A/N: Finished! Hope you enjoy it, all. =) Keep in mind, credit for the concept of Bubblegum having been engineered goes to Yamino on Tumblr!
Warning: Violence ahead.
THRONE – Part II
Spending a week with an infant isn't exactly a bad gig.
Bubblegum's a majorly chill kid, all things considered. The second night Marceline visits her, the baby cuddles into her chest for the majority of moonrise and sleeps, her fingers hooked in the vampire's t-shirt. When the princess at last wakes for a feeding sometime deep in the wee hours, she doesn't wail her head off or anything—she tugs at her pale caretaker's collar, grunting and mewing until Marceline creeps down with her to the castle's kitchen. There she unearths a bottle already prepared: and dang, wow, Bubblegum's lucky. She gets chocolate milk so potent Marceline can pretty much still see the syrup floating it.
Roosting on the kitchen's counter, her jeans scraping soft against the tile there, Marceline angles the baby upright in her arm and offers her the bottle. "Most kids would kill for this," she tells the princess. "Don't shun it"—turns out that's not a worry; Bubblegum latches onto the bottle's top and begins to nurse it vigorously—"aah, yeah. There ya go." A pause, and then, "Hey, you know, we've got something in common. We both suck, heh! What do you think of that little gem?"
Bubblegum's eyes roll toward Marceline. Their lids shutter, a clear oh please, is that the best you've got?
"Fine, fine. Don't appreciate my humor. I see how it is. Hey, hey—not so much, kid, man! You'll choke." Marceline pulls free the bottle to make Bubblegum breathe, sticks her tongue out at the kid as she squirms and fusses: replaces the bottle again. "Hush, greedy. Take it slow."
Bubblegum does not take it slow. Bubblegum pooches out her cheeks and grunts and guzzles the milk. A moment later she jerks, gags: spews brown slobbery froth straight into Marceline's face.
So yeah. Spending a week with an infant isn't exactly a bad gig, but it's not all moonshine and starbeams either.
Marceline's encounters with Bubblegum come in quick, careful snatches. The kid's parents are about as attentive as mortals get, so Marceline can't exactly spirit her away for every feeding. She isn't able to raise her voice either. One word pitched too loud brings Bubblegum's ancient, wrinkled mother shuffling suspiciously down the hall in her slippers. Sometimes the father comes too, leaning heavy against his cane, his hair a nebulous white ring around a skull otherwise gleaming bald. Despite their age and seeming frailty, the scientists heft the baby with ease—bob her on knees arthritic but nevertheless willing. They spin the mobile for her. Tell her stories. Marceline hunkers in the shadows on the third and fourth nights of her stay, her knees tucked up to her chest: listening. Longing. This is something like the family she had once, centuries ago—when she was too young to appreciate it or remember.
To contend with too are the kingdom's people, confectionary castle servants and attendants. One peppermint-looking guy in particular pokes his nose into Bubblegum's bedroom several times a night to check on her. Marceline is almost certain he spots her once before she can pull all her hair into the darkness beneath Bubblegum's crib. If he does, he's either too scared to investigate or writes off the glimpse as a trick of the moonlight.
Candycane guards patrol the castle's halls. Kiwi-chew housekeepers still in their wrappers bustle about the place at all hours. They all make it hard for a vampire scout to really get to know her quarry, but Marceline's good at subterfuge and she likes a challenge anyway. She learns to stick Bubblegum's pacifier in her mouth to quiet her cackling laughter, and never to actually walk in the kid's bedroom either because the floorboards creak like cannons. Most importantly, she discovers that she must keep the conversations she has with the princess at a volume no more than a whisper.
Speaking of those conversations: supergenius bubblegum-infused babies are good listeners. Deep in the night with the infant monarch in her elbow, Marceline finds herself telling Bubblegum things she hasn't mentioned to anyone in… ever. Not because she likes to hear herself talk: more because the princess has a fascination with her voice. Bubblegum's velvet-nibbed ear nods to press to the slope of the vampire's throat every time Marceline speaks.
Bubblegum seems interested and that's—well, that's nice, because Marceline's flow of positive attention from her peers pretty much slowed to a trickle when she left the Nightosphere a few years ago. Her fellow vampires aren't exactly the most social dudes around by nature. Her king, despite once being cool—despite once being her friend—is now a power-hungry Lestat-wannabe sleazeball who keeps her busy checking out smoke-and-mirror threats to his crown. He's not really the chatting type.
Having someone to talk to—even if that someone is a burbling little droolbucket—is a welcome change from the norm.
