A week after The Day of Suck, Marceline's phone rang. She pulled it out, saw Bonni's name on the caller ID, and stuck it right back in her pocket.
"No, not like that," she said, waving dismissively at the lamp in front of her. Lilac, really? "Do you have anything red?"
"Not in nightstand sizes," said the market housewares dude, who was not quaking as much as Marceline would have liked. "I've got a few nice pieces in yellow."
Her phone went off again. She checked it; still Bonni. Fine, okay. She shifted her parasol to her left hand and raised the phone to her ear.
"What?" she demanded. The salesdude glared at her, but whatever, he was gouging her on these prices, he could wait.
"Oh, thank glob," Bonni hissed. "I need your help."
"Wow, rude. Why are you whispering?"
"How fast can you get to the Ice Kingdom?"
Marceline's parasol slipped and she burned a little, across her arm. She growled into the phone. "Five minutes after never. I don't go near there." Bonni knew that.
"Marceline." Bonni sounded like she couldn't choose between commanding and whining. Neither was getting her far. "Come get me out of this cell or I am going to flip out."
"Call Finn and Jake, I'm busy." In fact, the salesdude had deserted Marceline and was speaking to another customer. "Hey, we're not done, buddy!" That brought him slinking back. Good, so maybe he was a little scared of her. "Bring me the yellow ones. Bonni, seriously, why are we even talking about this? Get the boys on it."
"They'll hurt him," Bonni said, because, yeah, she had a gift for making people want to agree with her plans.
"Never stopped you before," Marceline answered. She pressed the phone into her shoulder and pointed to a lamp. "Stick that in a bag for me. Thanks."
Bonni's voice came out of the earpiece tinny and muffled. "I'm not going to apologize for letting them beat on the donk who keeps kidnapping me and trying to force me to marry him. But given our recent goodwill, I thought maybe you could provide a more peaceful and lasting solution."
"I can't talk Simon into jack," Marceline said, lifting the phone again. "And, what goodwill? You're nice to me for one night, I owe you now?" That would be just like her, always having an angle on everything. Well, Marceline didn't give points for caring, especially not to people who left while she was sleeping and avoided her until they wanted favors.
But Bonni's voice went all soft and honest-sounding, in the surprised way that meant Marceline had actually gotten a truth out of her: "Of course you don't owe me. I just thought that... I don't know. Never mind."
Marceline waved her payment at the salesdude and took off into the air with the lamp as soon as he grabbed it. She halted fifty feet over the market and worried her bottom lip with one fang. South to home, north to the Ice Kingdom.
"Fine," she said at last, because she could admit that she was a little grateful, as long as Bonni wasn't trying to hold it over her. Simon always found her again sooner or later anyway. "I'll be there soon, okay?"
"Thank you," said Bonni. "Thank you. He's coming back in, I've got to—" Click.
Well. There went Marceline's hope of doing this without seeing him.
In and out, Marceline told herself, perched atop Simon's mountain. The sun had set as she traveled, and she held her folded parasol crossways in her lap, half-consciously fingering bass licks in her nervousness. Just get in, grab Bonni, dodge a few ice bolts, and leave. He won't even recognize you; it'll be fine. Simple.
Except things were never simple, with Simon.
He won't know me, Marceline repeated. It'll be fine. Come on. Showtime. She kicked off of the peak and floated down to the mouth of the cave. She snuck a look in; there was Bonni, all right, sitting on the floor of a big cell, looking mad distressed. No sign of Simon. Huh. Maybe this would be easier than she'd thought. Marceline went invisible and deposited her lamp and parasol next to the door as quietly as she could, then floated in.
"Psst," she whispered. "Somebody order a rescue to go?"
Bonni jumped to her feet. "Marcy! You have to hurry." She cast around. "Where are you?"
"Wow, big rush. That's cool, I didn't really want to do the reunion thing anyway," Marceline joked. She didn't like the way her voice echoed off of these icy walls, or how huge and empty the caverns seemed to be. Simon had always been at home with a campfire and a backpack full of books. Simon didn't live here.
"Oh," Bonni said, in this weird uncertain apologetic voice. "I didn't — of course, if you want to see him, we can stay for a few—"
"I wasn't being sarcastic, Princess," Marceline cut in. "I really don't want to see him. No need to get all considerate." She looked the cage over. Smashing the bars was out; it'd be way too loud. She pulled a pin from her hair and crouched next to the lock. "Okay, let's see. It's been a while since I did this."
Bonni leaned up against the bars as Marceline worked, eyes on what to her must have been a floating padlock. "That's good," she murmured. "That you don't want to see him. I mean, I want you to be happy—" Since when? Marceline thought "—but he did nearly kill me a few weeks ago. I'd rather not spend any more time in his company than necessary."
"Whoa, what?" Marceline glanced up at Bonni. She looked cold and moderately pissed, that was all, but... "No one said anything to me. Are you okay?"
"Finn and Jake didn't tell you? This ancient evil got out, possessed me, went on a rampage. We took care of it."
Marceline fumbled the pin. "Possession? And no one thought to mention this to me?" Okay, dangerous adventures were par for the course around here, but anything that could get past that crown was nasty. Bonni had almost died last month, and no one had told her.
"Like I said," Bonni answered breezily, liar, liar, "we took care of it. It wasn't as bad as it could have been."
