The spiderweb glare of lightning lit up the rain that drove against the rooftop courtyard. Bonnibel squinted through her safety goggles, triangulating the point of incidence. She needed to rotate one of her instruments 13 degrees to the left. She ducked out from under her shelter and hurried over to the tripod.
From the shadowed doorway behind her, Peppermint made a wordless sound of distress. He didn't try to follow her out, though. He was one of Bonnibel's earlier creations, and unfortunately susceptible to melting in the rain.
She had almost finished repositioning the instruments when a flash of movement in her peripheral vision caught her attention. She pushed sodden and streaming hair off the lenses of her goggles, peering towards the east wing. There was something black silhouetted against the less black sky, over on one of the peaked roofs.
Perhaps whatever it was sensed that it had been seen, because after a frozen second, Bonnibel saw wings unfurl against the sky as something monstrous rose from the roof.
A moment later lightning snaked from the sky in a blinding crack, and the monster lit up like a negative image of itself. A shriek split the air. Bonnibel ducked, covering her ears.
She raised her head, straining lightning-blurred eyes through the rain, and thought she could make out a crumpled shape against the slope of the roof.
She cast a longing look behind her at the array of her equipment, her experiment barely half completed. Then she shoved her wet hair behind her ears and abandoned it, turning back to the door and the stairwell.
"Peppermint, come with me to the east wing," she commanded. "We have a visitor who needs our hospitality."
He looked pained. "In this weather, my lady? Nobody it would be suitable to receive would travel on such a night."
She swept wetly past him. "Don't be silly. The lady of an estate has responsibilities towards travellers in need, however they arrive." Even if they came at exactly the worst possible moment and got struck by lightning like dummies.
She sighed and dragged her safety goggles down to hang about her neck. It might be weeks before there was another lightning storm as perfect for her experiment as this one.
Peppermint looked even more pained by these additions, but he trailed after her without further protest as she continued up the east wing staircase. Cinnamon shambled at Peppermint's shoulder, his partially melted face fixed in an attempt at helpfulness.
The rain was driving down even harder when she reached the top of the staircase and pushed open the roof trap. It almost blew out of her hands, rain sweeping in to sting her face. She tucked the crystallising ray into an inside pocket of her lab coat so that she could use her hands to climb out through the trap onto the dark, wet roof tiles. Then she reached back for Peppermint's lantern.
He hung back. "Perhaps whoever it was has already moved on," he said. "My lady, it really can't be necessary for you to ..."
"Peppermint, the lantern."
His mouth twisted down as he handed it over.
She turned back to the roof, lifting her light until she could spy the black shape crumpled against the slope a little higher on the roof. She edged towards it, her knees slipping on the wet tiles. Her fingers were going numb on the lantern.
She still couldn't make out what the creature was, in the rain and darkness, but she was almost close enough to reach out, now. She could see that it wasn't as big as she'd thought. She gripped a cracked tile with her left hand and raised the lantern with her right, trying to get a better look.
The moment the yellow lantern light touched it, there was a shriek and a leathery cracking sound. Huge wings unfurled and baleful eyes glared fire at Bonnibel. She bit her tongue, struck with the strangest sense that –
The shriek turned into coughing and the monster diminished. It fell back into a weak tangle of ordinary limbs and wet dark hair, still faintly smoking. Bonnibel rose up onto her knees, holding her lantern as high as she could.
"Marceline?" she said, her voice strangled.
Marceline shivered in the lantern light. "Oh, hey, Bonnie," she said. Her teeth were chattering. "Man, is this your c-crib? I didn't even kn-know."
It was strange to see her earthbound rather than floating. The sight of her head lolling over Cinnamon's misshapen shoulder, her hair swinging as he walked, had made Bonnibel's chest twist with something that was half aching, half mad at her for being so stupid.
Or maybe she was just mad at Marceline because she'd never stopped being mad.
Marceline didn't stir until Peppermint brought up the tomato soup Bonnibel had asked him for. Her nose twitched the moment he entered the room, her strange slitted nostrils flaring. Peppermint approached her with distaste. He lifted a spoonful of soup and wafted it half-heartedly in front of her face.
Marceline's hand shot out and seized his wrist, pulling the spoon towards her. A moment later her fangs sank into the liquid in the spoon, drawing out the colour with that stomach-churning schwip of science being defied.
