When you make camp, after you get the fire going and the cocoa simmering, Marceline takes the axe from her back and strikes a chord. The notes echo through the woods, deep and dark and vibrating through you.
“Is that,” you start, pointing to the weapon, “an instrument?”
Marceline flashes you a fangy grin while her fingers climb up and down the fingerboard.
“Yeah. A bass.”
You lean forward a bit to get a closer look.
“Why did you turn your axe into a bass?” And how does it resonate without a sound box, you want to add, but decide to take this one question at a time.
“Why not?” Marceline responds with a shrug, and it’s hardly an answer you can argue with.
Not that you want to. After a couple of minutes of aimless plucking and fiddling with the tuning pegs, a melody begins to take shape between her hands. It winds up and down, swings between the high and low registers, humming soothingly but rasping with implied danger at the same time. After a while she starts singing wordlessly along, and oh, she has a lovely voice.
Is a nice singing voice typically a praised trait for a vampire? You really don’t know. You never got into anthropology.
Marceline is a new acquaintance. You have heard of her before, of course, even exchanged pleasantries (well, pleasant on your end, at least) once or twice, but this is the first time you have spent a prolonged amount of time in her company. It’s not at all as bad as her attitude might have made you fear. In part, you chalk that up to your excellent diplomacy. She is a queen, after all, and you are a princess, and it is important to keep relations with fellow royalty amicable – unless they try to kidnap you. So far, Marceline’s attempts at abduction count to zero.
In addition, you simply couldn’t have found the rare Scarlet Scale Scraper mushrooms without her incredible sense of smell. Mrs. Marshmallow’s pet lizard will finally be free from that nasty fungus. When you return to the candy kingdom you will have to remember to thank Peppermint Butler especially for bringing you and Marceline’s abilities together.
The song comes to an end. You hurry to shower her with enthusiastic one-princess applause.
“That was wonderful,” you say.
She looks you straight in the eyes for a split second before leaning back onto nothing, quirking her mouth into a lopsided smirk.
“Thanks,” she says, and it’s casual in a way you could never ever achieve.
It is… cool.
The cocoa is hot and ready, so you pour yourself some. As you carefully handle the steaming liquid you think you feel Marceline watching, but when you look her way she has her gaze directed at the sky.
Has she been observing you? The thought makes your insides feel a little strange, as if your guts were a pond and someone just threw a stone in the middle of it, momentarily breaking the surface tension and sending ripples all the way to the shore. Peculiar.
After taking a sip, you peek over the edge of your mug. This time you catch the flicker of her eye just as she looks away. So now you have proof. Though you’re not entirely sure what exactly it is proof of.
Maybe she’s just curious. You admit to being quite curious about her, too. In what you hope is a ladylike and discreet manner you sneak a couple more glances. Marceline is very pretty, in that wild way that makes you think of moonlight and night storms and desolate ruin castles on distant mountain tops. Her hair is long and unkempt but still looks good, and her teeth glimmer in the light of the fire.
Do vampires ever bite their tongue? And if so, does it hurt them? Those fangs look awfully big and sharp to you.
Oh no, now you’re staring! Quick, a diversion!
“That song must have taken a long time to learn,” you say.
“I didn’t learn it.” She sits up, flipping her hair as she does so. You can’t tell whether it was a conscious display or a reflex. “I made it up just now.”
You’re sincerely impressed by this. She improvised.
You’re familiar with the concept.
“So,” Marceline says when your silence drags on. “Do you play anything?”
“No, no, nothing. It was always the hard sciences for me.” You hesitate. Was that a blunder? “Not that music isn’t hard. It does look terribly hard to do!”
To your relief, Marceline laughs.
“Nah, it isn’t. You just think so because you never tried. Everyone does.” She tilts her head. “Hey, want me to show you?”
She floats over the campfire in an elegant arch, coming to hover right next to you. A second later, you have the bass resting heavily on your lap. You cradle it awkwardly, trying to remember how she held it before.
“No, like this.”