"And he ate my fries," grumbles Marceline to Bubblegum at some waning hour of her fifth night with the princess. She bites back the bitterness that rises instinctively in her chest, leaning away to scowl down at the monarch. "Just freaking sat down and shoved them into his fat stupid face. Can you believe that?"
"Gnnng," Bubblegum commiserates, scowling back. Translation: That jackass! The nerve! If I had any mobility at all I'd help you toilet-paper the whole Nightosphere! AND I'd find you some more fries! With ketchup AND mustard this time, just for variety's sake!
"Yeah," agrees Marceline. "Yeah, he's a total jerk."
Bubblegum nuzzles the vampire. She waves a fist and roots her cheek into Marceline's neck, huffing out hushed little snorts. Maybe she's reading too much into it, but to Marceline the gesture seems like the princess's version of a comforting hug. Whatever it is, it makes her feel better, and she huddles with the baby until dawn runs its thin pink thread over the horizon and the peppermint guy comes to feed Bubblegum her morning bottle.
The sixth and last night of Marceline's mission, it rains.
Hard. It rains hard. Summers in Ooo are always subject to random torrential downpours. This one's no exception: a surprise deluge boils in a little past midnight and sets about soaking the castle. The gutters gurgle. A marching band drum echoes over the turrets, the tower, the roof, hazing out all other sounds, coating the kingdom in a tintinnabulum of watersong.
The servants drowse, lulled into a collective stupor by the soothing noise. The sleep of the two elderly scientists deepens to something close to comatose. Soon the only people in the castle awake are Marceline and Bubblegum. Marceline appreciates it—this way there are no hurdles standing between her and saying a proper goodbye to the princess she's almost positive she's never going to see again.
Leaning over the crib's edge to scoop up the baby, Marceline drifts to the window with her and murmurs, "Big storm tonight, kiddo. Man, I hate to fly in it. Gonna get drenched." She drapes herself along the ledge beneath the window and stretches out her legs, letting the princess puddle in the groove between her knees.
Bubblegum squints up at Marceline's face. Her tiny powdered eyebrows scrunch together; her hand swats at the denim seam on the vampire's thigh. Her expression is all forms of protest and she buzzes her lips for good measure, expelling a thin strand of drool and no small number of bubbles to match it.
"Yeah, it's my last night here," Marceline affirms. She smiles around the strawberry-sized lump at the back of her mouth and goes on, "So I thought I'd tell ya, you know, to stay cool. And, uhm… thanks. For not ratting me out. For… for chilling with me too."
The baby's chin wobbles at the same moment Marceline's eyes prick hot at the corners. Scrubbing her wrist hurriedly over her own face, the vampire demands, "Hey, c'mon. Don't cry!" It's an order for both of them. "Sssh, sssh," she resumes. "It's okay, kid. Maybe one day I can come visit again, huh? And in the meantime, I—well." She fumbles—coughs. After a moment of muffled, half-sniffling struggle, she manages, "I thought up something for you to remember me by, all right? So here. Just—just hold it together and listen."
She reaches to swing her bass over her shoulder. Drawing it down low, enough that the honed edges are well away from Bubblegum, she takes a deep breath and tweaks her thumb over the strings.
This isn't a night for singing, so Marceline doesn't. Instead she strums out a slow, lilting melody meant to murmur between the summer's relentless raindrops. The notes of it last, linger—the song, if it can even be called that, drifts gently through the night and draws a curtain of solace over Bubblegum's bedchamber. Into it Marceline channels all her memories of her family before it fell to pieces: her pale mother and the red checker-tiled kitchen with its almost-faded smells of cookies or cupcakes, mostly. She wants this to sound happy for the princess. She wants it to sound warm.
It works. Maybe five minutes go by or maybe fifteen: not long into the song Bubblegum's eyelids begin to droop, and by the end of it she is soundly asleep with her knuckles stuffed into her mouth. The rain is tapering to a serene purr on the sill outside.
Shouldering her bass, Marceline takes up her charge and floats back to Bubblegum's crib. She replaces the infant within—gazes at her a moment, curling her fingers tight over the headboard. The moon opens its eye in the window and casts its frail, stippled light over the princess's face, pink as a new petal.
Marceline leaves her dreaming.
"I haven't seen you that wet in a while, Marceline. Special occasion?"
So says the Vampire King from the dais as the scout trudges into the throne room, squelching with every step. She flashes a grimace at him and settles immediately into the task of wringing out her hair, taking care to drip on pieces of the upholstered furniture lining the chamber's runner as she goes. She's only walking to leave as much of a mess as possible. "Don't be gross," she mutters. "It's raining buckets out there."