Her eyes fluttered. She focused on Peppermint, waiting immobile in her grasp with a sour turn to his mouth. She jerked back, her expression horrified.
Peppermint sighed and laid the bowl down next to her.
"You can go now," Bonnibel allowed, and he sniffed his disapproval one more time as he moved to the door, slapping Cinnamon's arm on the way past to make him follow. Cinnamon rocked a little, a hur hur of vacant laughter escaping him, but didn't otherwise move, so Peppermint set his hands on his back and pushed him out the door in front of him.
Marceline pulled the bowl towards her, her eyes flicking to Bonnibel as she hunched over it. "I can't believe you still keep those creepy guys around, Bubblegum," she muttered as she put the bowl of now-clear soup down on the side table.
Bonnibel couldn't decide how she felt. Her stomach was twisted up, and she kept staring at Marceline without meaning to. But looking at her made Bonnibel feel even worse.
"There's no need to be mean," she said, making herself glance away. "Cinnamon carried you up here, you know."
Marceline shuddered, which Bonnibel noticed because looking away had failed again, her eyes dragged back to Marceline. "Ugh. I thought he was evil, anyway. Didn't you have to put him down or whatever, back in summer?"
Bonnibel fidgeted. "I cloned him again. I think I worked out where it went wrong last time, only I may have mixed up the levels a little bit, because his intelligence ... he can never remember not to go out in the rain, that's why he looks like that. Haha. Um."
Marceline was beginning to float above the bed, a better colour returning to her cheeks. She crossed her legs, laughing a bit meanly. "Man, not everything can be fixed by cloning something, you know."
Bonnibel didn't reply. She knew everything couldn't be solved with cloning, but a lot of things could. It was a good go-to with most problems, if you weren't sure what to do.
Not with the Marceline problem, of course.
"That butler is even creepier, anyway," Marceline said with a shiver. "I wish I knew what he touched before he touched my soup." She gave the bowl a freaked-out glance.
"I don't think that a creature of the night should be being judgemental about somebody choosing to partake of dark rites and blood conjurations in their own time." Bonnibel crossed her arms. "As long as they don't interfere with their duties, my servants' hobbies are none of my business."
"Ugh, whatever," Marceline said, an angry flush beginning to stain her cheeks. "Sorry I was judgemental. I know how much you hate it when people aren't sweet and nice all the time. What must it be like to be judged, I can't even imagine."
Bonnibel unfolded her arms, clenching her hands by her sides. "Are you really here by accident?" she demanded.
Marceline started. Then she looked away, linking her arms behind her and stretching the kinks out of her shoulders. "You know how all mountains look the same when you're flying," she said casually. "I was just passing by on my way somewhere else." She shot Bonnibel a quick look, her fangs flicking over her lower lip. "Somewhere way cooler," she added.
"Oh." Bonnibel looked at her hands.
"It's not like I came by your creepy science castle on purpose so I could look through your windows and see how you were doing. Haha, as if."
"No, I get it," Bonnibel muttered.
Storm-lashed branches scraped against the window, the shriek of twigs against wet glass reaching them inside the room. Lightning turned the peaks beyond into jagged teeth before the mountains were plunged into darkness once more.
"Soooooooo," Marceline said. She tapped her fingers against her boot, which was resting against her knee. "I haven't seen you since that summer, huh? Been back to that cliff house?"
"The coastal manor is a vacation home," Bonnibel said stiffly. "I was on holidays when we met, you know that. My work hasn't permitted me to take a holiday in the time since."
They'd met when Marceline climbed through Bonnibel's bedroom window in the dead of night, fog curling around her and cruel rocks whipped with spray far below. She'd been immune to gravity and she'd looked across at Bonnibel sitting up dead straight and startled in her bed in the darkness. Her lips had curved, a terrible, sweetly compelling grin, with points of light glinting on the tips of her teeth, and Bonnibel had been too intrigued to be annoyed.
Marceline had started showing up randomly after that night, slipping through the coastal fog at any hour of the day, pulling Bonnibel away from the estate duties she'd meant to attend to during her holiday and the experiments she'd meant to leave alone. It had been the best summer she'd ever had.