Marceline went to pick the pin back up and found that her fingers were trembling. "Dang, Bonni. I know I'm not exactly on your emergency contacts list anymore, but you could've said something last week." And there I was sniveling about a half-rate wizard who never even hit me, she thought, and then, No, nope, not going to do that right now. Out of patience with that line of thought.
Bonni said, "I was focused on you. And I've been trying not to think about it too much," and okay, Marceline could empathize. She shot Bonni a supportive grimace, though she knew she wouldn't see it.
"I'm all right," Bonni said when she didn't receive a perceptible answer. "Merely still angry at Ice King."
Very convincing. Bonni was obviously downplaying something here; she'd gotten too used to being around people who exploded into sugar bits if you scared them. Marceline frowned into the lock and resolved to frighten the whole story out of Jake later.
To Bonni she said only, "Let's get out of here, then. I'm almost finished with this."
Marceline turned at the sound and found a penguin looking up at her — or, looking at where her voice was coming from. Except its eyes looked awfully focused. Fur sprouted on the back of her neck just to prickle with nervousness.
"Hey, little guy," she whispered. "Sssh."
"Wenk," said the penguin, louder.
"No, no no, don't do that."
Bonni rattled the cell door. "Let me out! Schnell, schnell!"
"Both of you shut up!" Too late. Marceline heard footsteps coming up the hall, and they weren't penguin-sized. She popped the lock and then allowed her limbs to fold outward, got visible and huge, because she could take an ice bolt or two but she wasn't so sure Bonni could boast the same. She slavered down at the penguin and it fled the room as fast as it could waddle, wenk-ing all the way.
"Gunter?" Simon called. "What is it, sweetie?" Marceline bit her tongue to keep from answering: I'm scared, Simon. Gunter, she realized a moment later, was the penguin.
She'd been Gunter for a few weeks, toward the end.
"It'll be fine," she told herself. "It'll be fine."
A small touch at her calf. "Marcy?" Bonni asked softly. This was another story Marceline had never told her.
"Don't call me that right now," Marceline snarled, and the princess shrank back, but that was fine, it was better if Bonni was behind her.
Simon stepped into the room.
He smelled. Not of body-smell, not of anything anyone else would notice, but of magic, raw and overgrown. It drowned even the smell of his blood. He was no more human than Marceline herself, anymore — although, if they'd been human, they'd have oozed out their insides along with everyone else, in the first year after the bombs. But they hadn't, and now he was wrinkled and too thin, and his teeth were sharp, as sharp as hers, maybe. As sharp as the spikes on that crown.
Simon stopped short at the sight of the enormous batbeast in his living room. He scowled. He said, "What is—" and Marceline roared.
The sound didn't just drown out whatever he had been about to say; it shook the cavern, scattering drops from the icicled ceiling and reverberating in all directions. It hurt even Marceline's ears, but she kept it up, stretched it out louder and longer until she ran out of air to push across her vocal cords, and then she followed it up with a thick growl on the inbreath. When she opened her eyes, Simon and Bonni both were cringing at her feet.
"Stay away from me," she hissed, and then she batted the crown from his head, snatched Bonni up in one fist, and fled into the night before Simon could right himself.
She had the presence of mind to reach up and settle Bonni onto her back early on, but Marceline didn't do anything else for a long time except fly, far and fast. She was passing over the border of the Ice Kingdom when she felt her passenger slip suddenly and go tumbling off. Bonni screamed on the way down, which made Marceline realize that she'd maybe possibly been yelling for a while already, and Marceline just hadn't been listening.
"Math," Marceline swore, and dove and rolled. She caught Bonni in the soft of her chest ruff before she'd gone twenty feet, made a cradle of her arms, cruised belly-up. "I got you!" she said. "Are you okay?"
"Put me down!" Bonni cried, and yeah, she was mad. Hurt, too soon to tell. "Put me down, you enormous brute, you absolute child, put me down!"
"Okay!" Marceline said. "Okay, just give me a minute!" Bonni didn't feel as warm against her air-temperature palms as she should have; Marceline doubled back into the foothills of the border and found an outcrop that would get them out of the wind. As soon as she was stationary on the ground Bonni fought free of her hands and stumbled to the embankment, where she sat, shivering. Marceline shrank to her normal shape and crouched across from her, at a safe distance.
"What is wrong with you?" Bonni moaned, leaning back against the bank.
Marceline didn't have an answer for that. Instead, she asked, "You're not going to stomp off?"
"I don't think my legs would support me far enough for a dignified stomp."
Oh, jeez. "Are you hurt?"
"No. Be quiet, please." Fair enough. Marceline bit her tongue and shuffled her boots in the dirt. Bonni huddled up against the bank and ignored her.
"You're bleeding," Marceline said when she couldn't stand the silence anymore. One of her claws must have caught Bonni's forearm during the midair rescue; there was a scratch there, welling up Bonni's weird violent-pink blood. It was thin, but long, and the scent coming off of it was huge — Marceline could smell blood under the skin all the time, but put it out in the open air like that and whoa. She breathed the cocktail of sugar and metal, and surrounding those, the sweet heady smell that was Bonni's particular shade of pink. Her stomach growled audibly.
"Don't get hungry," Bonni warned, covering the scratch with her hand, but too late. Marceline grinned at her and let herself enjoy how sharp it felt, with her fangs pricking into her lower lip. Only for a moment, though; then she civilized her nervous-making smile.
