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So we all are growing young

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Bubblegum’s first memory is of trees. Later there would be her grandmother’s dusty-sweet lap, skirt well-worn and formal and edged with licorice, the smell of sassafras that always surrounded her; later laughing barefoot down roads of peanut brittle still sticky from rain, later pressing her fingers to the windows as the intricately dyed sugar glass shattered the light into rainbows on the tower floor. Much of her childhood is old books and mathematic equations, languages and symbols from before the Mushroom War, scientific experiments that resulted in explosions or potions so beautiful she didn’t want to waste them by using them. Winding her way through the corridors of the castle on tip toe, scrambling through the secret corridors that ran between rooms and above the stairs and under the floors and through the eaves. It would be years before she noticed the quiet reverence with which the Candy People treated her, years more before she was able to break them of it with gentle chastisements and broad smiles, to-dos and shindigs and jamborees. That was later, though.

First there were the trees.

*

Between zombie attacks and black holes, hoarder deer and the occasional uprising of ultimate evil, diplomatic snafus and the Ice King’s semi-regular kidnapping attempts/successes, the Candy Kingdom pretty much runs itself. It leaves time for the important things in life, like science fairs, whistling death matches, tea parties, peace conferences, and coming up with the formula to reverse zombie uprisings.

She likes to leave time as well for the things that aren’t important, like quantifying the colour ‘red’ or delineating the boundaries of consciousness. An adventure now and then, maybe. The kingdom may pretty much run itself, but emergencies come up too often for her to just leave.

“Hey, PB!” someone says behind her. It is a testament to how involved she is in her chalkboard that it takes her a moment to process who it is. “Whatcha doing?” Finn is the only one who calls her that. Jake sometimes, but he sounds different because he’s a dog. Everyone else calls her Princess, or Princess Bubblegum. Marceline is the only one since her grandmother who calls her by her given name.

“Hi, Finn!” Bubblegum chirps back, or tries to. It is only around the frog in her throat that she realizes there are three boards full of equations before her, and that Peppermint Butler has left a stack of sandwiches on the desk. The bread is long since dry. “Gwiffa eqaschwuns,” she says around a mouthful of sandwich, because the mallow fluff filling has gone tacky and strange.

“Do you need something to drink?” Finn asks. “You need something to drink.” Hollers: “Peppermint Butler! The princess needs – mmmphhh!”

“I’m fiiiiiiiine,” Bubblegum calls out, one hand clamped over Finn’s mouth, the other holding the remainders of the sandwich at arms’ length.

“Glitter equations,” she says. It is only when Finn’s follow up question doesn’t come that she realizes her hand is still clamped over his mouth. “Oh, sorry!” He blushes as she releases her grip.

“Glitter equations?” Finn asks. There are traces of chalk from her hand on his cheek.

Science squeaks as Bubblegum lowers the sandwich into his cage. Peppermint Butler would be sad if he found the remains of her carefully prepared lunch. “What I’m working on. Glitter equations.”

“Oh.”

“You know how if you have glitter out, it gets on everything, even things you thought were put away?”

Finn shrugs. “I guess. I mean, I’m a boy. Boys don’t play with a lot of glitter.”

Jake laughs from the doorway. He’s short today, compact. Slightly shiny. “Dude, you played with glitter last night! You used it to decorate the macaroni picture you made of yourself and Princess Bub—“ And now it’s Finn’s turn to jump forward and clamp his hand over someone’s mouth.

“Shut up, man,” he grits.

Bubblegum grins. Steps forward and swipes a finger across the back of Finn’s shirt, make him jump and spin around to face her. His face, still red, flushes even more as she holds up a finger to show him the glitter she swiped from the swath running all the way down his back.

“So you know what I’m talking about, then.” She grins. “You don’t even have to have been using it for glitter to get everywhere. I’m using chaos theory to try to predict its migration.” On the board there are equations tracking the spread of glitter from a single card, the progress of the reflective flakes as they traverse mounts and snow and scatter for the beaches that ring the land of Ooo entirely. Maybe one day she will join them where waves meet sand and follow them into the ocean, across the horizon and see where the currents take them.

For now, though, this is just fine, and she laughs and tries to predict the spiraling tracks the glitter will take across her blackboards and lab tables.

*

Marceline and Bubblegum were friends, once upon a time. Bubblegum supposes they still are. They just – stopped for a while. Paused. Marceline wanted her to loosen up and have some fun. Bubblegum wanted Marceline to just stop every once and a while, and THINK. Think beyond herself.

