A/N: Didn't you ever wonder how they met?

Written for someone who wanted protective Marceline. =) I hope you enjoy it, darlin'!

Words: 2,838


SHAKE IT OUT


From the start, Marceline doesn't want to like her.

The kid's pink, first off. For glob's sake, Marceline's been around a long time and knows beyond a shadow of a doubt that nothing good ever comes out of anything pink. Believing Bubblegum to be no exception to that rule, the vampire queen spends years avoiding the other monarch. It's easy for a while, the avoidance. Bubblegum's young, content to keep to her kingdom's donut-glazed daylight. Marceline rules the night. Occasionally Bubblegum waves to the queen from her window at dawn, and maybe Marceline happens to strum out a few half-remembered lullabies under that window after Bubblegum's parents disappear during a routine tour of the Nougat Marshes, but really, they never talk to each other.

Not until Bubblegum comes looking for her a few nights later, anyway.

It happens on an early spring night, their first true meeting. It must be cold: Marceline's body no longer understands the fundamental differences in temperature, but frost glitters on the bare branches of the trees and the grass is silver despite there being no moon. Settled on a stump in the middle of a forest clearing, Marceline is tuning her bass. Her A's been sounding sour lately, shallow and stilted, and she turns the knob once, twice, three times. The string squeals; her thumb slips. She allows herself a sharp, "Fuck!"

"Ahem," another voice attempts.

Marceline whirls, her fangs dripping down like syringes over her lip, a snarl bubbling in her throat. She expects to see a rival vampire. After all, being a queen means fighting for the crown. She pissed off plenty of people when she killed her predecessor. At least twice a month other immortals visit her spoiling for a fight, and at least twice a month Marceline sends them packing with broken teeth and buttocks bruised black.

It's not a vampire waiting for her at the edge of the clearing, though. It's Princess Bubblegum, dressed in her pajamas. Shivering. Her little pink hands have woven themselves into knots, and she blinks at Marceline and Marceline, stupefied, blinks back.

"Uhm," hedges the princess. Her breath makes a cloud in the air. Marceline catches a whiff of sugary sweetness. "Am I… am I interrupting you?"

"Nah, I'm just chillin'," replies Marceline automatically. A smile blooms over Bubblegum's face—a fragile, shakily hopeful kind of smile. Something in the vampire queen's dead guts squirms at the sight of it. It's too bright, too much like daytime, too much like friendliness for someone who's experienced ten lifetimes of solitude to stomach. Marceline winces and grates, "What're you doing out here, kid? Trying to get eaten? Wolves're out." And she adds, just to be mean, "I haven't had dinner yet myself." She makes a great show of polishing her tongue over a fang.

Bubblegum's smile wavers, but it doesn't disappear. It lingers at the fringes of her lips, quivering, golden trickles of sunlight through a cloudbank, and Marceline can't help feeling a stab of surprise. Apparently not everyone from the Candy Kingdom has a jelly-filled center.

"I wanted to say thank you," Bubblegum professes. She takes a step forward and Marceline sees that the princess is wearing one flimsy-looking bedroom slipper. Her other foot is bare, covered in crimson diamond-glitter scratches.

"You bleed sugar?" Marceline replies. Saliva fills her mouth. For the first time in over a thousand years, she's got a craving for a candy bar.

Bubblegum blinks, glances down at her foot—curls her toes. They dig five small furrows in the frost. "Oh. Yes. It's molasses."

"Nifty." Marceline's stomach—or what passes for her stomach—growls. The sound echoes across the clearing.

The princess squints at the vampire queen. "You weren't joking," she realizes. "You really haven't had dinner yet, have you?"

Grinning, Marceline sinks her bass into the stump with a whunk and affirms, "Nope. But hey, it's cool. Looks like someone called in a delivery for me."

The kid'll run now, she thinks. She'll run and she'll count herself lucky never to see me again and I won't have to worry anymore about whether I should wave back to her in the mornings. Good riddance.