"Relax," she told Bonni, who hadn't quaked at all, despite that Marceline had given her plenty of reasons tonight. "I brought snacks." From her back pocket she dug the little paper bag she always carried, and spilled its contents into one palm.
Bonni squinted at Marceline through the dark and huffed. "Erasers? Those can't taste very good."
Marceline shrugged. "They're portable and they don't go bad. The rubber's not great, but this shade of red is pretty okay. And, hey." She drained an eraser and flicked it at Bonni. "Rubber funk in my mouth is better than feral mode, right?"
As Marceline had hoped, curiosity took the edge off of Bonni's anger. She picked the eraser up and turned it over in her hands. "I would love to know how you do this," she said, for the millionth time. "Red is — it's not a substance, it's a subjective experience of reflected energy waves. How do you consume that, let alone subsist on it?"
Marceline shrugged and drained another eraser. "Maybe my fangs are actually sophisticated biofilters which have evolved the ability to draw in only those substances which reflect red wavelengths, while leaving behind all else. But then, that wouldn't explain why some of the waste products of my feeding don't seem to be materially reduced in any measurable way, while others shrivel and desiccate. Or what I do with the substances metabolically." She dragged her finger around in the dirt to make a shocked face, then glanced up and was pleased to find that Bonni's matched it almost exactly. She smiled. "We hung out for like a decade, brainlord. I've got whole speeches memorized."
"So you were paying attention when I talked to you in the lab." Bonni still looked grumpy, but she sounded pleased.
Marceline decided to gamble with that little piece of goodwill, and said, "Mostly just to your butt. But some other stuff made it through."
"Marcy!" Bonni protested. Marceline wolf-grinned at her, tongue between her teeth.
"Can you blame me? It's an excellent butt." Bonni flushed and looked at the ground, scowling, which was no fun at all. It had been better last week, when they'd been able to get some back-and-forth. Not tonight, apparently. Fine, whatever.
"Sorry," Marceline muttered. "Didn't mean to make you uncomfortable. Or scare you, earlier. Or drop you."
Bonni gave her a look about as cold as the one Marceline had gotten for her last apology, the week before. Marceline's face burned; she was stupid for trying. Sure, Bonni had come over to help her, but those had been extreme circumstances and this wasn't exactly a social call either. Why would she think they could get along for more than thirty seconds at a time?
"Yeah, well, heroing's not exactly my thing," Marceline said bitterly. "You could've called someone competent and you didn't, so who's the idiot here really?"
"You're not an idiot," Bonni said, and it was kind of like sorry in that she'd never said it before, and in that there'd been a point when Marceline would've given anything to hear it. But that had been a few decades ago, and anyway Bonni had that slightly strained tone to her voice that meant she was trying too hard to sound honest.
Marceline snorted. "Points for effort, Princess." Bonni chucked an eraser at her — boink, right off her nose. That got her to look up.
"Math's sake, Marceline," Bonni scolded, and this time she looked like she meant it. "Don't sulk. You're not an idiot, I don't think you're an idiot, and I don't care that you dropped me. I was in no danger of hitting the ground. Just... quit flirting, alright? Please?" Marceline rubbed her nose and nodded. Bonni shivered. "Glob, it's freezing out here. I appreciate the cover, but I wish we'd found someplace further from the Ice Kingdom."
"Do you want to get going?" Marceline asked.
Bonni shook her head. "Not yet. I fell off because my hands were too cold to grip your fur, and that problem hasn't been remedied."
"So I'll carry you."
"I'd rather you not. Help me warm up?"
Marceline gave Bonni the side-eye. Only she could go from 'no flirting' to wanting to cuddle in less than a minute without seeing the irony. The blinkers of uber-practicality, she supposed. Honestly. "I don't give off heat," she said. "Do some jumping jacks or something."
"Perhaps not, but your body can trap thermal energy as well as any other dense solid. Blankets don't generate heat either. And I'm tired and sore." Bonni made grabby hands. "Come here."
"Glad I'm an adequate dense solid," Marceline quipped, but she edged closer. The soreness was, after all, probably one hundred percent her fault. And she'd received a 'please' just now, and Bonni'd admitted she wasn't stupid. Maybe she'd have to rethink the idea that she didn't give out points for caring, because she definitely was right now. Whatever, she thought. Enjoy it while it lasts.
Bonni fussed about arranging them; Marceline's limbs weren't much in the way of cover, but the princess was plainly reluctant to settle herself between Marceline's legs and lean back into her arms. Marceline took pity on her.
"Here, I'll just get big again. The fur will help." Bonni nodded, and Marceline let herself become large and wolfish, and allowed Bonni to climb into her lap. Bonni huddled into her fur, and Marceline leaned back against the bank with a sigh, curling around her. It always felt safer to be big and hairy when her personal relationships were going to junk. People sucked a lot of the time, and it was nice not to have to be one on the days when she hated them.
And 'junk' about summed it up, didn't it? Encounters with Simon never went well, but he hadn't even done anything this time — at least, not to Marceline. The fact that Simon's grief for his Betty had turned into this obsession with princesses ate at Marceline's guts. She'd quit trying to stop him a long time ago, because that fight would never end, and because Marceline had always known better than to live her life for or about other people (unlike some monarchs she could name). But that didn't mean she didn't feel guilty. Kidnapping, harassment, every kind of invasion of privacy... he was ultimately unsuccessful, always, and most of his victims professed annoyance more than anything, but even Bonni sometimes spoke of him with a tinge of fear. It wasn't Marceline's responsibility, but it kept her awake some days all the same.