She heaves herself down onto the stairs leading up to the dais. Her hair falls behind her in a wet, slopping pile; rainwater sloshes in her guitar like medicine in a gourd. She upends the latter, watching with satisfaction as a new dark splotch of moisture grows on the carpet.
The king wrinkles his nose. "Charming as always." He sighs. "Nice to have you back." His hair flickers green in the torchlight as he nudges, "Are you just here to ruin my décor or do you have a report for me?"
Shooting a glance up at the throne, Marceline smiles. "What, you want a write-up?"
Her monarch's mouth crooks in turn, just enough to show the white syringe of a fang. "Oral is fine."
Marceline wrenches her boot off, debates chucking it at his head—decides it isn't worth the hassle of a fight. She shrugs. "There's nothing to say, really. I mean, yeah—there was a baby." Next comes the sock, sodden and shapeless. She flicks it at the king. "But she's just a baby. Cries, sleeps, eats, drools—"
"Was she engineered as suggested before?" He catches the sock midair, closes his fingers over it. It sizzles into nothing in a crackle of purple flame.
Seeing no reason to fib yet, Marceline affirms, "Uh-huh. She's part gum, I think." She adds, "That was lame, dude. I liked that sock."
Her monarch cocks his head, resting his thumb in the divot alongside his long, handsome nose. "Gum?" He doesn't give any indication he heard her protest.
"Bubblegum," clarifies Marceline. "Mmhm. Sticky. Pink. About as threatening as a three-legged Chihuahua puppy. A three-legged blind Chihuahua puppy. With dysentery."
She shifts her attention to her other boot, projecting all the nonchalance she can muster. The laces are tangled. She yanks at them, painfully aware of her monarch's gaze on the back of her head. "You came to this conclusion how?" he wonders. His voice is detached—disinterested, maybe. She tries not to hope too much.
"I mean, I hung out with her, you know?" Dang, the laces just aren't budging. With the tiniest grunt of frustration, Marceline shreds the offending string and tosses it aside—this time away from the king. "Spent a few nights with her. And trust me, she's your typical baby." Excepting the fact of an improbably high IQ, but Marceline leaves out that part. "She can't even feed herself yet, boss."
Drumming his little finger on the dimple of his chin, the Vampire King says nothing. Marceline chances a glance up at him, but he's not looking at her—his face is elsewhere, canted off sideways. Shadows run like cloth over his nose, his cheek, his eyes. The tip of one foot jigs a bit.
At last he asks, "She wasn't afraid of you?"
"What?" Marceline thinks of Bubblegum reaching up to her in the night, tiny coral-colored hands opened in stars. She smiles, ducking her head again, and denies, "Nah. She liked me."
The king lifts his head from the mire of shadows to smirk at Marceline. It's a teasing expression, the softest she's seen on his face in a long time, and the younger vampire's chest twinges guiltily for it. Maybe she's been giving him too hard a time lately. "And you liked her too, huh?" he prods.
"Kinda hard not to, Crai—uhm." His real name falters on her tongue—fades again. "Boss," she amends. "Yeah, I liked her. She was cute."
"Was she?" Sinking back in his chair, the king allows, "Interesting." He sounds anything but interested. A few more mundane questions later—mostly about the weather—he glides to his feet. Ruffling a hand through the golden scatter of his hair, he praises Marceline, "Good work. I have another mission lined up for you, but it can wait a day or two. Get some rest—feed if you feel like it. Aren't strawberries your favorite?" He motions to a bowl of said fruit just beside the dais, its contents fresh and glimmering crimson.
Marceline's touched he remembered. "Hey, yeah. Thanks, man."
"Help yourself." He strides past her, skimming his hand over her hair as he skirts the puddles she left behind. The touch is soft, fleeting: almost fond. "I'll be back in a while. Kingly shit to do—you know."
"Can't say I do," Marceline disagrees. She's already examining the strawberries, trying to ascertain which is the biggest of the bunch.
"Consider yourself lucky, then," he shoots back. "Don't sit in my chair and soak it, Marceline. That's a freaking order, too." He's gone a moment later, the door to the throne room clicking shut behind him.
Palming the largest strawberry she can find and sticking a few more between her fingers, the scout plops herself down onto the dais and hooks her legs at the ankles. Leisurely she sinks her fangs into her dinner, draining each fruit to a frail gray husk, spitting the thin peppery seeds onto the carpet when the mood strikes her.
