A/N: And it’s done! I hope you enjoy it. =) I’ll proof it better later when I’m not dashing out the door—I apologize in advance for any mistakes you may discover.
Written for stardustwitch.
FOUND – [Part III]
It took Bubblegum three hours to get home on the Morrow. Her fingers were stiff and sore in their mittens when she pried open her castle’s door, her hair a massive rigid pink icicle too. She spent half the night thawing it, leaning partway over her bureau to let the wet drip free into a basin Peppermint Butler changed every time the clocktower’s chime added another rung to the evening’s ladder. “You’ll get sick,” he fretted, bundling her in blankets from toes to tonsils. “A cold at least. Mark my words, princess—tomorrow or the next day you’ll regret flying here in that storm.”
“You’re probably right,” agreed Bubblegum, rifling through her bureau’s topmost drawer. She found a bit of paper in it. Pressing it over her desk, she fingered its corner nervously and requested, “Pass me that pen, please? No, the other. The purple… mm—yes, that one.” A rill of melting slush ran down the nape of her neck, pooled in her shoulder’s dip. “Oh”—she flicked her servant a distracted smile—“that’s all. Go rest. It’s late.” She added as he hesitated at the door, “I’ll be fine. Thank you.”
Peppermint Butler was right—two days after her journey back from the Ice Kingdom, Bubblegum’s chest was taut with phlegm and her head heavier than a pumpkin jawbreaker. Before tucking herself into bed to wrestle off the bug, though, she pressed a sealed letter into the hand of her kingdom’s most talented messenger. She assigned him an order only ten words long: “Find where Marceline was last. Leave this for her there.”
“Yes, Majesty.” The messenger sequestered the letter into his vest. Lifting his gelatinous eyebrows, he hesitated, tapped his varicolored fingers down his lapel. He ventured finally, “This might be presumptive, but… why don’t you just get your pal Finn to do this? He and Marceline—they’re tight. He’d know where she is now better than I can ever guess.”
Verdammit. Gummies were among the more inquisitive members of her people—Bubblegum should have expected the messenger would ask questions. “Marceline and I aren’t friends anymore,” she said. It came out harsh, partly because of the gunk in her throat and partly because it was salt-wound true. Stifling the urge to wince, Bubblegum softened her tone and clarified, “We aren’t friends anymore, but Finn wants us to be so badly and I… I don’t want to put him in the middle of this.”
Silently she added, thinking of noodles and Door Lords and harmonizing melodies drifting sky high, This is between me and Marceline. No one else.
Pressing his palm flat over his vest and the letter inside, the messenger affirmed, “Understood. Rest assured, Majesty—I’ll exercise the utmost discretion.”
The princess thanked him, saw him off, and settled back to wait.
Her bed rest was over in four days—the cold lingered eight, sniffles and stuffed nostrils and tissues wadded into pockets. Two weeks after being sent to deliver the letter, the messenger returned and said he’d left it in a mailbox at one of Marceline’s residences nearby the Fire Kingdom. Bubblegum remembered it as being in the middle of a sprawling orchard, a tiny tin-roofed cottage ensconced in the shade of yellow-dappled canopies stretching up toward the clouds like arms. “She wasn’t there herself,” the messenger told Bubblegum, “but I looked in the window. I could see a bowl of fresh apples on the table. Stems still on and all.”
Bubblegum took this as a promising sign and watched her window at night hopefully, but the month nevertheless whittled away and took slices of the moon with it.
Of Marceline there was never a whisper.
Time passed in a slurry of storms, some of which brought haphazard slush. A week saw the season ebbing from winter to not-quite-spring. In the Kingdom’s gardens the cotton candy trees put out white wispy buds, and the sheen of frost on the grass in the mornings dulled to nothing more than a dewy shine. Bubblegum took two more shopping trips. She brought back a bracelet the first time and a magical flute for Lady Rainicorn the second. Because it could sprout warts on enemies up to ten miles distant, the flute provided the princess and her friend a rash of giggle fits. It also provided the Ice King’s dermatologist an unexpectedly hefty paycheck.
Bubblegum forgot the letter she’d written to Marceline sometimes. She had a realm to run, after all—people to herd, experiments to conduct, events to host. Her preoccupied mind worked from breakfast to bedtime and didn’t often stop for personal issues, and it was easy to be busy. Duty demanded her attention.
The empty space in her pocket was impossible to ignore, though. And there was Hambo too, nestled comfortably with a few other stuffed animals on her bed’s uppermost pillows. He was one of the last things she saw before sleep every night and one of the first she saw each morning as she woke, and even the briefest glimpse of him tugged forth memories of the short, sharp message she’d sent to her fellow monarch back when the trees outside had still been bare.