“Do you ever take anything seriously?” Bubblegum asked once, before they – before the pause. She was trying to repair ancient texts and use them to reconstruct something called a gunne. The book was full of trebuchets and laszers and eyes that could see across oceans. Marceline was trying to get her to go and race penguins to the cove where the monster koi slept.

“Do I ever –“ Marceline paused. Without looking up Bubblegum knew that she was still floating. A whoosh of air was the only warning she had that Marceline was moving, and the book was ripped from her hands. “Do I –“ Marceline's head was bowed slightly, hair falling across her face, obscuring everything but her right eye and the corner of her downturned mouth. There was something serious in her visible eye, something in the way her fingers clenched at the edges of the book that reminded Bubblegum of not-actually-eighteen the other girl was, and Bubblegum started to each lean in, brush the heavy, dark hair back from her face and behind the point of her ear.

The book bursts into flames.

“My book!” Bubblegum can’t stop herself from screaming, running for water as Marceline drops the flaming mass of fluttering pages to the library floor.

“Leave it,” Marceline says, smacking the glass of water from her hand. Bubblegum tears her eyes from the burning book and up to Marceline, and her words die in her throat. Marceline’s eyes are dark and sharp and there is danger crawling around her like some sort of shawl, her cool fingers, still around Bubblegum’s wrist, are tight.

“But –“

“I said leave it.”

And they stand there as it burns. There are so few things left from before the Mushroom War. Or -- there are many things left from before the war, the rusted metal carriages that dot the landscape and video tapes and machines whose purpose hundreds of Candy scholars could devote their lives to arguing about. There are so few things of use left from before the war, though. Things that explain or describe or recount history. It's almost as if someone wanted to destroy them, but she can't understand why anyone would do that to knowledge.

“We’re better off without that,” Marceline says, her hands tightening around Bubblegum’s wrist.

Bubblegum feels herself pull back from the diagrams and words that had been inside the book. There is something in Marceline's face that both softens and frightens her. “It was one of kind,” she says softly, because who knows what she could have found. What knowledge was in that book is gone forever.

Marceline releases her wrist and floats back. Bubblegum’s skin feels hot where the cold pressure is gone. “You’re right,” Marceline says, grinning ferally, tips of her incisors glittering brightly. “I am completely incapable of taking things seriously.”

“That’s not what I –“

“Always have been.”

Bubblegum wants to know what she’s missing. It’s easy to figure out what’s bugging her subjects. If they’re hungry or cold or unsatisfied with their jobs, if they were born marzipan when they wanted nothing more than to be meringue. Marceline is a Vampire Queen without any subjects, who laughs at ghosts and people who cringe away from her in fear, who blows off parties and plays awful pranks and still hasn’t forgiven her father for eating her fries.

And Marceline shrugs, and she’s just Marceline again. “I’m going to go and try to tame the monster koi,” she says, pulling out an umbrella as she pushed out the window to float outside in the sunshine. “I haven’t been waterskiing in centuries.”

It’s another one of those things that doesn’t make sense to Bubblegum, that she hasn’t found in any book, like bungee jumping or –

“You wanna come with?”

And it’s only then that Bubblegum realizes that Marceline is waiting for her, hovering outside the windowsill expectantly. “I –“ she hasn’t seen the ocean in years. “I can’t. You know that.”

Marceline shrugs and she’s suddenly so very far way. “Your loss.”

“I have responsibilities. You know that.”

“Whatever,” Marceline says, twirling the umbrella to catch the sun as she arcs off into the bright blue sky.

“I don’t understand you,” Bubblegum says, staring after her, ash at her feet. She wonders if Marceline heard. “I don’t understand you at all.” It makes her uncomfortable, uneasy.

Her wrist is still warm.

*

Marceline comes back, of course. Wanders in giggling and whirling Finn all up in her schemes and her plans and her songs.

“Where did you go?” she asks Marceline, eventually. When some of the rough edges are off. They are in the royal laboratory, Bubblegum wrapped up in her lab coat and bent close over the cloudy purple potion she is brewing.

Marceline, floating by her chemical cabinet and paging slowly through old texts, shrugs. “Here. There. Everywhere. A few places that don’t exist yet. You would have like those, Bonnibelle.”

“You’re the only one who calls me that, you know,” Bubblegum says. She holds her hands out to Marceline. “Snuffleberry juice.” The vial is placed into her hand. “Other than my grandmother.”

“What, not even your parents?”