"Whoa, that sure sounds exciting," Marceline drawled. "Your work hasn't permitted you, hey." She drifted over towards the closet, poking at the leering hobgoblin catch that held it closed.
Bonnibel ground her teeth. "I was a little behind, you know. Somebody caused several trunks of data and delicately calibrated instruments to fall into a ravine."
Marceline whipped around, her eyes narrowing. "Are you saying that was my fault?" she demanded. "Because you had pathetic skittish horses that couldn't keep a carriage steady?"
Bonnibel stepped closer. "Because you attacked my carriage," she said, outraged and disbelieving. "Why did you even do that! Do you just hate me?"
That had been the last time Bonnibel had seen Marceline, standing in the wreckage of her carriage in the mountains. Marceline had shrieked in rage and turned, flying away, and Bonnibel had been left shaking with fury, her servants attempting to regain control of the horses and her precious scientific records lost to the ravine.
Marceline glared. "You were the one who disappeared without a word! You broke your promise, Bonnie. You said we would hang out all summer, and then you left without even saying goodbye!"
Bonnibel stepped closer again. "You disappeared first! For a week, right after we had a fight! I didn't know if you were coming back or if we were done or ... do you know how much I cr-cried over your stupid face?"
Marceline looked shocked for a moment. Then her face darkened with anger again, her eyes beginning to flare vampirically red. "I came back, didn't I? Unlike you. I was the one who was still trying! I was the one who said I wanted us to be friends again!"
Bonnibel clenched her fists by her sides. "Maybe I didn't want that! Maybe I think friendship sucks."
Bonnibel was close enough now to reach out and shove Marceline. She closed her fingers in the material of Marceline's rain-dampened top, pushed her up against the closet door, and kissed her.
Kissing her was the same familiar rush it had always been. Her teeth were cool points against Bonnibel's lower lip. Bonnibel broke away with a shiver. Marceline's eyes had gone dark and wide.
Bonnibel looked down and to the side, her fingers loosening and falling away from Marceline's shoulders. "Friendship sucks," she repeated, very quiet. She fixed her eyes on her hands. "I didn't want to just be friends after we'd been ... that was why I couldn't stay."
It wasn't even true. Of course friendship didn't suck, friendship was almost as valuable to her as science. Only she'd thought they were more than that.
Marceline made a weird sound, and Bonnibel looked up. Marceline had her hands clamped over her mouth, and her cheeks were flushing a cold bluish colour. She drew her hands a little way away from her mouth. "That wasn't ... we didn't even ..." She sounded lost.
Bonnibel turned and flopped back against the closet door, closing her eyes. She dropped an arm over her eyes. She hated this.
"We never even said friends," Marceline said, her voice low. "I was the first to ... that was the first time one of us even said we were that, let alone ... you never said we were anything. You only promised we would hang out for the rest of summer, and then you broke that promise."
Bonnibel dropped her arm. Marceline's fangs were digging into her own lower lip, the pressure turning it white. "I thought what I wanted was implied," Bonnibel said. "By the kissing." She paused. "I thought it was obvious."
Hope was twisting inside her like an unstable chemical reaction.
Marceline hesitated. "Lots of people want to have a fling with a hot vampire?" she tried. "Ugh, Bonnie, I don't know. It wasn't obvious to me, all right."
Bonnibel curled her fingers against her palm. She wanted to touch Marceline, but she still couldn't tell whether she was allowed to or not.
Marceline solved the problem by swooping in and kissing her, hard. Bonnibel's stomach swooped too, and she tangled her fingers in Marceline's hair, feeling it slipping damp and gravity-free against her hands, and kissed her back until her breath hurt in her chest.
She was distantly aware that a thread of unearthly wailing had joined the sound of the storm, from somewhere else in the castle. One of Peppermint's rituals, probably. Bonnibel spared a second to be glad that he was occupied, and wouldn't be interrupting them.
When Marceline pulled back she looked vulnerable and a bit mad, still. "I like you too much, it's awful," she said. "That's why I hardly ever like people, it's always terrible."
Bonnibel smiled, feeling it slow and brilliant on her mouth. "I like people all the time," she said. "Heaps of people."
She leaned forward, rocking her forehead against Marceline's. "I like you best, though."