I have something of yours, she’d written. It’s very important. Please come get it.
But was Hambo still important to Marceline, really? Gazing at him in the small gray stretch before dawn, ticking off the days melting down into spring, Bubblegum traced her fingers over the velvet wibble of the toy’s chin and decided that probably wasn’t the right question.
“Am I still important to her?” she asked him, voice a whisper in the dark. “What’s your analysis, Hambo?”
He didn’t have one, as it turned out. He did have a very soft stomach, however, and Bubblegum shoved her face into it until she drifted into curious unsettled dreams of locked cellar doors and sullen gray skies.
The next morning came on in a drizzle that strengthened into a downpour by midday. Coupled with the yearly runoff from the Sugarcone Mountains, the sheer amount of wet put a strain on the levees in the Kingdom’s lower corridors. Bubblegum devoted most of the day to issuing evacuation notices. “Better safe than sorry,” she told a disgruntled doughnut family reluctant to leave their home on the plains. “Complain all you like, but I won’t have you soggy and misshapen if I can help it. Follow the flags to higher ground! We’ve set up tents for you!”
Rain, rain, rain: showers and buckets and torrents of it, thundering harsh on her umbrella and soaking the ground sodden. The levees held but the lowland marshes flooded anyway. It took all Bubblegum’s patience and effort to keep her people from dissolving into sheer panic as the rivers skirting the kingdom’s borders bucked over their banks.
Just before nightfall the impromptu monsoon slackened. Seeing her people soothed, the princess slogged back to her castle covered in a skin of molasses and mud. “Don’t,” she insisted as Peppermint Butler rushed to help her. “Don’t, no—please. I’m just going to bed.”
“But—” protested the retainer.
Bubblegum passed over the crumpled ruin of her umbrella. “On second thought? Take this. And burn it. Burn it with fire. Okay? Yes—good.”
She squelched up the stairs and down the hall to the door of her bedchamber, leaving wet filthy footprints behind. She was too exhausted to notice, much less care. She stepped into the room, kicked the door shut—locked it. A moment later found her peeling away her soaked garments one by one: first the boots, the laces bloated thick as snakes under her fingers. The rain slicker next. Shirt. Socks. Pants. She was fumbling for the hook of her bra when a shadow nearby her bureau rippled and purred, “That’s a nice welcome, Bonnibel.”
Bubblegum whipped around. Her bra, undone now, fell in a wet slithery clump over her foot. Her skin prickled and the room was chilly, and—
“Hey,” Marceline resumed, half-laughing, “uhm. Wow. Your, uh. Your headlights.” She snickered, made a flicking motion with her finger. “Ping! Talk about on, geez. Did you really miss me that much?”
Clapping her arms in a cage over her breasts, Bubblegum huffed, “It’s cold in here,” and stalked past the vampire’s lean form to her closet. Rifling through it for a nightshirt—“No, not that one,” she muttered under her breath, and stuffed her favorite deeper into her hamper—she rolled her shoulder toward Marceline. She glanced aside at the vampire.
Hovering in place, hands in her pockets, Marceline gazed coolly back. Her hair was shorter now than when Bubblegum had seen it last, cropped close to her ears and spiked in the front. It was wet. So were Marceline’s clothes, sticking to her all over, and Bubblegum flushed and turned to hide her face behind her closet’s door.
“Here,” she provided after a strangled pause. Into the space between them she thrust a towel. “You—you look like you could use it. And I, uhm. I’m pretty sure you still have some clothes here. I didn’t… you know. I didn’t throw them out or anything. I-if,” she stammered, “you wanted to change.”
There was a pause, brief—a sigh next, and a rustle of fabric. Marceline plucked the towel from Bubblegum’s grasp. “If you wanted me to come get naked with you, you could’ve just said so in the letter,” she muttered. Bubblegum peeked around the closet door in time to see Marceline shrug out of her top. “I might’ve skipped my shows and gotten here sooner.”
“I am not naked!” protested the princess.
Marceline’s eyes, glowing like coals in the dark, skipped sidelong to Bubblegum and away again. They were crinkled at the corners—she was smiling. Bubblegum’s stomach fluttered. “You’re pretty close,” the vampire disagreed. “Wet, see-through panties don’t really count as clothing.”
“They are not see-through—” Glancing down, Bubblegum discovered that they were quite translucent, actually. She darted farther into the shade of her closet. Glaring hotly around the door’s jamb at Marceline, she hissed, “You are still utterly distasteful.”