Bubblegum shrugs. “They might have, if they’d known me.” Her grandmother made her from the bits and pieces they left behind – gum from her mother’s shoulder, her father’s right foot. It’s right that they would make something as beautiful as you, her grandmother used to tell her. Ooo has not always been as peaceful as it is now. It’s why she builds her subjects as she does – small balls of excitement focused on living day to day, on their futures and dreams, on wonder and kindness. The snuffleberry juice makes the potion the proper canary yellow, but it’s still cloudy. She frowns. “The Ice King has been getting worse,” she says. It’s not that she doesn’t normally appreciate the break in routine the kidnappings give her, but they’re just getting so blasted frequent.

“I think it’s Finn,” Marceline says. “The Ice King was human, once. Before the Mushroom War.”

Bubblegum nods as she adds another drop of children’s laughter to the potion before her. “I was afraid of that.” It’s been so long since there were humans in Ooo. She’s part human, yes, but she never was human; it’s a part of her lineage she has no connection to outside the shape of her face, her hands. Humans are something that just were, a long time ago.

“It’s weird,” Marceline says. “Seeing humans again.” Bubblegum doesn’t know if she was ever human. If she was always a vampire, or if she was something… else… before she turned. Marceline doesn’t talk about it. Doesn’t talk about the Mushroom War, even when Bubblegum begs to know, to find out more. This place is way better, she says, throwing her arms out and cackling. Bubblegum – she wants to know what it was like back when they had science, when it was something separate from magic and the two didn’t intertwine and feed back on each other like the worldsnakes from the Fire Kingdom.

“I don’t think it’s doing any harm,” Bubblegum says. “Letting Finn stop the Ice King.” She adds a drop of early morning dew and the potion clears. “We could all use the break now and then.”

Marceline laughs and sneaks an arm around her shoulders. “Why Bonnibelle,” she says. Her breath tickles the base of Bubblegum’s ear. “We’ll make an adventurer of you yet.”

*

Bonni, Marceline calls her, sometimes. Bella. BB. Bebe. Bubblegum had woken one night to find Marceline crouched upside down on her bedroom ceiling. It was five years since the library, since Marceline had disappeared, and Bubblegum had been eighteen for four and a half of them. All Bubblegum felt was a fluttering mix of relief and anger. Are you staying, she didn’t ask.

They stared at each other for a long time, unblinking, Marceline’s hair gently swimming against gravity.

“Does it ever bother you that your name literally means ‘good girl’?” Marceline asked, finally. There was a sunburn on her elbow that Bubblegum could see despite the shadows.

“Did you come back just to taunt me and get trivia wrong?” Bubblegum asked. She was tired, and hated that she still missed Marceline, that the lab and library seemed so quiet. “It means ‘good and beautiful,’” Bubblegum corrected. She hated that Marceline got to pop in and out of her life. In and out of her own life. She dreamed of the ocean, sometimes. She loved her subjects but she sometimes wished guiltily to sneak away from them, if only for a while.

Marceline tensed, then settled from a crouch to cross-legged. “Figures,” she said as she floated down closer, still upside down. Her hair brushed against Bubblegum’s, black coiling amongst the pink strands of gum. “Brought you a souvenir,” she said. Flipped over and stretched out so that she was floating above Bubblegum. She smelled like sandalwood and salt spray, worn leather and strawberries.

Bubblegum, tired, felt her eyes slip closed. “Does it bother you that yours means ‘dedicated to war’?” she murmured.

“Nah,” Marceline whispered, and there was a cool press against Bubblegum’s forehead she was too tired to register as a kiss. “It’s pretty much what I figured.”

In the morning, there was a t-shirt folded at the foot of the bed. Marceline was gone and all the colour had gone from the roses that surrounded the castle.

*

The camp fire flickers before Bubblegum’s outstretched hands, and there is a crack-pop-hiss as a strand of Marceline’s hair singes. They are sitting in the woods; Jake, atop a hill with Lady Rainicorn, picks out an ancient melody on his violin that drifts down to them through the trees. A fire is going. Finn is somewhere off in the dark, escorting a pair of lost squirrels home. Marceline, hovering so close to the fire that the tips of her hair swing through it at odd intervals, picks at her bassaxe.

Bubblegum wonders if Marceline could pull the red from the flames, the gold and amber, or if the fire would burn her.

“I kinda missed it here, though,” Marceline says, quietly. “Sometimes.”

Jake is singing now, low and lilting. There’s an owl chorus somewhere that joins in, layered hoots of tenor and soprano.

