Their birthday party was as huge as they'd always been, bigger than they used to be, even, like all their friends thought that if there was just enough of a crowd, enough noise, maybe they'd somehow make the gap that should have been filled by a third birthday girl a little less obvious. Bubbles smiled and laughed the way she knew she was meant to and she honestly was happy, really she was. How could she be anything else when she was surrounded by all her friends, and even her... even Princess was there and Blossom hadn't done anything but press her lips together tightly for a second to show that she still wasn't happy about them spending time together, willing not to make a fuss about it for the sake of their birthday.
But even if she really truly was happy to be there, most of her attention was up, up, up, buried in a box in the attic alongside a secret. It was the one place she knew the Professor and Blossom would never look, not even accidentally with X-ray vision. They didn't want to see the neatly-folded clothes, packed away like giving up, like admitting that nobody would ever wear them again so they shouldn't keep taking up space in the dresser and closet. They hadn't even been able to stand doing it themselves, their friends had packed everything up for them while they hung around the Professor's lab with him pretending that nothing was changing.
But Bubbles could face those boxes now. It was still sad that Buttercup wasn't there with them, but things were better now. She knew they were, even if Blossom didn't accept it and by her orders the Professor didn't even know it. And even if the boxes hadn't been the best possible hiding space she still probably would have used one, because for this secret it seemed like the right spot.
She wanted to dart up to it the moment Princess got there, but she waited and pretended things were normal. She waited the whole party through, and tried to act like nothing unusual was happening when she walked Princess out at the end of the night. But when Princess passed her a tiny glimmering gift bag that probably cost more than some of the actual presents she'd gotten that night she didn't even stick around long enough to hear Princess say "Honestly, I don't know why you couldn't get these silly things yourself; a woman of my standing shouldn't be going to a craft store!" before she was off the ground and flying straight towards the attic window, barely remembering to call "Thanks Princess!" over her shoulder.
She kept hovering when she reached the box, aware that if she didn't Blossom might hear the faint thump of her settling down and come up to see who was there. She dumped the contents of the bag into her hand and looked at them with satisfaction. Princess had gotten exactly what she'd asked her for; a small baggie of plastic googly eyes, a keychain ring, and a short length of chain to hook it too. She really could have gotten them herself easily enough, except that a Powerpuff Girl couldn't do anything without everyone knowing, and if Blossom had heard about her getting crafty things she would have been curious about what her new project was and Bubbles knew she was no good at lying.
It didn't really matter that much though. Sure, she could have been done a few days earlier if she'd been able to get the finishing touches herself, but she wouldn't have done anything with it until that night anyway so it all worked out the same in the end.
Her secret was sitting right on top of all the clothes in the box, no need to hide it better than that when she knew no one else would ever look in. She'd worked on it for weeks, way more time than anyone would have thought could have put into it looking at the finished project, cutting pieces and stitching them together then tearing them apart again and redoing and redoing them then cutting new pieces when the original tries got too overworked. She'd wanted it to look exactly right, no matter how many times she needed to start over.
What she'd ended up with was a recreation of Buttercup's childhood crocodile doll, shrunk down to the size of a keychain. The fabric was soft with wear, made out of one of Buttercup's own old shirts. It had hurt a little to cut it up, but she knew the size wasn't right anymore and that they didn't need to hold onto every trace of her that was left even when they hurt too much to look at anymore, they really didn't.
And even if she wasn't going to press Buttercup about coming back when it obviously didn't help, maybe having something that was familiar right down to the feel of it would help her sister remember happy times.
It only took a second to glue the eyes into place and to shove a hole through its tail to attach the chain. When she'd gotten wrapping paper for Blossom's present she'd gone against the norm by picking a pale yellow instead of the usual pink, a pattern of starbursts instead of anything suggesting a birthday or something flowery like she'd usually pick herself. It worked fine for a present for Blossom, but it would also work for somebody more tomboyish who'd just be confused if someone said anything about it being her birthday. She wrapped the keychain nicely and neatly in a box she'd had ready for it, then flew off again before all the guests had even finished leaving the party.
It had been easy to find out where they lived, where they really lived not just whatever hotel room they stayed at when they were traveling for a gig like the one she and Blossom had hunted them down to before. She didn't need to ask around or anything that would give away her interest, all she had to do was look and listen very hard. It was part of being a Powerpuff Girl.
She wished she could just visit like a normal person, give her the present and give her a hug and try to patch things up, but she knew that wasn't a good idea. Maybe she'd do less harm than Blossom had, maybe, but she didn't know if she'd be able to do any good so better not to risk hurting her. Especially when the rest of her band would probably be there this time, and she didn't think they'd react too well to a Powerpuff Girl showing up on their doorstep. Even if they didn't fight anymore there was still a lot of past there, she understood that, and if they started wondering why one would have anything to do with their singer, well... maybe she'd do more harm than Blossom after all.
So she snuck into their apartment building--easy to do when the latch on the backdoor was broken, and Bubbles would think they'd move to a better building with the fame they were starting to get--left the box on the floor in front of their door, knocked once, and flew straight away to the roof of the building across the street where she could watch through the window in their hall.
It was Ace that opened the door, smoking and shirtless and it worried Bubbles a little that he'd be any kind of undressed around her sister, but then it was his home too, along with all the other members of their band, and she guessed she couldn't expect him to be uncomfortable on what was a pretty hot night just because a girl lived there too. He glanced up and down the hall before the small box caught his eye and he leaned lazily down to scoop it up. He glanced at the label on it, his eyebrow raising, then called back through the apartment's open door, "Yo, Bell! Got yourself a stalker!"
Then breathing suddenly became a little harder around the pressure of her heart in her throat when the girl in question appeared at the door.
"Heck yeah!" she crowed instead of acting at all worried about what Ace had said. "Stalkers mean we've really hit the big time! What'd you find? Is it something creepy?"
"Dunno. Probably some guy's ear," he said, tossing the box to her. "Or maybe it's just some asshole kid trying to trick you into opening a box of dog shit."
"Huh. No, it's an... alligator?" she said when she'd gotten the box unwrapped, looping her finger through the ring and lifting it to dangle in front of her face, frowning slightly like there was a thought nagging at her that she couldn't quite reach.
Ace was frowning himself. He poked at the doll, making it swing on its chain, before saying, "Weird-ass stalker you snagged, kid. Kinda disappointing, ain't it? Gonna toss the thing?"
The keychain swung up, settled neatly on her palm, and she curled her fingers gently closed around it. "Nah. I dunno why, but I kind of like the thing."
Across the street, tears pricking her eyes, Bubbles whispered, "Happy birthday, Buttercup," then beamed like her face would split with the force of it when, though there was no way someone with normal hearing could ever have caught her words, Belladonna's head suddenly tilted like she'd just noticed a sound she couldn't quite make out clearly in the distance.