Squidder post—a pair of pictures of them, one of Pearl’s proposal, where all the camera captured was Pearl’s back and Marina’s shocked and delighted face, and the other of their kiss. The caption is simple: Oh, to be in love.

+++

3.

The rain pelts the window and Marina is struggling to get her plants inside. The wind is too strong for the basil and she was hoping that the flowers would last longer than a few weeks, so she drags them inside by the pots, scrapping them along the floor. Pearl watches, eyes far away, from the couch.

Marina’s always had a green thumb, ever since she clambered out of Octo Valley and saw all of the plants. She loves flowers, herbs, greens, anything and everything that grows in the ground. In the backyard of the mansion, she’s planted a grove of lemon trees, which she attends to every weekend (unless they’re on tour or otherwise occupied). There are bonsai trees at the recording studio, her dressing room in the news studio, and in their kitchen, which she prunes and clips with care. Succulents dot their apartment in the city and she spritzes them with water every morning on a rotating schedule that Pearl often expressions confusion at. Once, when she was sick, Pearl tried to pick up the slack and Marina had to tell her which to spray from the couch, voice stuffy and hoarse, hand sleepily pointing over the back of the couch. Pearl never figured out the pattern.

Today, the wind and the rain are too much—the roads are shut down and all ink battles are suspended until the storm passes because of a flash flood warning. Pearl and Marina stumbled in moments before the storm hit, fresh off recording an emergency announcement about the closures. Pearl went to cooking dinner, scrolling through her phone as she threw hot dogs and frozen fries into the toaster oven, while Marina attended to emails. Then, thunder cracked, the wind blasted a pot over on the balcony, and Marina practically threw her laptop across the room in her haste to get outside, yelling about the plants.

Marina didn’t notice Pearl’s moodiness until she was dragging the second yucca inside, its ceramic pot rolling across the ground as she guides it through the sliding doors. Pearl is sitting on the couch, phone held limply in her hand, and she watches Marina with dispassionate gold eyes. She doesn’t seem like she’s really actually seeing Marina so much as looking at her, and that almost makes Marina drop the giant pot on her own foot when she realizes. She sets the plant carefully in its spot, wipes water out of her eyes (the balcony is covered but the rain is basically horizontal with how strong the wind is), and slides the door closed. There’re more plants out there, but clearly Pearl needs more care.

“Hey, what’s up?” she says softly, which causes Pearl’s eyes to focus. She blinks hard, once, and gives Marina a weak smile.

“Food’s ready,” she says simply.

Marina figured. She can see it, sitting on the counter on a platter, waiting to be carried to the table, but Pearl’s been out of it since they left the studio. Marina didn’t say anything in the car because she figured it was because of the storm. Weather this bad usually turned Pearl mushy and quiet, because it made her nervous—probably from a childhood spent in a house with large trees right outside the windows, and a father who often wasn’t there during the worst storms.

“I see. We can eat once I finish with the plants.”

“It’ll be cold by then.”

Marina sighs. “Well, you could help—”

Pearl scowls. “And get all wet?”

“We can shower together afterward.”

Usually, Pearl would jump at that, but her scowl just deepens. “Food’ll be extra cold then.”

Marina glances out the window, counts the plants that need to be brought in. “Go eat without me then.”

Pearl sinks down on the couch. “No.”

Marina throws her hands up. “What do you want me to do?”

“Eat and then plants.”

A strong gust sends a polyscias over with a loud crash. Marina grimaces. “Plants won’t make it that long.” Marina shifts uncomfortably. She’s soaked to core. Her skinny jeans are hugging her like a second skin and her hoodie is heavy. She doesn’t want to sit and eat like this anyway.

Pearl glares at her, and Marina is suddenly struck by that. Pearl pouts like this sometimes, but it’s usually always because of something else. Something is clearly bothering her.

“What’s going on, really?” Marina asks. She squints at Pearl.