In her arms, Bonni shifted closer and gave a sigh that she probably thought was too quiet for Marceline to hear. Marceline fitted her arms closer around her and smiled, thinking, This is maybe not completely about thermodynamics. Bonni was most likely exhausted, because Bonni was always exhausted, because her I-don't-need-taking-care-of act was so thorough she'd even fooled herself. She tended, though, to wind down like this whenever she lost her momentum. Well, if she fell asleep, Marceline could carry her home. In the mean time, her weight and warmth were pleasant.
Bonni didn't fall asleep. She rested awhile in Marceline's arms, holding her crown in her hands, then sat up so they were facing each other again.
"Ready to go?" asked Marceline.
Bonni shook her head and bit her lip, appearing to struggle with something. At last she said, "It wasn't fair of me to ask you to visit Ic— Simon. I don't know what your relationship is, but I obviously underestimated its magnitude. I'd been given to understand that the two of you were friendly, and you could just sweet-talk him. That was a misunderstanding on my part. I apologize."
"Oh." Well, would you look at that. "Um, that's okay. I mean, he always finds me eventually anyway. I was past due. And I shouldn't have flipped out like that; he wouldn't have recognized me even if I'd been person-shaped."
Bonni frowned. "Of course he would have. He loves you."
"Not anymore. He doesn't even know who I am." Marceline said. Not since she was seven and he'd left her in the wastes, either trying to protect her from himself or too far gone to remember they belonged to each other. She'd never decided which. "And how would you know?"
"Dude, he's obsessed with you. Not princess-obsessed, different, but he's pretty hardcore about it." Bonni shuddered. "The last time he kidnapped me, before this, he spent the whole time performing covers of your songs. Wig and all. It was awful; Finn and Jake took hours to show up."
Marceline had gone still. "He listens to my music?"
"Um, yeah. You didn't know? Then what's the deal? I thought your weirdness about him was a reaction to his devotion. Like maybe you were flattered but also a little creeped out."
"No," Marceline said. She cast her mind back. It had been, what, three hundred and fifty years since she'd started playing her songs in public? She really hadn't talked to him since then, wow.
"Then what?" Bonni asked. Marceline didn't answer
Making your way in the world today takes everything you've got... Simon had always sung for her: weird old-world songs, random mouth-sounds, anything he could come up with to break the overpowering silence of their surroundings. When one day she'd woken up and been alone at their campfire, the quiet had felt like it would press her into the ground, press her to death. She'd sung to keep herself company while she searched for Simon, and kept singing after she'd realized she wouldn't find him. As the years had passed his lyrics had worn thin with overuse, their tunes mutating with time like everything else in the world, and she'd had to start coming up with new ones. And now? Simon was still gone, but the guy who'd taken his place loved her music.
Bonni laid a hand on her arm. "Are you okay?"
"What's his favorite one?" Marceline said. "His favorite song of mine." She'd written more than one with him in mind. Maybe something in him understood.
"Geez, I don't know. The one about the fries, I think. Why does it matter?"
Marceline scowled. "'Fry Song,' seriously? Why does he want to be listening to my daddy issues?"
"Marcy," Bonni said. Marceline rolled her eyes and waited for the cutting remark about how yelling about your daddy issues on a stage made it easy for anyone to tune in. Never mind that she'd never performed "Fry Song" live, that was a leaked demo, dangglabbit, see if she ever trusted Finn with deep emotional junk again.
Instead, Bonni said sternly, "Don't deflect."
"I'm not deflecting. I'm curious about his taste."
"Marcy, did he hurt you."
Marceline looked down at Bonni in surprise. "You're shaking." Bonni was staring at her hard, a bundle of taut lines in her lap. She twisted her crown in her hands, and its gem winked at Marceline in the low light. She looked tired, and impossibly tense; no one with sugar for bones should be able to have circles that deep gouged under their eyes...
Realization dawned, stinging as the sunrise. "Oh, jeez, Bonni, no. No. Not like that. He wouldn't—" But that wasn't true, or at least, nothing close to a safe bet. "He couldn't. I'm tough."
"So is he, on the rare occasion that he remembers how to use his full strength," Bonni said, but she'd eased up a little at Marceline's denial. She was still turning the crown over and over in her hands, though — thinking about whatever damage Simon had done to her a few weeks ago? Marceline sighed, uncomfortably aware of how much each of them wasn't telling the other. If her silence made Bonni as worried as Bonni's silence made her — and now she was thinking all twisty, too.
"I know," she settled for saying. "It's a fight I never wanna have." She'd seen others forget exactly how much power Simon's crown held and not take him seriously; Finn and Jake did it constantly. But Marceline had been knee-high to Simon the first time she'd seen him rise ranting into the sky, bleeding snow in all directions like an angry god. She'd observed from afar as he'd turned a sunny slice of prairie into a permafrosted mountain kingdom. It had taken him only a few months, and he'd maintained it for centuries without seeming to try. No, she knew better than to tangle with him directly, even if he was small and absurd most of the time. Not that she could ever hurt him like that.