She's on her ninth strawberry when a faint misgiving rouses in her gut. Her intuition twitches to life and coaxes her attention to the chamber's door. She flares her fingers over her belly, frowning thoughtfully. It's not long before dawn—her internal clock pegs it as a bit past four in the morning, and the gray-tinged sky visible beyond the rain in the chamber's only window confirms the time. What sort of business would her fair-skinned monarch willingly conduct so close to sunrise?
Tossing a punctured strawberry back into the bowl, Marceline floats to the door. She seizes the handle, pulls it: under her touch it doesn't shift.
She wasn't afraid of you?
In her head, Marceline hears the question echo.
"Oh nuts," she whispers. She jiggles the handle again to no avail, lips leering back from her teeth. "Oh nuts—oh no, no, no no no, c'mon, please, no—"
She slams her fist into the barricade, leaving behind a dent, before she snaps her bass free of its strap and grasps it by the stem. The knobs bite into her palms as she swings the blade in a sharp cut down: once, twice, thrice. Tangerine sparks fly free of the lock and splinters explode out in all directions, and the moment she can wriggle through the jagged remnants of the door Marceline is racing down the hall to the compound's exit, chasing the scent of her monarch out into the sodden headwind.
It's like dead roses.
She reaches the Candy Kingdom a few minutes past daybreak. The flesh on her arms has only just begun to smoke for the ascent of the sun in the east—any other day she'd be on fire by now, but the persistent thumbprints of last night's storm loiter as heavy clouds across the sky's hollow, shielding her. It's still raining in sluggish ropy strips, and the whole world is an unpleasant monochromatic wash of grays and browns but for Bubblegum's curtains in the tower window. Stark and salmon-hued, they're hanging in soaked tatters, bloated and heavy and reminiscent of flayed tissue.
A thin wailing cry drifts from between them on the morning breeze.
Marceline sails into the baby's bedchamber without a sound of her own, hits the floor flat on her feet, and skids in the warm spread of liquid there. Blood: it's everywhere, thick on the floorboards, spattered in arcs across the walls as high as Marceline's elbows. The room smells of rictus and rust and Marceline's stomach clenches as her bare toes brush the tangle of flesh that once constituted Bubblegum's parents. The old scientists are meat now. Pulp.
The Vampire King looks up from where he's leaning over the crib in the room's corner. He's got his fingers curled around Bubblegum's leg: he's holding her like a turkey or something, dangling her upside down above the headboard while she wiggles and cries and closes her tiny pink hands on nothing but empty air.
Marceline has seen carnage. She's been alive—sorta—going on three hundred years now and the world ended when she was a kid, pretty much, ended in flame and stupidity and clouds eating up the horizon with mouths shaped like mushrooms. She's watched riots and ruin and has seen people starving—has heard murder, has listened to the gurgle of guts in wounds and tasted the tang of blame on her tongue.
Marceline has never seen someone hold a baby the way the Vampire King is holding Bubblegum, though. It is the most terrible experience in her life to date, worse even than the moment she found her mother curled like a wraith on the kitchen floor with a baking tin still clutched in her fingers. Because that was horrible, yes, but it was natural, it was disease, and this is nothing but cruelty. Nothing but paranoid, pointless cruelty.
Bubblegum reaches for her, sobbing.
Something in Marceline's chest snaps with a shivery little snick.
"Marceline," her monarch husks. There are shreds of skin on his lips as he smiles at her. "I had hoped to spare you this."
"Craig." She hisses his name. She's crying, tears broiling down her cheeks. In her hands the stem of her guitar slicks down her spent lifelines. She's wielding it like a sword, the business end canted high and off to the left. The edges whicker silver. "Craig, geez," she pleads. "Put her down. Please, man. Please. I'm begging you."
The Vampire King's smile widens to a grin. He gives Bubblegum a shake, just a little one; his eyelids shudder at the ensuing wail. "Listen," he insists. "Listen, Marceline. Do you hear that? Do you hear her fear?"
"Dude"—one step, two: Marceline inches closer to the crib, to the king, lifting the guitar a fraction higher with every floorboard gained—"stop it. Stop it right now or I'll—"
"Or you'll what?" He sneers, his chin a smear of gore and blood thickening into paste. "Or you'll rock her to sleep? Shush me quiet?" In an instant the flash of humor is gone from his eyes, and Marceline finds herself staring into a gaze just as devoid of empathy as a clear sky at noon. "She has to go," he tells her, pitching his tone sweet. "You know that as well as I do."
"She hasn't done anything—"
"But she could do things, Marceline." He thrusts the infant high, ignoring her breathless shrieks. Her face is turning purple. "She's got their brains"—his chin jerks in the direction of the old scientists—"and she's made of candy. She might learn to live as long as we do. She might learn to outlive us."