“Nothing.” Pearl looks back at her phone. “Forget it. Take care of your plants.”

Marina sighs and steps lightly across the floor. She leaves water in her wake but there isn’t much she can do about that. “What’d you see?”

“Huh?”

“On your phone. You’ve been moody and keep glancing at it.”

Nothing,” Pearl repeats. She locks her phone and spikes it onto the couch. “Why’s there gotta be something wrong with me?”

Marina looks down at Pearl, unable to sit on the couch because she’s still dripping, and Pearl avoids her eyes. “Because you’re being all pouty. Where’s my scrappy Pearlie?”

Pearl puffs up. “Right here! I ain’t going anywhere, baby!”

It’s all act. Marina can tell because she’s seen Pearl like this a few other times—mostly in public when people are bothering them, staring at Marina in a predatory way, or asking too many invasive questions. Marina’s never had it turned on her though. There must be something really bothering her.

“Okay.” She sighs. “So, you’re lying to me because...?”

Pearl deflates just as quickly as she puffed up. She’s never been one to try to lie to Marina for too long, mostly because she knows that Marina can see through her and she doesn’t want to make Marina upset. “Fine. Producer told me I’m too nice.”

Marina blinks once. “What?”

Apparently, I need to be meaner to you.” Pearl sinks even lower into the cushions and crosses her arms. “I’ve been too nice during my line delivery.”

Marina feels her brow furrow. “We... we just got engaged—”

“I know!” Pearl throws her arms up. “I don’t want to be mean to you! You remember the last splatfest announcement? That felt so bad. I don’t wanna do it again.”

Marina crouches, sending her boots squealing against the hard floor, and grabs Pearl’s hand. “Then don’t. What’s the worst that can happen?”

Pearl squints up at her. “You okay? What happened to responsible Miss Marina who always listens to critiques?”

Marina squeezes her hand. “It’s a dumb critique.”

That makes Pearl laugh. “Yeah, it is. Especially because...” She sighs and pulls her fingers free so she can shove the heel of her hands into her eyes. “Especially because I’ve been seeing some stuff... Am I too mean? You know I love you, right?”

Marina reaches up and puts a hand on Pearl’s face. “Of course I do. I said yes, remember? Is that what people have been saying?”

Pearl sighs and turns her head to press her lips to Marina’s palm. “I guess,” she mutters into the skin. “Something about me not deserving you.”

Marina closes her eyes and breathes in quickly—just to keep herself from cursing. Because she’s sick of all this, to be honest. That particular line of thinking has been a problem for a while and it’s the one that Marina hates seeing the most when she logs onto social media. And Pearl is all about image so of course she’d take it to heart. Of course she’d get upset over any perceived slight, especially when it comes to her relationship, her most precious thing. “You know that’s not true,” she says, trying not to get too upset. “You’re kind and funny and you’re the reason that I’m here today. Without you, I would probably be out on the street or— Or! I don’t know! I wouldn’t be on the news or making music. I wouldn’t be in love or getting married. If anything, I’m the one who doesn’t deserve you—”

“No!” Pearl jolts up, grabs Marina’s face between both of her hands, and pulls her into a fierce, quick kiss. “No, no, no. Don’t ever say that.”

Marina sighs and pouts out her lips a little. “Why do you get to say it and I don’t?”

Pearl groans and falls back. “Because... I don’t know.”

Marina learns into the couch, puts her cold, wet elbows against the cushion between Pearl’s legs. “You’re like my plants, you know. So temperamental and needy. But never mean.”

“You callin’ me a plant?”

Marina shrugs and gives Pearl a giant grin. “Maybe I am.”

“Well, you’re like... my plant too! Gotta make sure you get plenty sunlight and sleep, especially when you start writing up a storm. So there.”

Marina laughs, because Pearl does have a point. She does tend to forget her own self-care when she starts composing, or when she can’t sleep because of bad dreams, or when she’s worried about something. They take care of each other.