Marceline puts her arm around your shoulders. She hoists the base so that it is placed more comfortably and moves your left arm so that you’re holding the neck properly. Her hands are cold and a little clammy, which surprises you. You didn’t know vampires could perspire.
“Okay, let’s start easy.”
She takes one of your fingers and puts it down on one of the strings. You clamp down on it, and the steel immediately digs into your fingertip. Doing this a lot has to hurt!
“Now strike the note- Not that one, the other string.”
The sound pours out, surrounding you. You beam at Marceline and she grins back.
“Not bad. Hold that, and put your middle finger here.”
She points out the spot and you oblige, holding down another, thicker string. Without waiting for instructions you strike that one, too, and a different pitch flows into the air.
You are awesome.
“Here’s what to do: play one of that, then two of those. Then alternate. Keep it up, see what happens,” Marceline says.
By now your left hand is starting to cramp up a little, but you are not prepared to give in. Princess Bubblegum does not back down from a challenge. You start playing according to Marceline’s instructions, clumsily at first, but soon finding a rhythm. Beside you Marceline straightens and clears her throat.
Monsters in the forest and beasts in the woods
If they ever catch you, they’re gonna kill you good
Gonna clean off your bones
Yeah, gonna clean off your bones
Clean of your bones and bury them under the stones
You manage to keep a steady beat almost all the way through, and when you reach the end of the song you are flushed and giddy.
“That was fun!” you say, reluctantly handing the bass back to Marceline.
“Yeah, that wasn’t boring or anything,” she says, and then she gives you one of those glances that makes your insides ripple. “I could teach you some more sometime. Maybe. If I’ve got the time.”
“I would love that!” This is excellent news, and you are too excited to wait for a reply before you start making plans. “What about tomorrow? That’s Monday.”
She shakes her head.
“I’m busy Mondays.”
“Not a good day.”
“Would Wednesday be all right?”
“No can do.”
By now you’re a little annoyed. Your cheeks feel embarrassingly warm, too, though the reason for that isn’t clear to you.
“Why don’t you come with a suggestion yourself then, since your schedule is so full?” you say, but before you have finished the sentence Marceline hurriedly says:
She smiles at you, wide and gleaming, and you find yourself unable to tear your eyes away for several seconds.
If you kiss a vampire, do the fangs get in the way?
Scientific queries such as this interest you.
It takes Marceline practically forever to arrive.
The week has gone on for an eternity and yet it slipped through your fingers like granulated sugar-sand. You are well aware that this is an oxymoron, but you were there. You felt it happen.
You didn’t foresee the amount of anticipation you would be experiencing prior to Marceline’s visit. It isn’t anything special, you try to tell yourself, only a bass lesson with a new tutor, you’ve had tutors before and they never made your stomach attempt to squirm its way out through your throat.
But your other tutors weren’t pretty vampire ladies with hair the color of liquorice and a voice as smooth as ice cream.
You are starting to suspect your feelings for Marceline go some distance beyond royal obligation.
When her name finally –finally- rings through the hall you spread your arms with flourish as your voice echoes between the pillars, your dictation flawless even as your chin quivers.
“Welcome to the Candy Kingdom!”
Immediately, you feel silly. Aren’t you supposed to be more relaxed and friendly than this? It isn’t a formal audience, oh no, what if she feels put off by your magnanimous display? Princessly pompousness is a bad habit at times.
Marceline’s face is an unreadable mask of too cool for school as she descends to float at face level with you, only a yard away. She inclines her head ever so slightly.
“Merely waiting eagerly for my lesson.” A small smile cracks through her expression. Hit by a surge of affection you take a step forward.
“I am so very glad you could make it,” you say, and wrap your arms around her.
She… doesn’t hug you back.
Oh dear. You completely miscalculated. It doesn’t happen often, but now is apparently one of those rare instances when the numbers refuse to add up, because Marceline stands stiff as a board in your embrace and you are growing increasingly panicked. Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear. At least she isn’t pushing you off, though it doesn’t do much to dispel the knot of horrified disappointment in your chest.