“We kind of missed you, too,” Bubblegum says, staring down at her hands. Marceline’s laugh is sharp and short, a bitterness that easily fades into a smirk as Bubblegum’s head snaps up.

“Of course you did. Who else keeps things interesting around here?” The firelight is odd against her blue-grey skin, flickers of the two bite marks on her neck. “I just have to make sure that you don’t take me for granted.” She’s grinning again, fangs dimpling her bottom lip. Like this is just a joke, because everything is just a joke to her sometimes, and –

“Why do you think so many of the flowers around the castle are red?” The words are out before Bubblegum can stop them.

“Um, because you like red?” Marceline says, then pauses.

"Yeah, it's okay, I guess," Bubblgeum says. Shrugs.

Marceline swings herself into an upright float and almost falls into the fire. “Wait. Do you –“

Even though she has no idea what to say, Bubblegum is going to have to count this as a victory, because Marceline is never without words. She’s saved from having to find them however, because Finn comes tearing back through the clearing, yelling. There are four frost ogres at his heels, one stumbling through the fire, spraying Marceline with snow as the flames quench.

“Oh, you’re going to pay for that,” she says as she pulls up and swings the bassaxe from her shoulder and into her hand. Bubblegum sighs with fond exasperation as Finn pulls his sword from the soil and Jake comes flying down the hill with a battlecry. Marceline presses her back against Bubblegum’s, and they drop into position. Bubblegum feels like her grin is going to break her face.

*

Bubblegum’s first memory is of trees. Not the arching branches of candy floss and burnt caramel that forest the Candy Kingdom, of glistening light filtered through pink-spun sugar; rather of the green-leafed trees of the Grass Land, rough solid bark and the musty bright smell, complexly shaped leaves that fluttered in the wind and sometimes tore free. She wonders if it is the contrast that makes her remember, the deliberate and intricately veined leaves in comparison to the random swirl of cotton candy fluff.

She remembers looking up at them, at the sense of age from her hand pressed against the bark. Remembers looking at them and needing to know how they worked. Needing to understand.

Needing to KNOW.

*

When Bubblegum wakes up, it is almost dawn and Marceline is floating cross-legged by the window, watching the sun start to peak over the horizon. “You’re wearing the t-shirt,” she says.

Bubblegum blinks down at herself. “Of course I am.”

“I didn’t think—“

Bubblegum climbs out of bed, slowly. Settles down atop the covers and lets her feet brush across the cold floor. When she was thirteen again, after she lost so much of her sugar after the Litch, her toes couldn’t reach the ground. She knows it was an indulgence for her to stay thirteen, but she feels like she deserves to be selfish sometimes. She’s been eighteen for so very long. She thinks of thirteen like she thinks of the ocean, something far away, an abstract concept of ‘want’ and ‘release.’

“It bothers me that I don’t know you,” she tells Marceline’s back. Tells the curve of her right shoulder. “That I don’t understand you.”

Marceline turns her head a quarter turn back to her, one pointed ear sticking out from her hair. “You could ask.”

Bubblegum’s fingers tighten on the covers. “Am I supposed to believe that you’d tell the truth?”

Marceline shrugs and turns away again. “I might.”

“And how would I be able to tell?” There are so many things she’ll never know. So many things she’ll never be able to verify or understand.

“Pretty much everything I say is true, in a way.”

“Except for when you lie.”

“Yeah. Except for then.”

Marceline almost always means things when she says them. Bubblegum wonders if that’s what upsets her most. That Marceline is old enough that she just… forgets. That Marceline looks at them and sees a lifetime in the blink of the eye, that she laughs and dismisses the things that rock their worlds because she remembers a time before Ooo. “I’d like to try to figure it out, though,” Bubblegum says. “How to tell.”

Marceline has turned towards her, floating with her back to the window and eyes sharp on Bubblegum, who pulls the t-shirt a little more tightly around herself. Bubblegum remembers the trees, and the contrast of the dark shadows between trunks and the airy light that penetrates the candy forests. She reaches out and runs her hand through Marceline’s hair, strands of keratin bound at her skull instead of a flow of candy, presses her palm to Marceline’s cheek, can feel the bones beneath the cool skin.

Marceline grins, then, wickedly, fangs denting her bottom lip, and eyes surprisingly soft. She floats down until her feet touch the ground and presses a quick, dry kiss to Bubblegum’s lips. “I promise I’ll try to keep it interesting.”