"I appreciate the worry, really," she continued, shooting for a careless tone, "but like you said, his obsession with me's different. We've got history, is all. It's — it really doesn't have anything to do with anything. Come on, I think you're warm now. Your subjects must be going nuts." She laughed at the accidental pun; Bonni did not. She just set her crown back on her head, and quietly let Marceline give her a boost.
"I'm curious," she admitted, when she was settled on Marceline's back. "If you ever want to tell the story to someone, I'd be more than willing to listen." Marceline, who was used to Bonni's personal questions coming in the form of problem-hypothesis statements, surprised herself by almost wanting to go ahead with that. Almost.
"I'll keep that in mind," she said, meaning it, and Bonni nodded. They kept their separate peaces for the rest of the flight back, but for once, the silence was companionable. When Marceline made it home just shy of sunrise, she barely minded realizing that she'd left her parasol and new lamp on Simon's doorstep.
The next afternoon, Marceline borrowed BMO, and together they repainted her house. The whole place had been feeling dirty and broken-into since The Day of Suck, and she'd been reconquering it piece by piece all week — it was her space, and she said what belonged in it and what didn't. She chose the art and the colors just like she chose her hair and her clothes. It was exhausting to be thinking like that all the time, though. Hence, company. BMO was a good pal to have around when you wanted to keep it light, even if he could only paint like two feet off the ground.
"What color, do you think?" Marceline asked when they'd broken out the paint cans.
"Pink!" BMO cried. "Pink is the best color for supercool friend houses."
Marceline laughed. "It's already pink, baby. I need it to be a different color."
"Hrrm. That is fine — if you do not want supercool friendship house level."
"What about purple?" Marceline offered, smiling. "You can use the roller brush."
"Yaay!" BMO hummed. "Yes. That is sufficiently off the hook."
"Great. You go around the bottom edge, and I'll do the tall parts."
"BMO will be the most quality," BMO said, and got to it. Marceline watched her wrangle the big brush for a minute, then floated up to start from the top.
Another thing Marceline appreciated about BMO was that he didn't try to start paint fights or anything — the work went pretty smoothly, just the two of them doing their parts to some of BMO's cheerful music. It left Marceline with time for thinking, and over and over she found her mind drawn back to Bonni.
Something's changed, she mused. And I'm not sure what it is. It wasn't that she and Bonni were getting along; they weren't, really. But they'd both decided at some point during The Day (the Night) of Suck to try, and that seemed to count something big for both of them. Even when they'd yelled, Marceline hadn't felt that crash-and-burn sinking in her stomach that Bonni's anger always used to bring on. Well, okay, last night it happened a little. But they'd fixed that, right away, no angry partings, real apologies given and received. Taking stock of this, Marceline rolled hope around in her mouth like a particularly delicate shade of red.
Glob knows I'm not swimming in spare friends, she thought. Which is fine, suits me, but if this could be cool, then cool. Because Bonni wasn't just bossy and condescending and a liar; she was also super smart, and funny, and needed taking care of from someone she couldn't distract. Marceline didn't regret breaking their thing off, not for a second — it had been what needed to happen — but maybe enough years had passed, finally, that they could coexist again, maybe even when there wasn't an emergency.
Well, it was worth a shot.
"Hey baby," she called down to BMO when they reached the end of the second wall. "I think that's enough for today. I'm giving you a ride home, right?"
"Flying!" BMO confirmed cheerfully.
"Awesome, let me just change out of the paint clothes and grab my spare parasol." And then maybe an extra stop on my way home.
Marceline didn't bother with the main gate of the Candy Castle because front doors were for suckers, and also she might still technically have been banished from the grounds. That didn't mean much in a kingdom that left its windows open, though; under the soft shadows of early evening, she flew right into the Private Royal Kitchen and told a security camera, "I'd like to see Bonnibel." Then she fixed herself a cup of tea and sprawled in a seat at the table. Within a few minutes, pattering footsteps came up the hall and Peppermint Butler appeared.
"Peppy," Marceline greeted him. "How's shakes?"
"Milady Abadeer," the butler drawled in his reedy little voice. "So nice of you to pop in for a trespass. The princess is not accepting visitors at the moment." He held up a hand against Marceline's protest. "She has been in her lab for twenty-two hours. Do you still have a gift for convincing her to eat?"
"One way to find out," Marceline said. "Lead the way."
Peppermint Butler opened the lab door for Marceline, on the assumption that Bonni would have refused, and beat a quiet retreat. Marceline took in the state of the room before floating in. The whole place reeked like stagnant air and antiseptic and — rancid cheese? Oh. There was a pizza box open on the chair next to her, but the food inside was cold and untouched. Every other available surface was cluttered with samples and equipment Marceline couldn't identify. At the center of it all, hunched over some beakers and a notepad, was Bonni, lost to the world beyond her own nose. Marceline dropped to the ground and let her boots' heels tap the floor.
"Peps, I told you to leave me be," Bonni said over her shoulder. "This experiment is very delicate."
"I won't touch," Marceline said, and laughed when Bonni stiffened in surprise. "Your butler gave up for the night." Bonni grunted, which Marceline took as an invitation to drag a stool up beside her.
She didn't bother pretending to be interested in the science, instead studying Bonni. She was bundled in a stained lab coat, hair pulled back messily, face grumpy and pale. Twenty-two straight lab hours looked like a believable estimate. Definitely in need of a diversion. Marceline watched her measure small amounts of some liquid into another liquid for a few minutes, then said, "So I've been thinking. I'll show you mine if you show me yours."