“We deserve one another.” Marina traces a small circle in the fabric of Pearl’s jeans. “Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. And if you don’t wanna be mean to me, then don’t. I know it’s not real but...”

Pearl smiles at her. “Okay, I won’t! Which means, I guess I’ll help you with the plants.”

Marina falls backward when Pearl shoots to her feet. She watches as her fiancée flips her hood up and pulls on the strings to tighten it around her face. “Then we’ll shower. Then I’ll heat the food up again. How’s that for not mean?”

Marina stands and dusts herself off. She pulls her own hood up. “You’re telling me you were over here skulking on the couch because you were trying to be mean?”

Pearl grabs her hand. “Practice. But I’m not gonna anymore! Let’s save these plants!”

Marina shakes her head and slides the door open. Almost immediately, Pearl is almost blown over by the wind. The only thing that keeps her upright is Marina’s hand, tight and strong. 

Chapter Text

Most of the time, it’s Marina who has trouble sleeping, but sometimes Pearl is the one who can’t. The difference is that Marina is already a light sleeper—trained into her from birth by her military upbringing, when a summons can happen at any time of night—so when she can’t sleep she just lays there with her arms close by her side, staring up at the ceiling with unfocused eyes. She usually, eventually, falls asleep like this, compelled by her mind and body’s exhaustion and nothing else, but sometimes she gives up and quietly removes herself from the bed, where she pads out of the room with her laptop. In the living room, she has a desk set up, with a tablet and a lamp, and she plugs her computer in and works until she can’t see anymore, until her eyes are so heavy that she can’t sit up, and then she stumbles back into the room and falls asleep face first, barely able to breathe around her pillow.

Pearl hates when Marina does this. Sometimes, she wakes because she’s missing Marina’s body’s warmth and she angrily huffs up to Marina at her desk and crawls right into her lap, pouting. She makes small demands, asks Marina to come back to bed with her because lying there is better than pushing herself even if she can’t fall asleep, and Marina works around her. Often, Pearl falls asleep like that: sitting in Marina’s lap, leaning her head into Marina’s neck, while Marina moves her arms around her, types emails, draws on her tablet with her left hand cradling the back of Pearl’s skull. Eventually, Marina carries her back up to their room and Pearl is very cross in the morning because Marina didn’t sleep.

When Pearl can’t sleep though...? That’s a different story.

Everything Pearl does is huge. It might be overcompensation but she’s always larger-than-life, throwing her weight around, huge gestures, loud facial expressions, so when she can’t sleep she rolls around grumpily. Every ten minutes, like clockwork, she tosses her body to and fro, changing from her left side to the right to her back to her stomach. Marina, the aforementioned light sleeper, is always awoken, so she sleeps fitfully too. Luckily, these nights aren’t that often, and usually only when Pearl has a stomachache or something on her mind. Usually, a ginger ale and a good cuddle will help with the first one and Marina is usually aware of the issue at hand during the second, so the tossing and turning doesn’t last long.

But, sometimes, very rarely, they both can’t sleep. On those nights, Marina stares up at the ceiling and allows herself to be bounced around as Pearl angrily rolls over again and again. Sometimes, Pearl grumbles under her breath, drawing angry emotions out of her body and spitting them into the air. Marina listens with perked ears but doesn’t say anything because what can she say? Sometimes, you just have to ride out the frustration and let your body wear itself out.

That night, Pearl tries to snuggle for a bit and Marina lets her, draws her close to her body, but Pearl doesn’t like it for long. She rolls back over, citing the heat of summer, and kicks the covers off to prove it. Marina sighs but doesn’t fuss because she’s not feeling up to it either, not really. She loves a good snuggle just as much as the next person, but when she’s like this, struggling to keep her thoughts in order, trying to find that place in her brain that will let her rest, she doesn’t need the extra stimulus, doesn’t want to feel her own body because that’s just another distraction.

