Being stood up certainly wasn’t the worst way to start the semester, but it wasn’t the best way, either. Penny Harvard walked through the depressingly empty parking lot of a little known pizza joint on campus, hoisting her backpack further onto her shoulder. When she’d agreed to let her two best friends set her up on a blind date, she hadn’t expected much to come of it. No matter who she dated, she always had a block between herself and that person. It was so difficult to trust people she hardly knew, and of the people she did know, she wasn’t romantically attracted to any of them.
It had taken Molly and Liv three years since her first catastrophe of a boyfriend to even convince her to date anyone. Penny had been through enough counseling to convince herself she’d be okay, but no matter who they tried to set her up with, or the two romances she’d stumbled into on her own, all of them had ended in panic and failure. That was PTSD for you, she supposed.
Secretly, Penny was relieved this guy Molly had found had stood her up. She didn’t feel like rehashing her sad back story yet again, and explaining to some poor unsuspecting soul why she just wasn’t interested in anything permanent. Or anything at all, for that matter. Penny had only agreed because her therapist had given her that gentle push, with the reminder that if things went poorly, the worst case scenario was that she’d have another awkward date to add to her stories. The more awkward dates, the less she had to rely on her first boyfriend to explain her hesitation in dating. It was the perfect fallback, and Penny could save her shitty story for someone worthy of it.
That was her train of thought as she strode through the front doors of the Pizza Parlour, waved to the hostess, who she knew from her English Lit class, and strode up to the soda-shop style bar to order a soda. The entire place was set up like a wonky cross between a soda shop and an Italian restaurant; red tables and chairs filled most of the room, red barstools stood by the retro bar, and metal lamps with green plastic shades hung from the ceiling. Though the room was bright, it lacked the hospital-room feeling that fluorescent lights gave. That was Penny’s favorite thing about the restaurant. That, and the fact that she could watch the chefs work from the bar.
“Hey, Pen.” One of the waiters, a kid Penny had shared a history class with, strode up to her with a glass in one hand and a dishrag in the other. He was a beanpole of a boy, younger than her, his face still red with acne from high school. He had a charming smile, and red curls she was always quick to compliment. She felt like the sun had broken to the clouds when she saw him. “I thought you had a hot date tonight?”
“Hot mess, more like,” Penny corrected. “How’s tonight been, Johnny?”
He shrugged. “We’re scraping by. Best we can hope for on a Tuesday, to be honest.”
“I bet.” She stared up at the menus plastered to the back wall, frowning. “Can I trouble you for a Dr. Pepper? I’m waiting for Molly and Liv.”
“Sure thing.” As Johnny sashayed away to get her drink, Penny felt the warmth he gave off fade. She turned, hoping to see her friends walking in when she saw the outer door swing open. Although it wasn’t them, her face lit up when she recognized the man coming into the restaurant.
“Rob, hi!” She called, waving him over. He saw her and grinned, making his way to her quickly. He was always accompanied by a strong aura of stability, something Penny had relied on multiple times in years past. “I haven’t seen you since the Children’s theatre did Little Mermaid, how are you?”
Rob took the newsboy cap off his thinning, dark hair, his dark eyes dimmer than usual behind his rectangular glasses. “I’ve been better.” His words were drawn out slightly by a watered down Jersey accent. “How are you, Penny? What have you been up to?”
Penny rolled her eyes. “My sorry ass has been stood up, but I’m fine otherwise.” She patted the seat next to her. “Have a seat, I’d love to catch up. How’s Jen?” Penny glanced at the door, wondering why his wife wasn’t behind him. Rob sighed, the air around him cooling.
“It’s not a big deal,” he said, but balked when Penny arched a brow at him. “We had a fight, nothing major, just…” he hesitated, and Penny nodded him along. “She’s still a bit worked up over last year, and things have been… tense.”
“Oh, I see.” The year before, Rob and Jen had been expecting their first child, a miracle and an accident considering both were in their early forties. Jen had miscarried almost halfway through the pregnancy, and things had been awkward between the couple ever since. Penny couldn’t spend more than an hour with them if they were both in the same room at the same time; the tension was just too high, like a simmering pot of water ready to boil but not quite there. “What was the fight about?” At his hesitation, Penny felt guilt lick up her neck. “You don’t have to tell me if you don’t want to,” she murmured. “I didn’t mean to pry.”