Bubblegum doesn't run.

Bubblegum reaches up with her little pink hands and pulls out twin rubbery palmfuls of her own hair. The whole elastic mass snaps like… well, like gum, and the princess jerks and bites her lip and, blinking back tears, offers to Marceline the result of her abrupt trim: two cherry-colored peach-sized lumps. "Here," she provides. "I've seen what you do to the apples in the palace orchards." A muscle in her cheek jumps and she whispers belatedly, "Ow."

"Geez, kid!" Marceline rises and steps over to the princess. Bubblegum comes up to her ribs at best, maybe. What is she? Eight? Nine? Dropping to one knee in the frost before her unexpected visitor, the vampire mutters, "You didn't have to do that."

Defiantly the girl thrusts her hands at Marceline again. "You're hungry. You should eat," she insists.

They survey one another. Bubblegum's throat works, suppressing a sniffle; tears shimmer in her lashes. Her eyes are fearless, though, dark stones in her face, and finally Marceline smirks and says as she plucks away the smaller monarch's dinner donations, "Hardcore, Bittybite."

She drains them quickly, one to each fang. The taste is glorious, honey-slick sweet—she growls when it's gone, crushing the white remnants of the meal to dust in her hands. Bubblegum watches it all, her expression something close to awe.

"You really do eat the color," the princess hisses. "That's so cool."

Marceline scrubs her hands clean on the grass. A smile tugs unbidden at her mouth. "You think so?"

"Oh yes!"

"Hey, good to know." Marceline kicks off the clearing's ground. She rises a meter or so, then stretches out broadside midair and queries, "All right, remind me why you're here again?"

Bubblegum straightens. "To thank you," she maintains. "I—"

"Thank me for what?"

Startled, the princess blinks up at the hovering queen. "For the music," she answers slowly. "Three nights ago. You were under my window and—"

"I was just practicing," Marceline retorts. She wheels backward a bit, catching her heel on the stump's edge. "I'm a musician, kid. Gotta keep the jams flowing. It's not like I was giving you a private concert or anything."

Bubblegum bestows upon Marceline a look that's too old to cross her soft little face, a look that says, I don't believe that for a second, lady, and neither do you, but if that's the way you wanna play it I'll toss the ball. Aloud she murmurs, worrying her hands into a knot again nearby her collarbone, "It was beautiful."

Marceline is silent. Her shadow ripples over the silver grass like a jaw's gnashing silhouette and Bubblegum studies her, chewing her cheek, her small shoulders hunched.

"It was beautiful," she repeats stubbornly. "Your voice. And that." Her fingers unravel; her arm stretches straight past Marceline's nose to the bass still sunken deep in the stump's meat. With splayed fingers she tugs at the strings, just once.

She manages a perfect A.

"Fuck," Marceline grouches.

Bubblegum's nose pinches, wrinkles. "Your language is foul."

"Yeah, well—up yours, Bittybite." Marceline yanks the guitar from the stump. Splinters of wood spray across the clearing. "Don't touch my bass without asking me first either. You got that?"

"I'm sorry."

Marceline shrugs. After tapping at the guitar's strings a moment, she flicks her eyes back to the princess. "I'm glad you liked it, I guess," she huffs. "My practice session, I mean. So consider me thanked." Pausing, the vampire considers. It's a long way back to the Candy Kingdom from here, at least an hour's walk. Bubblegum is half-barefoot, alone. It's dark and the wolves really are out, snuffling sharp along the borders of the forest not so terribly distant, and Marceline can't help but ask, "Why'd you wanna say something to me so badly anyway? You're not exactly close to home here, Princess."