But now is not the time to be frozen in a state of self loathing! As the seconds pass by the situation is turning from slightly embarrassing to social disaster. Time to face the music - figuratively as well as literally.
Just as you are about to let go and mumble your apologies, however, her arms sneak up at your sides, her hands slowly coming to rest on your back. Marceline inches a millimeter or two forward. She isn’t breathing, but you know you can’t take that one personally.
It’s strange how someone not breathing can seem so comforting. There is no heart beating against yours, no pulse to be found, and you find it all endlessly appealing.
“Yikes,” Marceline says as you disentangle. “Someone’s got a real craving for the jams.”
Her cheeks burn bright and you are preposterously cheerful at the sight.
“I have been the most studious pupil,” you say. You make your way over to the table where the fruits of your labor lie prepared and ready in orderly bunches. “Music is fascinating! The notation a stroke of pure genius. To take something as intangible as sound and transcribe it, oh, the math in it is beautiful! Don’t you agree?”
You hold out one of your many practice sheets scribbled full of neatly distilled music notation at her, expecting, well, something other than the frown you’re getting. Not one to be deterred, you press on.
“I have read up on all the prominent composers of Oooo and their characteristics, and have made significant progress in music theory as well as the various terms. Neither reading nor writing the tunes will pose any problem to me!”
Marceline takes the paper from you and squints at it. Then she looks at you.
“I can’t read this.”
“Oh!” You fidget. “Yes, I know my handwriting can be messy…”
“Not that. I mean, I don’t read sheet music,” she says, handing your notes back. “It’s not how I do it. The math’s not exactly something I think about. Just the sound” Then she laughs. “Man, I thought I was grim, but when you go in for it, you go for serious overkill.”
You are the silliest goose who ever lost a week of sleep over trying to impress a vampire.
“Maybe I got a little carried away. I was always more of a left brain kind of gal,” you say and jokingly knock your fingers against your skull, realizing a moment too late you gestured to the wrong side of your head.
The edge of Marceline’s bass makes a scraping noise as she rests it against the floor. She grins at you, one of those bright, toothy ones that make her face light up. It might be only your imagination, but you think there’s been a change in her posture since she first floated through your door. She’s not as tense.
Just as you’re wondering whether embarrassing yourself was the way to go after all, she pushes herself off the ground and shoots into the air, diving and looping, her short dress billowing around her thighs. She swoops down for her bass, and soon the hall is filled to the brim with her music.
“It’s not like the work you did is gonna hurt, but it won’t do jack if you’re not feeling it.” Even her speaking sounds like a musical masterpiece when accompanied by the buzzing tones of the bass. “Don’t overthink stuff. Just go with the flow.” She makes another loop. “Go to the movies with me tomorrow.”
You drop the bundle of papers you were holding.
She stares at you like a prince caught in the flash of a witch’s spell.
“Did you just… ask me out?”
The music has stopped and she is slowly landing. For the first time since you met her, she stands with her feet firmly in the ground. The glowing on her cheeks is back. It’s positively adorable.
“I guess. I’ve got nothing better to do, and someone has to save you from the plight of the nerd.”
Paper rustle under your feet as you shift your position, crossing your arms.
“If I’m such a nerd, then why are you asking me out, you… nerd by association?”
“Is it cool if I take that crappy comeback as a yes?”
She grins at you and you grin at her, and you are so happy you could just burst.
You are so nervous you could just hurl.
You spent three hours in front of the mirror kneading your hair soft and pliant this afternoon, but the confidence that seeing your hair follow the curves of your shoulders brought you is all but gone as you sit here in your too-cold dress on a prickly blanket on the grass at the outdoor movie theatre. Marceline’s hand is only four inches from yours, but crossing those inches is like crossing an ocean. You have been hard at work at it since the beginning of the movie and by now your heart is beating like something very forceful beating on something very hard.
You are too frazzled for metaphors.
