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Star Candy

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“Wildberry? Wildberry Princess? That’s your name?”

“Uhm, yes, sir,” the new barista’s voice was a mixture of a squeak and a whisper, “What can I get for you?”

Marceline stared at the unfolding situation as she corralled the new shipment of flavored syrups, idly stacking and organizing, but ready for anything—hopefully, nothing, she thought, but ready.

“Wildberry Princess… such a pretty name.” The customer was a regular—scraggly beard, pale skin, and always wearing a blue suit that looked like it seen much, much better days. Marceline knew his real name, but she also knew that most of the other employees had dubbed him the Ice King, due to an incident a few months prior when he’d tracked in too much snow and caused a huge scene by making all the other customers in the coffee shop slip, fall, and generally freeze. Now it was spring, and there was no snow for him to track in, but that didn’t stop him from making trouble. He stood at the counter, staring at Wildberry Princess in fascination. “Such a pretty, pretty princess name…”

Marceline knew if that she didn’t do something, he’d never leave. “Give this man a large white iced mocha, on the house,” she called out. Sure enough, her words had the desired effect: the Ice King finally stepped aside, almost giggling at a free frozen treat, his Princess fixation forgotten. The people in the line behind him heaved a collective sigh of relief and Marceline waited until he’d collected his drink and left the shop to step up to the cash register and check on her new hire’s progress.

“Good job back there, Wildberry. I know that guy’s kind of a weirdo. But you passed your first test with flying colors.”

“Oh! Good!” Wildberry Princess blushed, or, at least, Marceline thought she did. It was so hard to tell when the other girl’s skin was already such a deep shade of pink. Marceline was used to comments on strange skin tone (more than a few had come her way, mostly older ladies who were worried that she was so pale, you need to eat something, young lady, etc.), and she was even used to pink skin, at that. Wildberry Princess, however, more than lived up to her name.

“Go check the cream and sugar supply,” Marceline said. “I’ll take over on the register.”

Wildberry Princess nodded and hurried away. For a brief moment, the coffee shop was peacefully humming and Marceline surveyed her kingdom with a slightly sardonic, mostly pleased smile. She’d taken a risk on the old building when she opened The Family Axe, but the risk had more than paid off: the location was perfect (one block away from the university), the clientele easy-going (mostly), and the rent was low. The building was even a stop on some local, popular walking tour of historically significant architecture. The only thing that worried Marceline was the imminent threat posed by both a Starblocks and another, rival Starblocks, both one corner away and, strangely enough, kitty-corner to one another. The receipts at the end of the day were getting thin, and she didn’t like that one bit.

Just then, the phone rang, and she picked up it up, answering automatically: “The Family Axe, Fine Coffee, Drinks, and Music.”

“Oh, Marceline, it’s—“

“Hi, Bonnibel. I know it’s you. I have caller ID, you know.”

“I told you not to call me that.”

Marceline grinned.

“And I know you’re smirking!”

“Well, why did you call me, anyway?”

The annoyance in the voice on the other end was quickly replaced by eager purpose: “I think I’ve got another concoction that will sell like hotcakes. I mean, it’s a cold drink, but it’ll sell like it’s hot. And possibly like it’s a cake.”

“And you want me to come over and try it out, I bet.”

“Uh, yes. If you’re not doing anything else.”

“Give me ten minutes.”

Extricating herself from the shop sometimes took far longer than she wanted it to, but Marceline was a pro: she left Wildberry in charge (“What? Me? Oh, my.”), double-checked the purchase order for the next week, and assured two local musicians that, yes, they could put their band’s flyer up on the bulletin board behind the counter (“algebraic!” one of them proclaimed, holding his hand up for a fist bump, which she returned in as bored a manner as she could muster.) Then she was out on the street, umbrella in hand (because she burned like no one’s business—the old ladies were right, the pale skin was a problem.) From there, it was a short walk to the campus and the Center for Advanced Scientific Study of Applied Dynamics and Candy Forms.