Bonni's hand froze over a test-tube. "What?"
"A trade. Information for information."
"Oh." Bonni set the eyedropper down to avoid a chemical spill. She was blushing again; really, innuendo was easier than hunting strawberries with this girl, always had been. Adorable.
"Looking a little repressed there, Bonni." Marceline smirked. "Gutter-mind gets better if you indulge it every now and again, you know. Let it run a little, give it its head. Or get some h—"
"Yes, thank you," Bonni interrupted. Her face was flaming; delicious. "That's enough of that, thanks, you can stop right there. What do you mean, a trade?"
Bait taken. "I'll fill in some details about Simon and me if you tell me what happened with that big monster last month. You know, girl talk. We can bond over our damage."
Bonni blinked hard, took off her glasses, and went to wipe them with her shirt. Marceline lifted them from her hand instead and held them up to the light. "These are clean, B," she said gently. "The spots are in your eyes. Come on, let me distract you from this for a little while."
Bonni took the glasses back and cleaned them anyway. "Is that another insinuation?" she asked, without looking at Marceline.
"No. And, I can lay off with the teasing, if you want. If it actually upsets you."
Bonni did her the favor of pretending to think about it for a minute before saying, "I think that'd be best. I know it's well-intended, but..."
"Done," Marceline said. She was a little disappointed, but if Bonni didn't like it, that was that for the foreseeable future. Maybe we can work our way back up to teasing later.
Bonni returned to her work as if she'd forgotten Marceline's other, more important proposal. Marceline weighed the fact that she'd been perfectly lucid yesterday against how long she'd been in the lab since then, and decided that she was probably faking. It took about three days of no sleep for Bonni to start letting major stuff slip by her, a fact which only encouraged her bad habits. So, lying. Best not to confront her about it, though; her temper seemed a little thin. Marceline called on her playbook of indirect Bonni-managing strategies and found it forty-some years rusty.
Well, when finding yourself without a tactful thing to say, be tactless spectacularly. "You've got a really good face going there. I almost thought Lemondude was in the room."
Bonni paused in her scribbling and directed a truly disgusted look at Marceline. Marceline smiled into it. "Yeah, like that. So, twice in one month for almost getting killed by ancient evils, that's pretty good. Sorry again about dropping you."
That, for some reason, earned a cracked smile. "Don't flatter yourself," Bonni said, setting her pencil back down. "You're reckless and violent, but the Lich is a little out of your league."
"The Lich?" Marceline asked. 'Ancient' had been an understatement; that particular evil was as old as she and Simon, at a conservative guess. She hadn't been in the area when Billy had taken him down, but she'd heard the stories, and even her deathless dad talked about him like he was something scary. A chill ran up her spine at the thought of Bonni facing him down, and especially at the thought of Finn helping her. Finn was a tough kid, but there were some kinds of death kids shouldn't have to look in the face — mostly the stinking grinning still-moving kind. Marceline had been four when she'd made its acquaintance, but the world was better than that now. Things like that weren't normal anymore, notwithstanding Bonni's occasional donk-up with revival serum. And rotting candy wasn't the same as shambling meat. For one thing, it was reversible.
"Wow," was all Marceline said to Bonni. "That guy doesn't mess around. Good job."
"That's it? Good job?" Bonni's voice went thin and strained. Marceline shrugged and averted her eyes, because if she didn't look at Bonni then Bonni wouldn't look so small and, and mortal. No wonder she was hiding in here, making herself too busy to think.
"He's a big bad, but you took care of it, right? Or we wouldn't be sitting here. So, good job. You were pretty casual about it a second ago."
"I was dead," Bonni said, and for a long beat there was only crackling silence in Marceline's head, like someone had yanked her input cord.
Under her stare, Bonni shuffled her hands on the table and said, "Ice King made a mistake which allowed the Lich to possess me. In order to halt the rampage the Lich took my body on, Finn had Ice King freeze me solid. I overbalanced and... shattered. As you can see, they managed to put me back together again—" Marceline choked a little "—but I was dead for about four hours. It was lucky, really—"
"—that is, it turns out, when the host dies so does the Lich." Bonni's voice shook but not nearly enough, not for this. How could she just sit there and say these things? "He dissipated. We shouldn't hear from him again."
Marceline knew she should say something, anything, even just to make Bonni stop talking this way, but she couldn't come up with a single word.
"My awareness of the world from within the possession was very limited," Bonni went on, tracing her finger along the lines on her notepad. "Fortunate, I think. It didn't hurt, that way, when I — well, when I..."
"That's good," Marceline said. She coughed the panic out of her voice. "That's good. Usually, dying, it hurts a lot. Just, from my, you know, personal experience."
Bonni picked up a beaker and tipped it in Marceline's direction, sarcastic, like a toast. "Here's to never doing it again."
Her hands were shaking; Marceline took it from her before she could spill it, gave it a tip of her own. "Cheers," she rasped, then laughed, struck funny by the expression and only a little hysterical.
"It's — it was the name of some movie or something Simon used to love. He sang me the song from it sometimes." Guess it's my turn. But first— "Come on. I'll tell you all about it over some dinner."
"I'm not hungry," Bonni deflected, and Marceline felt herself reach her last few inches of rope.