Rob shook his head. “No, you always know when something is wrong, and you always know how to make it better.” Penny swallowed at the compliment, looking at her hands folded on the counter. Though there was surely a compliment hidden in there somewhere, she couldn’t help but wonder how often she stuck her nose in business that wasn’t hers.
Shaking off the thought, she turned her attention back to Rob. “We were arguing about a new coffee table. She doesn’t want to get rid of the old one because it was a hand-me-down from her mother, but to be honest, it’s old, it’s stained, and it’s ugly. I wanted to get her something newer, something pretty, even if it’s used or discount, for Christmas.”
Penny nodded. “She doesn’t want to let go. That’s not uncommon, especially if she has an emotional attachment to it.”
Rob sighed again. “I know, but I don’t know how to handle it. I don’t know how to handle her.” His frustration shot out of him and into Penny, a tightness in her throat and shoulders that she was sure he felt, too. “I almost want to just throw it out and get her a new one when she’s at work, but I know that would be stupid.”
“Yeah, that would get you roasted on a spit in the front yard,” Penny agreed, her lip quirking up just as his did the same. “No, I think you need to find a compromise both of you can work with. Have you thought about having it refurbished?”
“I looked into prices, but they were pretty expensive.”
Pursing her lips, Penny considered him. He’d helped build sets at the Children’s theatre, and he was pretty good at it. “Why don’t you build her one?”
His brow creased as he watched one of the chefs begin tossing dough for a pizza. “I hadn’t thought of that, but what good would that do? It still won’t be her mother’s coffee table.”
“So use her mother’s coffee table as a base.” Penny shrugged. “I haven’t seen it, but there’s a lot you can do to repurpose. You can make the old one into a hope chest, give it hinges and sides and a bottom, cover the top in carpet. Or if it’s got glass in it, restain the wood to make it pretty again, and turn the whole thing into a display case or something.” He still looked puzzled, so Penny shrugged again. “Look, you’re the experienced carpenter, I just design stuff. I’m sure there’s a lot you could do with the current coffee table that would be a fun surprise for her, and then you two can get a new coffee table together, and both of you can be happy.”
“You might be onto something there,” Rob said, his mood and expression perking up. His grin returned as he looked at Penny. “Lucky Penny strikes again!”
Penny laughed, then bowed with a flourish. “Thanks, I try.”
“Would you take a look at the table with me and help me design something?”
Penny’s grin widened. “I’d love to.”
Johnny arrived with her soda in a mason jar, then took Rob’s drink order and dashed away again. Rob turned on his seat, leaning back against the bar. “So you got stood up, huh? Boy or girl this time?”
“Boy,” Penny said. “Molly’s find this time. Liv is better at finding girls, I’ve found, and Molly’s not very good at finding people at all.”
“I thought Liv was straight?”
“That’s the problem.” Penny smirked. “She wants to keep all the cute boys for herself. She does recognize cute girls, though, so I can’t really complain.”
He turned around as Johnny set his soda down, holding the jar but not drinking from it. “You three got bonded awhile ago, didn’t you?”
Penny smiled. “About three years ago, yeah. Right around when the theatre did Superstar, when I took the semester off school.”
“How’s it been? I keep wondering if Jen and I should get bonded, but since neither of us has magic, I always bail before I can ask her.”
“You should!” Penny spun on the barstool, swinging her legs. “It’s a little overwhelming at first, though for us, part of that was adjusting to each other’s magic. Platonic bonds are different than romantic bonds, though, so all I can give you is the emotional aspect.”
“That’s okay,” Rob said, stirring his straw in his drink.
Penny took a sip of her soda before she launched into an explanation. “It’s like, suddenly you can feel what they’re feeling, but not in the vague way I usually do with my magic– each of them is ultra-specific in my mind. I can sense when they need something and usually what it is– food, sleep, a hug, whatever. And we can keep each other balanced, emotionally, and we affect each other’s more active powers– so if I get upset, instead of waving my hand too hard and sending something flying, I’m more likely to knock something over or cause a weird breeze. Or, when Molly goes to heal someone, we can give her a little extra push.”