The truth is that, tonight, they can’t sleep because they had a disagreement before bed. Marina’s heard tell of ancient advice—never go to bed angry—but she’s never, foolishly, given it much thought, and now look at them. They don’t argue much, mostly because they know how to compromise and negotiate, but tonight is different. It had to do with the wedding, in all of its glorious busyness, all of the messy planning with thousands of loose threads, and they’re both feeling the strain. After all, they both want it to be perfect.

Pearl wants to get married in the city, at night, under the neon lights, with as many as eyes as possible on her. For a while, she considered renting out the Square but Marina quickly shot that one down. Now, she’s got her sights set on a small park in the middle of everything, with cars whooshing around and little to no privacy. Marina, meanwhile, wants to do it in nature, outside the city, with a canopy of trees overhead and lots of plants. She wants a small guest list and privacy.

These fundamental differences are what caused it. Pearl is upset that Marina doesn’t want to proclaim it to the world, show them all, while Marina is upset because Pearl wants it to be a spectacle, isn’t content with it being just them and a few close, trusted friends. They show their love in different ways—with Pearl it’s all bigness, all grand gestures, all physical touch and favors, niceties. With Marina it’s all emotional, gentle caresses, an attentive ear, a familiarity that manifests in quiet companionship and an affinity towards casual touch. She wears her emotions inside, gives only hints of them to the outside world, but when they’re in private, she tells Pearl with the full force of her being, shows her with her hands and her body, and Pearl returns the favor. The difference is that in public Pearl is all image, and she wants people to know; she wants them to see.

Marina gets this, she does, and she loves it. She loves Pearl so desperately that Marina can’t not love how excited she is to tell everyone, but there comes a point where she wants things to be just theirs. A wedding isn’t something you invite the whole city to.

So, they lie together with what feels like twenty feet between them. Pearl rolls and rolls and rolls, while Marina merely stares up at the ceiling, one arm extended above her head, the other resting on her stomach. Marina breathes slowly, let’s her whole existence become the sensation of air in her lungs and nothing else—until Pearl rolls again, rumbling about how the bed is hard and the room is too hot.

Marina sits up, rolls to her feet, and pads toward the door.

“Reena?” Pearl calls.

“Making it colder,” Marina returns as she steps into the hall. The thermostat is past the guest bedroom—Marina’s old room—and she quickly flips the panel open and knocks it down a few degrees. Above her, she hears the air conditioner come on with a hushed whoosh.

For a second, she considers ducking into her own room, just so they can have space, but then she sees Pearl, standing in the doorway of their room with her pajama shirt falling off one shoulder, with her big, sleepy eyes and her small fists, and Marina can’t do it. No matter how upset they are with each other, Marina can’t abandon her like that.

She returns to her fiancée, and Pearl wraps her arms around Marina’s middle.

“Sorry,” they whisper at the same time. Pearl snorts and looks up at Marina. Marina smiles and puts her hand on Pearl’s face, rubs her thumb against her cheek.

+++

The next day, they have a photoshoot at a roller rink. Neither one slept for more than a couple hours, something their makeup artist tuts at when he sees the giant bags under Marina’s eyes. Pearl gets off a little easier because she knows how to fake it, knows how to hide her exhaustion, and she grins into the mirror with that big, suave grin of hers every time Marina is scolded for fidgeting too much or smudging her makeup.

After the air finally kicked on, they ended up snuggling on their sides, in a spooning position that found Pearl’s body almost completely enveloped by Marina’s. Pearl, unable and unwilling to continue her tossing and turning, laid there with her eyes wide open while Marina hid her face in Pearl’s hair. They didn’t talk, just laid clutched together, and, come morning, managed to fall into a gentle, light snooze. The alarm jolted the both of them awake and Pearl almost elbowed Marina in the face.