"That's butterscotch and you know it," she snapped. "You've been in here all day, you need to eat." Steadying breath. "Look, I — I get it, okay? I get it probably more than anyone else you'll ever meet, and you said it, it's out now. So stop lying to me and come have dinner."
Bonni drew herself up into full-on steel-glinting princess mode, and somewhere in the back of Marceline's mind a little voice sang a refrain of stupid stupid stupid stupid. But what else could she say, in the face of Bonni having died and pretending not to be upset about it? 'Welcome to the club, I'll introduce you around to my ghost buddies?' Marceline sneered at herself. 'Wait fifty years or so and you'll be fine with it?' That's sensitive. But the voice sang stupid stupid stupid all the same, and it was Ash's voice, so Marceline froze like she always did under Bonni's anger and Ash's insults. Good work, genius.
But then Bonni blinked, and Bonni slumped, and Bonni said quietly, "I'm cracking."
And Marceline scrambled to pick the tempo back up in a song she didn't know and said, "Yeah."
"I can't let myself break. Too many people need me."
"They already put you back together once," Marceline said. "We'll do it again when it comes to that. But you've got to be the one to let the ghosts out."
"That's not a practical approach to nation management," Bonni replied, but it was fine, it wasn't what she meant; her mouth was running on auto while her eyes said she was getting it. Her brain caught up. "Everyone else just keeps telling me I'll definitely break if I don't eat or sleep."
"You already knew that. Didn't help, did it?"
"No. Thank you for — for understanding." She took off her glasses and laid them aside. "Let's — can we go to the kitchen now?"
Something in Marceline's chest crumpled with relief. "That's what I've been saying this whole time."
At some point while they had been in the lab, true night had fallen. Bonni's kitchen was cool and still, with its window still open where Marceline had left it. Marceline took back her seat at the table and watched Bonni hunt through the fridge.
"There really isn't anything red," Bonni apologized.
"That's cool," Marceline said, "I brought my erasers."
"No, no, I'll have Peppermint Butler fetch some strawberries." Bonni clapped twice and the little mint man stepped immediately into the room, like maybe he had been standing just outside the door. Marceline eyed him; she'd forgotten that he did that sometimes. He mouthed at her, Good job. She shrugged: Yeah, whatever. It hadn't been for him.
"A bowl of strawberries for Marceline, Pepps?" Bonni asked. "I'll be foraging here."
"Very good, Princess," he answered, and left. Bonni pulled a stack of pancakes out of the fridge and brought them to the table. Marceline watched her devour them cold and tried to figure out how to start talking again.
Bonni watched her between bites and eventually said, "Changing your mind?"
"No, just trying to pick where to start." Marceline tapped out a little rhythm on the table, nervous, and made her decision. "He used to be different. We were close." Bonni raised her eyebrows but didn't say anything, so Marceline continued, "It was a long time ago, before you knew him. Before you were born, really, before anyone was."
"The wars?" Bonni set her fork down, every bit of her trained on Marceline. This wasn't something they talked about; wasn't something Marceline talked about. She knew that whatever she said would go right into Bonni's library, but maybe that was okay this time.
"Right around then. Keep eating, I'm not gonna stop."
"I had no idea that he was as old as you. I thought — well, that you were the only one left, from before." Bonni took another bite.
Marceline shook her head, eyes on the table. "Me, and Simon, and one or two others. None of us were human, not even the ones who started that way, or we wouldn't have made it. The others are mostly dead by now, I think, or else really hard to track down. And Simon, he's older than me, actually. I was a little kid when the wars started; I barely know anything from before. He was grown up. And a historian. He'd be the one you wanted to talk to about humans, if he remembered any of it." She swallowed. "How much do you know about him?"
Bonni shook her head. "He showed up and built the Ice Kingdom about a hundred years after the Candy Kingdom was founded. He's obsessed with princesses, a complete jerk, and powerful. Dangerous powerful. Fond of penguins. He doesn't seem to age. That's all."
"All of those things, they're the crown. Or, they're Ice King, he is those things, I'm not denying that. But none of them were true when he was Simon." Now Marceline traced the wood grain of the table, not looking at Bonni, because for this next part she didn't want to watch Bonni adding her up and deducing stuff, about her, about Simon, about her dad. "Like I said, I was a little kid when the bombs fell. Really little, and I kind of ended up on my own. Simon found me in the rubble and showed me a safe path, gave me Hambo — this stuffed animal," she amended at Bonni's noise of question. "I don't have Hambo anymore, he got stolen a long time ago. By Ash, actually. But it meant a lot."
"And you stayed together?" Bonni's face was unreadable.
"For a little while," Marceline said, with no intention of elaborating. She hadn't promised the full story, just some details. The ones about how Simon had snuck or wandered away in the middle of the night, and how she'd been alone again, didn't need to be part of this particular share-fest.
Bonni didn't push that point. Instead she asked, "He was stable, during this period?"
"I don't know about that." Marceline laughed bitterly. "But he was on the right side of sane, yeah, for the first while. Until the crown got to him. He used it to keep us safe, but every time just — it's poison." Marceline flashed her a glare, daring her to theorize on its potential to be used for good. Anything for the security of the kingdom, that was Bonni. And that was how the crown got you — anything for your people, anything for your princess, anything for Marcy. And then it swallowed you whole.