Marceline is watching the movie, eyes fixed on the screen. She hasn’t so much as glanced your way since you first sat down. You don’t even remember what it’s called, but you’re grateful it is so engrossing a piece of cinema to her. It leaves you to battle the Conundrum of the Far Away Hand without disruption.
Oh, what wouldn’t you give for a disruption! Something to assure you that platonic interest is not the sole motivation for your invitation. Something to encourage your advances. You think you could handle rejection with grace, but what if you make her uncomfortable? You would hate to have terminated the friendship in its embryonic stage.
You are still fighting with yourself as well as circumstance when one of the more careless members of this fine movie audience trips over your leg on his way to the popcorn stand and you are shoved forward. Before you have time to brace yourself you are pressed flush against Marceline, your battle strategies scattered by the winds of misfortune.
She looks at you.
She looks right at you and her eyes are so dark, her skin such a lovely shade of blue and when she smiles the corners of her mouth tremble, just a little, but enough that you can tell that what she sees when her eyes are on you is entirely gorgeous. She leans in and you swallow because those teeth are as sharp as ever, but you are not going to turn this down. Come what may.
You needn’t worry. The fangs are not a problem at all. You fit together beautifully, avoiding all nose bumps or other embarrassing kissing mishaps that are only funny in hindsight and even then only if the mishaps don’t result in permanent damage. Her lips are dry and cool and refreshing and her tongue moves almost shyly against yours, as if she is still testing the waters, still uncertain if you’re really going to let her in. You put your arms around her neck and she makes a small contented sound at the back of her throat and pulls you close.
“That was sweet,” she says as you pull up for breath, smacking her lips. “Literally.”
“Silly Billy,” you reply and let your head rest against her shoulder. You don’t even care if your hair is going to smear on her jacket. “This is the most terrific first date I have ever had.”
You have to stop and think. Whatever does she mean? Marceline must sense your confusion, because she raises one eyebrow and stares at you intently. You wonder if she has full control over when to blink or not. That is indeed the most intense stare you have encountered.
“What about in the woods?” she says.
Everything finally clicks. You laugh.
“No, no, that wasn’t a date! I just needed help with the mushrooms and you were incredibly useful! I’m very grateful for it, really. The fungus was no match for the Scale Scraper Elixir, little Lizzie was so happy.”
She lets go. Immediately, you’re missing the weight of her, if not her warmth.
“What’s the matter?” you ask.
“Nothing.” Everything in her stance tells you “nothing” is the least accurate description for what is going on here. The tension in her posture is back and you realize it has been absent for the entirety of your date. Until now.
“Seriously, it’s nothing. Of course you didn’t ask because you wanted to hang out with me or anything. And that would only be bad if I’d been hoping-“ She cuts herself off. Her hair swells and coils, alive with anger. “…Forget it.”
“Marc eline?” you try.
“Whatever. I don’t care. I didn’t even care before. Why would I care that you don’t care? That’d make me such a chump.”
You are Princess Bubblegum. Renowned scientist with a doctor’s degree in candycorniology and proud winner of the Strudel Price in chemistry not once, but twice. You are the ruler of a kingdom, the inventor of three different kinds of transportation, neither of which involve wheels, and a darntootin land hockey player.
You are clutching your face in desperation.
“I don’t understand anything!”
“No, you don’t!”
She is getting up to leave and no, no, no, no, no, that is a terrible thing to be happening! So you try to hold on to her shirt but end up knocking out your drink over your skirt instead, making you curse loudly in German, upon which Marceline orders you to stop with the gobbledygook and you inform her in what might be a somewhat terser tone than you intended that German is an excellent language not at all worthy of mockery, thank you very much. At this point she is shouting: “Fine! Sorry for liking you so much” and you shout back that you’re sorry for liking her even more, but then she is already doing the floaty equivalent of stomping off, which leaves you no other option but to stomp off as well.
You stomp all the way home and go straight to bed, lying awake for hours because you are righteously incensed!
But you call her first thing in the morning.