“That’s exceptional,” Rob said, staring at her with wide eyes. The awe in his voice hit Penny like a warm blanket on a cold night. She brightened even further.
“Romantic bonds are different, I don’t really know how they work, but that’s part of it.” Penny turned at the sound of the door, a smile spreading across her face. “Look at that, the cavalry has arrived.”
Molly and LIv were nearly as different as night and day to look at. Molly was tall and willowy, all olive skin and green eyes and chestnut hair. She had strong features and a throaty voice, and almost always had a placid smile on her face. Liv was shorter, though not as short as Penny, and just this side of albino in looks– skin so pale she put Snow White to shame, blonde hair that shone gold in the artificial light and nearly glowed in sunlight, and crystal blue eyes. Her expression was one of intense focus, as though she were scrutinizing every person she saw– a side effect of having to focus so intently on the present, Penny had learned. The two of them gave Penny an emotional boost so vivid, so solid, she could almost see the connection between them.
Their eyes fell on Penny at the exact same time, both of their faces breaking into gleeful smiles.
“There she is, the third Musketeer,” Liv crowed, grabbing Molly’s hand and dragging her toward Penny. “Hey, Rob!”
“Nice glasses,” Molly commented. “Are they new?”
“He got them yesterday,” Liv answered, then winced as she saw Rob’s shock. “Sorry, sometimes I forget that other people like to answer for themselves.”
Rob recovered quickly and laughed it off. “It’s no problem, Liv, and thank you, Molly.”
The girls dropped down onto barstools on the other side of Penny, dropping their backpacks with hers on the floor by their stools. Penny felt the world align. It was a simple, almost unnoticeable click in her soul. She could see better, hear better, and block out other people’s emotions more easily. She could sense Molly and LIv’s energies, burning like two flames in the back of her mind. The world became clearer and quieter and all around less difficult to be in when they were around.
“Rob and I were talking about bonds,” Penny explained. “Care to share your experience of ours?”
“Highly recommend,” Molly said, her voice earnest. “It’s so nice to have only two other minds in mine, and not every person who walks past me.”
“It’s also nice not to be bombarded with visions or memories,” Liv added. “It’s like having a built in shield when you don’t have the energy to put one up yourself.”
“Man, magic has got to be one of the most difficult things to deal with twenty-four/seven,” Rob said, his accent thickening.
“Don’t get me started.” The three of them spoke at once, so quickly that Penny wasn’t actually certain which one of them had said what. They had an awkward habit of all saying what the other thought, more often than speaking their own minds. They looked at each other and burst out laughing.
“We have got to stop that,” Molly insisted.
“Why?” Liv countered, “It’s hilarious!”
“It’s confusing,” Penny admitted. “Another perk of being bonded.”
Rob cocked his head at them. “So how do you all know you’re bonded, is there like, a certificate or something you get?”
Penny shook her head, then pulled the hair back from behind her right ear, at the same time the other two did. “We get our own personalized stamps,” she said, tilting her head so he could see more easily. Penny had spent hours studying her bond mark, brimming with joy at the tiny symbol. Each of them had the same mark; a marigold, a rose, and a lily, all intertwined by their stems. Each girl’s favorite flower in their shared favorite color, red. Each of their lives and fates intertwined.
“Those are so cool.” Rob leaned in, and it took all of Penny’s willpower not to jerk away. She felt warmth spread through her as Liv took her hand, knowing that Molly had taken Liv’s other hand to add her support. They both sent out matching vibes of calmness, creating a chain between all three of them. When Rob leaned away, Penny sent them a grateful look, to which both nodded their acknowledgement. “So if Jen and I were to get bonded, we’d get something like that?”
“Not quite.” It was Molly who answered, her voice slipping into lecture mode. “Romantic bonds are different than platonic bonds. You’d essentially get another wedding ring, though usually it’s actually a wedding bracelet.” She puffed up like a hen, a gleam in her eye. “I took a class on bonds when we decided to get bonded, just so that I’d be prepared.” She scowled. “The teacher was a heteronormative, romantic sap, but the information was there nonetheless.”