“Whoa there! You’re the one who invited me here, undressed in front of me, and then suggested I do a strip tease!” Grinning, Marceline tossed the sodden knot of her bra and t-shirt at Bubblegum. She shimmied out of her pants not a moment later, struggling with the wet denim as it caught on her ankles. “And by the way,” she grunted, “nice undies. Cute little happyface poptarts.”
“Oh shut up. At least mine aren’t covered in rockets, Miss Boy Shorts.”
Marceline scoffed, “Whatever. You are so jealous of my rockets.” She dug her thumb beneath her underwear’s elastic band, snapped it for good measure, and skimmed them off. Bubblegum caught a glimpse of slick gray thighs, a long scar running high up one’s inside, before Marceline wrapped herself in the towel.
Numbly the princess found and wriggled into a nightshirt. She replaced her damp undergarments with a fresh pair, debated on socks—decided she didn’t need them. A thin quiet descended on the bedchamber, punctuated only by the scuffle of cloth as Marceline dried her hair and the rasp of her elbow into Bubblegum’s too. She drifted close to peer into the closet.
“Your stuff is there,” Bubblegum said, and pointed. “It’s just a flannel pullover. I think maybe a pair of pants too—the drawstring kind you liked to sleep in before.” She took a breath. Marceline smelled like wind, like wet, like wild. “Uhm. You had shows?” Bubblegum nudged.
“Yeah.” Marceline shrugged. “Couple of my pals in the Fire Kingdom asked me to tour with them.” She dropped the towel—took the flannel and pulled it on, and reached for the pants after. “More grunge than I usually go for, but I needed a change of scenery for a while. You know.” She looked at Bubblegum askance. “Had some stuff on my mind. Especially after, uh… the whole incident with the Door Lord.”
She touched down on the carpet, stepping into the pants. A clump of wet hair fell like a comma over the smolder of her eyes and Bubblegum, watching it, blurted thoughtlessly, “I missed you.”
Marceline froze. Her eyes widened—her lips parted, mouth ajar such that her fangs hung in icicles from its rim. A floorboard creaked underfoot. “What?” she whispered. Her cheeks sucked the shadows from the room, dark and bruising darker still.
Bubblegum swallowed. Outside the rain started up again in earnest, gurgling in the gutters. “I missed you,” she said again. Her pulse crawled in her throat, all horrified thorns. Why was she blabbing this now? Having started, she found it impossible to stop. “I—uhm. I wanted to. To see you. After the Door Lord thing. Before that, too. But—”
But I was too stubborn. I was too proud. I thought you’d come back anyway after all those hurtful things I said to you and you didn’t because come on, why would you, you’re not a glutton for punishment and I didn’t know how to apologize and every time I went to your house to try you weren’t there and your dog growled at me and when I did happen to run into you, geez, you always looked so happy without me and I just—
These things she tried to say, but she was exhausted and scared and her tongue fumbled in her mouth, useless. Marceline stared at her. The princess’s stomach lurched; her eyes stung, vision blurring. She bit down hard on her cheek’s inside—she would not cry! Except she was already, a few sly, stupid tears dripping miserably down her face. Perfekt.
“I’m sorry,” she managed. “I’m sorry, okay? I’m sorry, Marceline.”
Rain on the window, tapping. It sounded almost like the pick had hitting the shopkeeper’s podium weeks ago, spkk-spkkk-spikkkk, and Bubblegum wondered—disjointedly, fleetingly—if she’d just lost something else.
Marceline straightened. She walked past Bubblegum—toward the window. For a terrible instant it seemed she would open it and leave, but she stopped before she got there and leaned down to search through the wet heap of her pants. Yanking something from the pocket, she turned to Bubblegum again and held it up. It was the letter the princess had written and ordered delivered weeks prior, its top torn open, Bubblegum’s signature an illegible smear now on the seal.
“I thought,” Marceline began, and broke off to cup her palm over her mouth. The shadow of her shoulders trembled. Was she crying too? Making a sound that suspiciously resembled a sniffle, the vampire cleared her throat and attempted, her voice a rasp through the slats of her fingers, “I thought you just wanted me to get all my stuff and go. I thought you never wanted to talk to me again.”