But Bonni shook her head. "I'm well aware that some artifacts are beyond even my control. I've no interest in becoming another Simon."
Marceline swallowed around a knot in her throat. "Good. That would suck."
Just then, Peppermint Butler trotted in with her strawberries, and she shut up until he'd put them down and left again. This was barely a story Bonni could hear; he certainly wasn't welcome to it. She picked a strawberry up as she listened to his footsteps go all the way up the hall — no hiding right outside the door, thanks — and sank a fang in. The red washed over her tongue bright and deep and sweet, and she closed her eyes and smiled.
"Satisfactory?" Bonni asked with laughter in her voice. Marceline mmmm-ed, too happy to tease back. For a little while, they just stayed like that. Marceline sat, and drained strawberries, and started passing them to Bonni too, after Bonni finished her pancakes. A breeze came in through the window, carrying the smell of sugar from all the streets and walls of Bonni's kingdom. Peaceful. Marceline brushed a hand across the fuzz on one side of her head and thought about what she'd do after she left here for the evening. Her house still needed to get finished, but that prospect had soured a little in the last few hours. Not for the first time that week, the uneasy thought turned over in the back of her head: Isn't changing yourself to spite Ash still letting him control you? Change the hair, change the paint, change the locks; he was still walking through her walls. She bit down on the feeling of pathetic rising up in her and swallowed it back; she wasn't here for this and neither was Bonni. Tonight is for her. Focus.
When they'd broken the last berry in half and eaten it, Marceline asked, "How are you doing?"
"Better," Bonni said. "Better than I was, anyway. And you?"
"Been worse." Marceline kicked back in her chair, trying to look cool, cheated a little on the balance by floating. "It's funny, I just keep thinking, I was happy." Bonni shot her a questioning look and she shrugged. "The whole world had ended, my family was... but Simon and I had each other, and he was really good at keeping our minds off of things. We ate rats and old canned beans, but he sang while he cooked, you know? I remember his jokes and stories as much as I remember the zombies and the mutants."
"He sounds like he was a good man," Bonni said softly. She gathered the dishes from Marceline's side of the table and piled them with her own.
Marceline let her chair's legs fall back to the floor. "He didn't hurt me, if that's what you're asking. He just left."
"How old were you?"
Seven. Eight, maybe. "Old enough to get by." But this wasn't what she wanted to be talking about, she had to get them off this topic. Her mopey past wasn't relevant and it certainly wasn't helping anyone; no use in self-pity. What could she distract Bonni with?
"Do you want to hear the Cheers song?" she asked in a rush. "That's history. Made up by genuine humans. It's about — having a hard time, I guess. Needing to be around people who understand the world from the same place as you."
"Yes," Bonni said simply, which made Marceline immediately regret offering. Bonni didn't even like her music, this wasn't going to go off well at all, nice job, genius (you're not a genius).
"Okay. Well. It's gonna be rough, I'm not sure I even remember the tune. I only ever heard Simon, y'know, butcher it, and that was a long time ago—" and Bonni reached across the table and folded her hand over Marceline's.
"You're a composer. I'm sure you can find something that fits."
"Right." Marceline cleared her throat and hummed what she thought might be a good note, tried to remember the weird little jumps in the melody. "Okay." She shut her eyes against whatever Bonni's reaction would be and went for it.
"Making your way in the world today takes everything you've got,
Taking a break from all your worries sure would help a lot,
Wouldn't you like to get away?
Sometimes you want to go
Where everybody knows your name,
And they're always glad you came,
You wanna be where you can see,
Our troubles, they are the same,
You wanna be where everybody knows your name," and there she stumbled, and cracked on the last syllable. Okay, the whole last three words. "Math, I messed it up. I don't remember the rest."
"It was beautiful," Bonni said, smiling, and yeah, it had been, hadn't it? Marceline smiled back, and the voice in the back of her head shut up for the first time in a week.
"Um." Bonni took her hand away, awkward; Marceline hadn't even realized that it had still been resting on top of her own until it was gone. She smirked.
"Don't worry about it," she said, instead of saying Little flirty there, princess? because teasing was off limits, and that hadn't been what it was about anyway.
Bonni got up in a hurry, though, grabbed the dishes and took them to the sink. Marceline stayed put because it seemed like that was what she wanted, leaned back in her chair again and watched her clank around in the sink. "Need help?"
"No thank you." Bonni paused over a plate, her back to Marceline. "Marcy?"
"Thank you for cracking."
Marceline smiled. "It's not exactly what I shoot for, vocally—"
"No, I mean, other cracking. Telling, showing me that. I'll return the favor as best I'm able."
"Oh." Marceline blushed, cleared her throat. She'd been more selective about that than Bonni seemed to realize. "Of course. I want to help. And I want... I was hoping we could be friends."
Bonni turned to look at her, dishes done. She was leaning hard on the counter, Marceline noticed, too tired to stand anymore. "I hope so too," she said, and it wasn't a yes but it was honest, which was probably better.
"Okay. Cool." Marceline let her chair down, got up, and headed for the window. "Glad we got that settled. Get some sleep, okay?"
Bonni laughed quietly. "I'll do my best. Good night."
Marceline went home, and painted the rest of her house, and sang old songs while she worked through the night. It wasn't enough, but it was something, and when the sun rose she put away her tools and her dirty clothes and slept easy.