“I will never understand some of what you guys say, but you’re so passionate about it I always find myself learning more about it every day.” Rob shook his head. “Heteronormative, that’s not a word most people use every day.”
“It comes with the territory.” Liv snorted. “We use those words all the time, to be honest.”
Molly nodded her agreement. “For good reason. I mean, come on. We’re a walking joke waiting to happen: an asexual Jew, a pansexual Atheist, and their token straight Catholic friend walk into a pizza shop.”
All four burst into hysterics, just as poor Johnny came over to take their order. He paled, startled at the sight of three shrieking girls, and slowly backed away, sending them into even worse giggles.
“Johnny wait,” Penny gasped, trying to speak despite being breathless from laughter. “Come back, I want food!”
Molly sucked in a breath in an attempt to contain herself. “Oh that’s right, you got stood up. You didn’t just eat without him?”
“Molly, you set us up at a movie theatre. I watched the trailers for Sharknado Six, whichever Alvin and the Chipmunks they’re on, some horror movie I have no intention to see, and Disney’s newest whatever-they’re- doing-now a dozen times before I left. The best they have to offer is popcorn and sadness.”
“That explains why you didn’t eat without him,” Molly agreed. Liv sputtered, still trying to control her giggles. “Anyway, I’m hungry. Who wants pizza?”
Johnny still looked mildly alarmed, but took their order. When he turned to Rob, the older man declined. “I’m actually waiting for Jen to get off work; she should be here in a few minutes.”
“Tell her the repurposing idea,” Penny pressed. “I think she’ll be pleasantly surprised.”
“I will,” Rob promised. “I’ll tell her it was your idea.”
Penny swallowed, becoming extremely interested in her drink. “You don’t have to do that.”
“Why not?” Rob frowned, oblivious to Penny’s wave of discomfort. “It was your idea.”
Liv came to Penny’s rescue, putting a firm hand on Penny’s shoulder. “Think about it, Rob. Some single, pretty college girl gave you relationship advice? That’s probably not gonna swing well.” Penny forced her face into what she hoped was a relaxed smile and nodded her agreement.
“What do you– Oh!” Penny saw the realization in his eyes a moment before the guilt came. “Oh, no, Penny, Jen knows you’re not like that. She remembers what happened.” Penny flinched, and Liv squeezed her shoulder. “No, it’ll be fine. Don’t worry about it.” He chuckled. “She’ll probably send you a thank you card.”
Penny barked a laugh. “That would really take the cake. She would, too.”
Rob patted her back, a gesture she expected from him. It was his signature move, one she’d learned to depend on to keep her sane before the bond, and despite the awkwardness that had just passed, she felt comforted by it. “Keep me posted about what you’re up to in that tiny theatre department,” he told her. “I want to come see your handiwork at the next show you costume.”
“I’ll have dates posted all over Facebook,” she assured. “Go find a table, and enjoy your dinner with Jen.”
“Talk to you girls later.” Rob ambled away to the hostess to get a table, and Penny turned to the others. Both stared at her with twin looks of concern.
“I’m okay,” Penny said. “He’s right. Jen knows me. Their marriage is secure enough that she won’t be mad at him, or me.” Saying it aloud helped, so she said it again. “She won’t be mad.”
Liv rubbed her back. “That one guy was a dick. His wife is a controlling bitch and she took it out on you. They shouldn’t count.”
Penny sighed, remembering the event too clearly, like a bad breakup but between herself and a colleague from a show she’d worked on nearly a year ago. “I know, but it still hurts. I liked Henry.”
“He was a cool dude,” Liv agreed, “but he made a shitty choice.”
“Now he’s stuck with his crazy wife,” Molly added.
Penny drew back, outrage on her face. “Well, I certainly didn’t want him!”
“No, but now he can’t even enjoy your company,” Molly said, saving her own ass quickly. “He’s only got short, fat, and crazy to talk to.”
Penny tried not to laugh, but failed. “That’s mean. True, but mean.”
“Rob and Jen are better friends anyway,” Liv said, nodding as though she were confirming her own statement. “He’s a stand up guy, and she’s an understanding woman.”
“You sound like you’re from the fifties,” Penny accused. “Nerd.”
They broke out laughing again, just as their food was delivered.