“No!” denied the princess immediately. “No—no, I never—” She stepped toward the vampire and Marceline moved closer to her too, enough that there was only an arm’s length between them. Reaching into it, the princess seized at Marceline’s trailing sleeve and admitted, “I’ve wanted to talk to you since you left.” Tears clogged the sentiment. “I’ve wanted to see you,” she insisted, the words syrupy, stuck, “and I was stupid and I’m sorry, I am just so sorry—”
Marceline dropped the letter. It fluttered down between them and then the vampire lunged, wrapping her arms tight about Bubblegum to thrust her face into the smaller monarch’s shoulder. Staggering backward and clutching instinctively at the vampire, the princess opened her mouth to say something, to say anything, and Marceline sobbed into her throat instead and tied Bubblegum’s heart in knots.
“Oh,” she said thickly, heat and wetness on her face. She lifted a hand to card it through the other monarch’s damp hair. “Oh, Marceline. Ssssh. Sssh.”
“Don’t you ssssh me,” snarled the vampire. Her hands tightened in Bubblegum’s nightshirt, nails biting through the thin fabric and into the skin beneath. “Don’t you dare. You dweeb. You freaking chumsucker”—she choked, half laughing, half crying—“torturing me all this time, making me think you hated me—”
Bubblegum dropped her face into Marceline’s hair, chest hitching. “I’m sorry,” she repeated. “I’m sorry—”
“Oh shut up, c’mon,” Marceline interrupted. From the darkness her hand came questing, slow, maybe scared. It furled over Bubblegum’s cheek. Her thumb slid in the wetness there. “I get it—geez,” she whispered. “It’s okay.”
The strength ran out of Bubblegum’s legs. Forgiveness was that easy? Lightheaded in relief, she sank to her knees and dragged Marceline with her, breath coming in hoarse, quivery gasps. The scientist in her screamed for confirmation. “It is?” she chanced. “It—it’s okay? You don’t hate me?”
In answer, Marceline snuffled out laughter and pressed her brow to Bubblegum’s. Her lashes fluttered soft against the hollow of the smaller monarch’s temple and she hesitated, staring, her eyes huge fever-bright cherries in the bedchamber’s gloom. “Nah, babe.” Feathering her lips gently over Bubblegum’s cheek next, she denied, “I couldn’t hate you. You’re way too cute, y’know? And—and dang, Bonnibel, I mean, you’re my best friend.”
Her mouth worked for a moment. There were no more words in it, though, and in their absence the vampire drove her face into the skin beneath Bubblegum’s ear. Her back jumped and Bubblegum, seeing it, started crying again too, and they clutched at each other until the wet ran out—both at the window and between them.
For a while—a good, long, stretching while—they were silent.
“Are we okay?” That was Marceline at last, raw and terrified but determined too. “Bonnibel, I gotta know. Are we okay now?”
Bubblegum nodded, mute. She clenched her fingers tighter over the handfuls she had of Marceline’s flannel.
A sigh—of relief. Bubblegum closed her eyes and echoed it, letting her cheek roll into the vampire’s shoulder. She was squinting at the rising slope of Marceline’s throat when the other monarch ventured, ginger, “Uhm… what else are we?”
Lifting her head, the princess studied Marceline’s face, blotchy and wet and puffy even in the shadows. Hers probably didn’t look much better, she reflected. Not after weeping away months of unpleasant emotions—guilt, anxiety, longing.
“I know what I want,” she admitted. “But if you don’t, it’s fine—I was immature and cruel—”
“I ran away,” pointed out the vampire. “And I’m older than you. I could’ve been the mature one. Maybe should’ve.”
“I,” Bubblegum allowed, “let you leave.”
They looked at each other, the princess gnawing her lip and Marceline half-smiling. “Okay,” the vampire acknowledged. “We both suck. Let’s fix it and kiss.”
“Yes,” agreed Bubblegum. “Yes, that is a fine idea.”
It was an even finer kiss.
When it was over, and all the kisses afterward too, Marceline grinned into Bubblegum’s collar and asked, “Hey, Bonnibel?”
“Mmm?” the princess replied distractedly. She arched. “That—that feels nice, Marceline.”
Marceline chuckled, dusk in the sound. “Good. It’s about to feel nicer, just wait.” But then, “Your letter. You said you had something important of mine.” Her tone came out puzzled. “Not the pullover or the pants, right? Was it a metaphorical apology? Because if it was, hey, great—I’m not complaining.” She plucked at the nightshirt’s hem. Her fangs rasped slow over Bubblegum’s skin. The princess shivered.
She stood then, tugging Marceline aloft too. The nightshirt’s buttons clicked; the folds parted and the room was still chilly. Marceline’s appreciative grin drew from Bubblegum a slow, shy smile.
“Before you make me forget everything but you,” she muttered fondly, tweaking the vampire’s fingers, “come over here. I have something to show you.”