Bubblegum folds her arms. Rubs her elbows. Her ruddy skin is stippled with gooseflesh, notes the vampire queen. "No one's ever done anything for me before without being asked first," she whispers. "No one but my parents. And"—she hurries on quickly at Marceline's mutinous expression—"even if you didn't exactly mean it, your music—it just—" Tears slide suddenly down the monarch's cheeks, big fat ones this time that reek of ganache. Scraping at them with her knuckles, Bubblegum finishes in something like a sob, "It just sounded like you understandwhat it's like to miss someone you love."

Well shit. Marceline's throat closes; her eyes prickle faintly. There's a tugging sensation somewhere down in the depths of her chest and she has the abrupt urge to fly forward, to hug the princess and comfort her because hey, no one ever comforted Marceline when her dad pretty much ditched her. Commiseration and empathy would've been nice—

The urge slips away just as quickly as Marceline heartbeat did a millennium ago. Tearing her gaze from the crying princess, the immortal sneers. She is Marceline the Vampire Queen. She is not some stupid kid's ticket to therapy.

"Go home," she snaps to Bubblegum. "Go home before something out here takes a bigger bite out of you than I have already." She kicks off the stump to leave, aiming for the treeline and the sky.

Something stops her. A literal something: her hair snags, probably caught on a branch. She turns to free herself and finds a tiny hand curled tight in her mane's fringe.

Well look at that happy horseshit. There's gum stuck in her freaking hair.

"Kid," rumbles Marceline softly, dangerously, "let go."

"I was hoping," Bubblegum begins. She licks her lips. Her voice has a desperate hitch to it. "I was hoping you'd play your bass again," she manages. "It—it made me feel better and—and I…"

She trails off. Her face is a ruin of tears and frost and snot and damnit, Marceline's chest is doing that tugging thing again.

The vampire queen lands, nigh looming over the princess. "Let me get this straight, Bittybite," she sighs. "You want me to just drop what I'm doing and sit here and play some music for you. Just you," she reinforces, and slams home, "all because you miss your mommy?"

There is a moment, a terrible silent frigid moment when Bubblegum just stands there at the edge of the clearing, her hands clenched into fists, her chest heaving. But then she steps forward and throws her arms around Marceline's waist and buries her face in the vampire's middle, nodding frantically, her whole little body wracked with shuddering sobs.

Marceline's heart—dead, sure, but not stone—breaks in two.

"Geez, kid," she whispers. "You're smearing my duds." Her hand hovers helplessly over Bubblegum's head before descending slowly to the smaller monarch's spine. She rubs her palm's heel up, down, rinse, repeat, trying to remember the last time she consoled someone. No memory drifts to the fore, but she does an okay job of it anyway because Bubblegum's tears slowly stopper themselves quiet. The princess shivers into stillness eventually, arms still buckled around Marceline. She peeps up at the vampire queen, flushes—hides her face again.

"I'm sorry." The words waft from somewhere nearby Marceline's sternum. "About—uhm. About your duds."

Shrugging, Marceline demurs, "They'll dry. Now." She plants one hand on Bubblegum's brow and pushes her gently backward. "Sit down. On the stump. And shut up, okay? Not a word."

"But—"

Marceline lifts her feet and hovers, bringing her bass around to her lap to fiddle with the knobs. "Sit down and shut up," she repeats. She can't make herself look at Bubblegum's face again—maybe she's afraid she'll see herself there. "Before I change my mind about this."

The grass crunches—fabric rustles. Bubblegum hurries to arrange herself on the stump, tucking her feet up beneath her dress. It's torn too, Marceline notes, ripped up along the side almost to the hem. Whoever's taking care of the princess now will probably throw a shit fit over it.

"One song," Marceline allows. "Just one. Got it?"

"Yes! Oh, thank you—" Bubblegum's mouth snaps shut at Marceline's warning look. Biting her lips from the inside, the princess makes a zipping motion over them and smiles.