It didn’t take long for Penny’s mood to improve. Between the balancing power of their bond and their antics, the three of them filled the restaurant with their laughter. Penny waved to Jen as she entered, and earned a cheerful wave in return. They were there as the late night crowd came in, all the hungry college students with a pocketful of change they could spend on a slice of pizza, most of them avoiding studying for exams or writing papers.
The crowd had begun to die down by the time Penny finally grew tired. “Alright, girls, that’s all the energy I’ve got for the night. I’m out.”
“You headed back to the dorm?” Liv pulled Penny’s unfinished hot fudge sundae toward her and began to finish it.
“Yeah, I want to pretend to sleep before my History of Theatre quiz tomorrow.”
“Do you want one of us to come get you up?”
Penny hugged Liv. “You’re the best. You can just poke your head in when you’re done showering if you want. I showered before my pitiful non-date.” She snorted. “All that effort wasted on you two nerds.”
“You’re not mad, right?” Molly said, twisting on her stool as Penny stood up to gather her backpack from the floor. She looked so worried, Penny felt her heart squeeze.
“Mad? No, of course not.” Penny pulled a lock of Molly’s wavy hair. “I got to spend an evening with my two best friends, why would I be mad?”
“Good point,” Molly conceded. “Are you going to be at Anime club tomorrow?”
“I should be,” Penny said, pulling her car keys from her pocket and squeezing them. “We won’t be starting rehearsals for Arsenic and Old Lace for two weeks.”
Liv snickered. “And, as per usual, you will be costuming everyone.”
Penny shrugged. “I’m not exactly a performer, so all I do is costume.”
“Ooh, do you get to work with what’s-her-bucket?” Molly was positively wiggling with excitement. “The girl who just transitioned last year, started doing female roles only?”
“Beth?” Penny frowned. “Yeah I work with her, but not much. I usually do the musicals, but I needed to pick up another performance credit or whatever they’re calling it for techs.” She nibbled on the knuckle of her forefinger for a moment. “She’s okay. I don’t really talk to her much. She’s a popular master’s student, I’m an anxiety-ridden sophomore who should be a junior, but took a semester off to have a mental breakdown. Not much in common there.”
“Well, she’s got one of the leads,” Liv said, her pupils contracted so tightly that they had nearly disappeared. “Looks like you’ll be working with her quite a bit.”
“Stop using your powers to tell me the cast,” Penny scolded, swatting Liv on the arm.. “At least wait until the cast list goes up!”
Liv threw up her hands and made a face. “I can’t help it! It’s not like I do it on purpose.” She gave a pretty mock pout, even making her lip tremble a little. “I don’t even get to choose what I see. It’s luck of the draw.”
Penny rolled her eyes. “Well, thanks for the warning I guess.” With that, Penny turned on her heel and headed for the door. “I’ll see you two at home.”
Penny hoisted her backpack onto her shoulder, humming lowly as she went through a series of dates and styles of costumes in her mind. She snorted and turned back to her friends as she noticed an exceptionally tall blonde walking up to the door. “You’re in luck, Molly; Beth’s right outside the door. You can fangirl all over her.”
Molly gaped at her in outrage. “Excuse you, I would not be fangirling over her!”
Penny snickered, reaching for the door. The moment her hand touched the handle, an electric jolt shot up her arm and set her skin crawling.
“Whoa,” she reared back, looking up at the door frame in alarm. “What the…?”
The outer door opened, and Beth stopped. Penny barely registered her; she was too busy frowning at the door.
“Just a second,” Penny realized she was standing in the open door, but couldn’t move. The feeling was bizarrely familiar, but she couldn’t place it. It almost felt like someone had enchanted the door and tried to cover it, but failed miserably. “Does it seem like there’s something wrong with this door to you?”
Beth looked at Penny like she’d lost her grip on reality. “What does that even mean?”
Penny sighed. “I guess it’s just something people with magic can feel.”
“Okay,” Beth looked her over, as though she were trying to size her up. Penny could feel Beth’s frustration mounting in her shoulders, but ignored it. There was something wrong with the door. She could feel it, an uncomfortable, awful crawling of the skin on the back of her neck. Her ankle was aching something awful–
Penny felt the blood drain from her face.