There's less than a pace between them now. Marceline can smell him, sweat and steel-slick cold; can see the dark slant of his pupils in the room's swelling light. "I don't see why that's a problem," she admits.
The Vampire King gives her a look of disgust. "You won't see why this is necessary either, then," he opines. The muscle in his elbow twitches and he swings Bubblegum like a sack with a brick in it toward the wall nearest him, where her frail little skull will slam and shatter and crumble and her body will snap-shudder-break and—
Marceline swings too: her guitar. The strings twang and the blade slices off the very tip of the king's ear, and he howls, and Bubblegum drops harmlessly into a coil of Marceline's hair. As she hiccups and flails and the king spews out a litany of curses, the smaller vampire lunges into him. She knocks her shoulder into his sternum. Pins him against the wall. Rips her fangs through the thick of his throat.
It's done in a moment, both the hardest and easiest task Marceline's ever attempted. He folds, twitching, beneath her: slithers down between the crib and the door. He's not quite looking at her as his eyes glaze, but his hand flickers toward her ankle and she kicks it away, furious red sobs foaming through the tendons in her teeth.
Her knees go to water. She slumps, surrounded by corpses; her guitar clatters from nerveless fingers and she can hear the guards in the hall already. Stale blood drips from her chin, from her cheeks, from even her eyebrows.
She looks sidelong and Bubblegum is staring at her, eyes huge and shining in the watery dawn. Her poor little leg is mottled by finger bruises, her cheeks almost blue for their flush.
"I'm so sorry, kid," is the only thing Marceline can think to say. "I'm—I'm so, so sorry—"
A flare of fingers, then: Bubblegum's hand, stretching out to Marceline. It opens, closes, opens again and Marceline lowers her touch to give the princess her thumb, one of her only clean digits left.
"Sorry," she whispers a third time, thick around the tears in her throat.
The guards find them thus, weeping together. At the head of said guards is the little peppermint dude Marceline's been watching from the shadows all week, and he gapes openmouthed at her first—next at the slain wreck of the old scientists, and then at the corpse of the former monarch at the crib's edge. His gaze drops last to Bubblegum.
A moment of… of something slides past. It's not silence, because one of the guards at the right of the cluster vomits up candycane bits and faints dead away, his boots clacking harsh against the stained floorboards.
"Majesty," the peppermint dude manages at length, stepping toward Marceline, "it appears we owe you a great debt."
He offers her a handkerchief.
Two days later, after the old scientists have been buried, the former vampire monarch's body disposed of, and Bubblegum's room thoroughly scrubbed, Marceline drifts above the princess's crib to say goodbye to her again. "Do you want to wake her? She'll be distressed to know she missed your departure," Peppermint Butler murmurs from the doorway, wringing his hands together.
Marceline shakes her head. "Let her sleep. She needs it—and hey, I mean, do you really wanna see her cry again?" She glances over her shoulder at the attendant, softening the question with a smile. "I'll be back soon. To, y'know. Visit."
Her shadow slithers across the floor, formless, serpentine. Her knuckles are white from the clench of her fingers over the crib. Leaving is the last thing she wants to do for a variety of reasons, and Peppermint Butler must realize it—he's a pretty perceptive guy. Knows how to get bloodstains out of carpet too.
"You could stay, Majesty," he provides gingerly. "For a while. She would like it."
"Yeah, but not everyone here likes me as much as you two, creepface," Marceline reminds him. He grins at her sheepishly and she continues, "Besides, she needs to stop staying up all night. Daylight's got a lot going for it too—she's gotta learn to appreciate it."
With that said, Marceline reaches to trace her knuckles over Bubblegum's cheek. Waving to Peppermint Butler next, she floats away from the crib, crosses the room, and slips out into the night.
By full moonrise she's reached her late monarch's compound. She alights on the stone pathway before the door and enters the place unmolested: meanders down the corridors to the main room. An assembly of her kind are waiting there, wordless, intent.
She approaches and ascends the dais. Turning to face the fangy crowd at its base, she arches a brow, lifts a hand to curl it over her guitar's stem. As she twiddles the tip of her index finger along one of the polished silver knobs, she asks, hoping her voice emerges without a quiver behind it, "Anyone wanna challenge me?"
The silence is deafening.
With a thumbs up, Marceline the newfound Vampire Queen rolls her guitar from her shoulder. She palms it: heaves it aloft. "Let's get this party started, then," she suggests.
Whirling with her wrists tucked in, she brings down the bass and cleaves the throne in two.