Inside the Center, it was dark and cool, and Marceline gratefully put away her umbrella. Princess Bubblegum’s lab took up most of the first floor. Marceline raised her hand to knock at the door, and then paused—it was doubtful that Peebs would hear her, anyway, and there was very little that she could be doing that would necessitate waiting. Marceline opened the door.

She was always a little staggered at the size of Bubblegum’s lab, and at the chaos that lurked around its edges. Bubblegum was fastidious in her experiments, but her equipment sprawled into sinks and cleaning areas, and the grad students she hired never stuck around too long. Every now and then, there’d be an epic cleaning up, but just as quickly as it was completed, Bubblegum would be distracted by some new hypothesis and the lab would fall back to its old state. Today was no exception. Marceline gingerly stepped around a stack of used beakers next to an overflowing sink, tiptoed past a pile of unopened mail that threatened to bury several computer monitors, and stopped at the Toadfish’s tank to tap at the glass. It bared its teeth at her, but then pointed a fin across the lab.

Bubblegum was working in front of a complex set-up of chemistry equipment, taking notes on a clipboard. Marceline knew better than to sneak up on her (it had turned out that extract of explosive diarrhea was a really difficult, disgusting stain to remove), so she cleared her throat. “Hey, PB, what up?”

“Marceline!” Princess Bubblegum brightened up. “I’ve made something that’s going to knock your socks off.”

“I don’t wear socks.”

“OK, it’s going to knock the socks off your Starblocks problem, then. Behold!”

Bubblegum pointed at a drink in an elegant, vase-shaped glass in front of her. It didn’t look like anything particularly special, a mocha-colored shake topped with whipped cream and sprinkles.

“Peebs, I could do this myself in my sleep. Why did you—“

“Add the final touch, like so!” Bubblegum had taken a glass vial out of her lab coat pocket and extracted a glowing piece of star-shaped candy from it, which she placed on the center of whipped cream. The candy star glowed a little brighter, and then it exploded into a miniature fireworks display, spelling out the words, “Coffee’s better at The Family Axe!” in tiny, twinkling letters that hung in the air long after the rest of the fireworks had faded away and the candy was gone.

Marceline was aware that she was gaping in surprise, but it took her a moment to regain her composure. “You made that for me?”

“Well, yes. It’s a work in progress—I’m still perfecting the twinkle matrix—but I hope it’ll sell lots of drinks for you.” Bubblegum looked at Marceline, her expression hopeful and shy. “Do you like it?”

For a moment, Marceline’s heart leapt into her throat. She was thinking of the totals creeping into the red more often than not, of how she’d been planning to cut some of the employees’ hours to save money, of the idea of cutting back on some of the music performances that didn’t always bring in the revenue she hoped. This wouldn’t solve those problems, at least, not right away, but it would stave them off in the long term, and that was more than she’d ever expected. She’d also never seen Bubblegum look at her like that, all eagerness and shining eyes. Somehow, though, Marceline caught herself before anything uncharacteristic slipped out.

“Yeah, sure, it’s cool. Are those easy to make?”

Bubblegum nodded. “They should be. We can change the words, too, if you want.”

“Oh, really? How about ‘The Ice King Sucks’?”

“He came by again, huh? What a maroon. Who did he spook this time?”

“Wildberry Princess. Maybe this is a sign that I should stop hiring baristas whose last name is ‘Princess’…”

“That might help.”

“Or I could hire some security,” Marceline thought aloud. “If this drink of yours rakes in the money like I think it will, then…”

“I’d better see about getting this formula ready.” Bubblegum’s smile faltered a bit, and she quickly turned away from Marceline to check her equipment. She started to scribble on her clipboard again.

For a second, there was an uncomfortable silence. Marceline glanced around the lab, at the familiar mixture of order and chaos, and thought for a moment about how this blend was reflected in her friend. Nervously, she reached out and put a tentative hand on Bubblegum’s shoulder. Bubblegum pivoted slightly as she turned around, smiling that smile again to look at Marceline, who managed to get out the words, “Hey. That’s… it’s amazing. Thank you. I love it.”

“Good.” Bubblegum smiled again, and this time, she didn’t turn away. Instead, she reached out and took Marceline’s hand in hers. “I’m glad you do.”