The tension from last night is still there but it’s all background noise now. They are pulled and tugged into clothes, Marina’s tentacles are yanked up into a ponytail, and Pearl’s cheeks are poked and prodded with blush in an attempt to make her look pinker than usual. They’re strapped into quad skates and they rise, shakily, to their feet, hands clutched between them. Pearl almost falls as she’s pushed into place by an assistant and Marina doesn’t fare much better.

Neither one of them can skate. Pearl’s been skating a few times in her teens, long ago, but Marina’s never even so much as looked at a skate before. The lack of sleep doesn’t help their balance and they have to be helped into position for every photo, bodies moved around like glorified action figures. In one particularly interesting photo, they are wrestled into a pose very similar to one of the turf war promo images—very close together, Pearl looking straight up into Marina’s face, Marina looking straight down, both grinning. Marina is instructed to place all of her weight on one foot, the other tipped forward so that the toe brake is touching the wood floor, while Pearl is placed in a wide stance.

They stare at each other, with exhaustion lining their faces, and it is approximately at this moment that Marina starts to feel bad. Granted, she’s been feeling bad, but specifically this is because she knows that they’re both being stubborn. She doesn’t like arguing with Pearl, especially when it leeches into their sleep, but this isn’t a simple situation. This is their wedding—

“Look,” the photographer calls, drawing Marina back into the present, “can you at least pretend you like each other? I don’t know what’s going on but usually you’re all over one another. Whatever happened at home, leave it there, all right? You’re supposed to be in love.”

Pearl winces below her and Marina feels her brow furrow. It’s that obvious then, if the crew can see it. This is supposed to be a photoshoot for a valentine’s day ad campaign for the rink—the most popular and expensive one in the city—showcasing the potential for an amazing skating date on the most romantic day of the year. When they agreed to the partnership, they were fresh off their engagement and Marina thought it was a great idea. It would be easy, she said, because they wouldn’t have to fake it for the cameras.

Not so, apparently. Pearl scowls below her, gaze far away, and she angrily looks at the photographer.

“We are!” she calls, petulant, and stomps her foot. The heavy skate crashes into the ground with far more force than she expected, and her foot slips out from under her. She slides backwards, losing her fight with gravity, and Marina sees her eyes widen.

Marina yelps and tries to grab Pearl’s arms, tries to keep her from going down. Unfortunately, it’s too late and she ends up crashing to earth, dragging Marina with her. Marina feels Pearl’s hands wrap around her wrists and she tips forward, pulled by Pearl’s body weight and her own slippery feet.

They land in a heap, Marina right on top of Pearl, breath knocked out. One of Marina’s tentacles comes lose and she swears that she hears a piece of Pearl’s clothing rip, but she’s not too worried about that. Instead, she scrambles, trying to get her body weight off Pearl as quickly as possible, hoping that she didn’t hurt her. Their bodies are hard because they’re so toned and the impact was enough to leave Marina breathless for a few seconds.

Then, as soon as she manages to clamber to her hands and knees, Pearl starts laughing. It’s a high pitched, free sound and Marina watches her, sees her bright face morph from exhausted worry to carefree joy, and she can’t help but join her.

“You fell for me!” Pearl says, only loud enough for Marina to hear, before falling back to her laugher. It makes Marina laugh louder still.

“I did!”

Maybe it’s the exhaustion—or the relief of laughing together instead of being worried about wedding venues—but that simple joke breaks through the tension and sets them free. Pearl reaches up and grabs onto Marina’s jacket so she can pull her down. Marina goes easily, happily, and kisses her, right there on the floor, in front of the whole crew.

The camera goes off, but Marina doesn’t care.

When they separate, Marina rests her forehead against Pearl’s and closes her eyes. “I’m sorry,” she says in a direct mirror of last night, except this time it’s more than an I’m sorry we can’t sleep.

“Me too. We’ll figure it out,” Pearl says. “Compromise.”

Marina nods and kisses her again, because, no matter what, she’s still going to marry this little inkling. They’ve fallen hard and she never wants to get up.

Around them, the camera continues to flash.