“Don’t come through the door.” Her command was low and quiet. She did not look at Beth, only looking at the slight shimmer of the doorframe. Now that she’d figured out what it was, she could see it, like the air right above a candle flame.
“Go around back,” Penny told her bluntly.
“I don’t know what the fuck you’re on,” Beth spat. Her anger had spiked, almost making its way through Penny’s feeling of sickly dread. “I’m coming in, and you can move or be moved.” She stepped forward.
Penny looked down in blind panic, reaching up her arms, ready to shove Beth out of the way. “No, wait–”
It was too late.
They collided in the threshold, Penny’s hands meeting Beth’s arms. There was a bang– a sound like a gunshot, ricocheting through Penny’s mind and soul. Her mind was spiraling as she and Beth were knocked to the floor by the force.
No, no, no, no… Penny’s mind went into a loop as her back met the tile floor of the atrium, the door hanging inside the restaurant off its hinges in front of her. She could hear panicked shouts, see faces she vaguely recognized approaching. It was all happening too fast, all over again… Not again…
“Don’t touch them!” Molly’s shout was like a bell, ringing through Penny’s shocked petrification. Penny locked onto her voice, pushing thoughts toward her in the hopes that she was using her telepathy. “Call nine-one-one, nobody touch them. You’ll burn them, and you won’t be much better off.”
Penny heard Liv’s soft voice, although she couldn’t make out the words, and then felt the gentle nudge of Liv in her mind, poking at her memories. She groaned as a wave of nausea came over her, and then locked her jaw closed, hoping she wouldn’t throw up while she couldn’t move.
“Tell them they need bond specialists,” Molly was saying. Her face suddenly appeared above Penny’s, looking like an angel coming down from heaven to take her to salvation. “Hey, love,” she murmured. “I know you’re in shock, just relax. We’ll get you taken care of, okay?”
Penny nodded. “Beth,” she mumbled, then clamped her mouth shut again as her stomach rolled.
“She’s out cold.”
“Gon’ be mad,” Penny tried, screwing her eyes shut. She could feel her mouth watering and her nose tingling, the need to cry hitting her in the throat like a rock.
“We’ll get it sorted out.” Molly reached her hand over Penny’s face, a warm golden glow emanating from it. She swept it over Penny’s body, and the urge to vomit vanished, along with the headache she hadn’t noticed until it wasn’t there.
There were a few moments of blissful silence as someone– was that Jen’s voice? Awkward– called the police. It had to be Jen, Penny realized, as Rob’s face appeared in her line of vision. “You okay, Pen?”
Penny groaned in response. “Fuck this.”
“Wow, you’re not okay.”
There was a short commotion, and Penny felt the world shift. Rob slid out of her line of sight, and out of her field of senses entirely. One voice slid into excruciating focus, a whining shout Penny didn’t recognize.
“You stupid bitch, you stupid, wife-stealing whore–”
“Joy,” Penny croaked, “this again.”
Someone was moving toward her, shoving people out of the way. Penny heard their outraged exclamations, but they were muffled under the whining male voice hurling insults at her. People were scattering out of his way, the throng that had gathered around Penny and Beth seemed to flex, the girls crowding in, Rob pulling Jen out of the line of fire. Penny could barely sense them around her, jarred by the approach of sirens and flashing red and white lights.
“You stole my wife, you stupid–”
Penny sat bold upright. The air around her tightened as she zeroed in on the source of the voice. The guy couldn’t have been more than twenty, a scrawny thing in an oversized blue hoodie and khakis. His face was mutinous, brick red, his nostrils flaring. Penny memorized his face instantly; dark eyes, blonde hair, a square jaw. Her mind cleared into categories, his face sliding into one clearly marked threat. She realized why when she saw the pocket knife he brandished in one hand.
Everything was so sharp. She felt the familiar possessive pull, shouting at her to eliminate the threat, to get rid of this man approaching them. Without a word, Penny flung her hand out in a sweeping motion. The air in front of her pulsed like a missile. It hit its target, sending the blonde, dark eyed man flying backwards. He hit the wall with a crack, falling to the floor in a crumpled heap.
In the next instant, Penny’s world went black.