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.
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 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.