"Fuck," Marceline contributes for the third time tonight. She nevertheless pinches her fingers over the guitar's strings and scratches out a slow melody, and when the words occur to her she starts, "Little child, be not afraid. The rain pounds harsh against the glass like an unwanted stranger—there is no danger. I am here tonight…"

Halfway through the song, Marceline chances a glance up at Bubblegum. She's never had an audience more enthralled: the princess has her chin in her hands and her eyes are fixed on Marceline's fingers, her feet tapping along to the song's slow beat. When she catches the vampire's eye she beams and mimes clapping. Marceline grins despite herself. It's nice to be appreciated, after all.

One song turns into two. Two into five. Five into… into a sea of music undulating through the forest's dark corridors, reverberating between the trees and crackling sweet through the icicles lingering stubborn in the shadows. Marceline sings and Bubblegum sways and it isn't until the princess slumps sideways off the stump that the vampire twitches out of her self-induced trance. Her last note warbles into oblivion. Pretending not to be concerned, she drifts over to the princess and leans down to look at her.

Bubblegum's out for the count, sleeping the sleep of the bereaved. As Marceline watches, she shivers and curls into a fetal position on the frost, tucking her hands up beneath her chin. A tendril of the vampire's hair is still clutched in her fingers.

"You are seriously griping my groove, Bittybite," the queen huffs. Gnawing her lip, she looks furtively left, right. As far as she can tell there's no one else around for miles: no one else to see her tenderly gather up the comatose child. No one else to see her sequester Bubblegum near and sail skyward toward the Candy Kingdom.

The entire ride Bubblegum doesn't stir and that's just fine by Marceline, who would really prefer not to discover at this altitude that the kid's afraid of heights. As the first vestiges of dawn streak the sky mauve they come within view of the smaller monarch's kingdom. No more than five minutes later Marceline slips into Bubblegum's room, folding her body to fit through the window left ajar. She observes with a wry smirk that the princess made her bed before escaping the castle.

After ladling her armload of unconscious royalty into that bed, Marceline drifts back, studies her handiwork, and decides aw man, she's come this far—she might as well tuck the kid in too. So she does, swaddling Bubblegum in the rumpled mint-scented sheets. She even stoops to remove the child's remaining slipper.

It takes a moment of prying to get the princess to release her hair. Once free, Marceline heaves a sigh, stretches. Adjusting her bass, she spins and floats to the window. The sun is a fingernail on the horizon, scratching sinister up the sky's slow bowl. Soon it will be bright enough to boil, but now it only stings and Marceline is halfway out into its needle-prick haze when there's a noise at her back.

She looks over her shoulder. Sitting up in bed, the princess rubs an eye and squints at her. "Time's it?" yawns Bubblegum thickly. "Where'm I?"

"Morning. Home," the vampire answers. "Go back to sleep, Bittybite."

"That's not my name," the princess murmurs. Undoing all Marceline's work, she slides from the bed and pads over to the window. With a dozy smile she extends a hand. "It's Bonnibel."

Her fingers are rose-hued in the faint sunlight and expectant too, and Marceline finds them warm when she takes Bubblegum's—no, Bonnibel's—hand in her own. "Marceline," she allows. "Vampire queen. You know. And stuff."

The princess performs a curtsy. In her pajamas, no less. Squeezing the vampire's palm, she professes, "Very pleased to meet you, Marceline the Vampire Queen. Thank you for your beautiful music."

Marceline's cheeks are hot. It's probably the freaking sun, she decides, and she nods and coughs and dismisses, "Eh, hey, don't mention it. Seriously. I've got a rep to maintain, know what I mean?" But she adds, softer, "Go to bed, Bonnibel. Okay?"

"Yes, Your Majesty." Bubblegum gives a sagely nod.

"Good." Straightening, Marceline tips the princess a wink and flies away. She heads for the relative shade of the apple orchard. She's almost there, the shadows of the canopy dappled over the grass, when Bubblegum's voice comes piping to her across the castle wall.

"Marceline!"

The vampire queen turns, brows arched. Bubblegum's silhouette is waving to her frantically.

Dang it, Marceline doesn't want to like her.

But she waves back.