Someone was screaming. If they didn’t shut up, Beth was going to punch someone in the face. Hopefully the source of the keening wail that had woken her up. Her apartment was soundproofed; someone had to be trying really hard to annoy her. The sound was enough to be annoying, but not loud enough to be painful to her ears.
Groggily, Beth shifted, peeling her eyes open to find the source of the offending noise. She was startled to realize she was not, in fact, in her apartment; she was in a hospital bed.
It was a two-bed, cramped room, painted a pale purple in an attempt to soften the sterility most hospitals had. A monitor beeped softly beside her, accompanied by another, more erratic beeping. She was draped in an itchy hospital gown, stiff white sheets tucked around her legs. The IV coming out of her arm made her stomach clench, but she swallowed the feeling away.
Turning her head, Beth looked at the accompanying bed in her room to see who had been screaming. Thankfully, the noise had halted. She found herself staring at two concerned women hovering over a third, smaller woman who was huddled in on herself, her knees at her chest. Her hands both gripped her right ankle, as though it was excruciatingly painful to her.
“Pen?” The shorter woman spoke, her voice soft. “Is it gone?” The girl on the bed nodded, not looking up. Her dark hair had been pulled into a sloppy loop by a plain rubber band, parts of it falling into her face, hiding it from Beth’s view.
“Are you gonna throw up?” It was the taller one who spoke now, clutching a bucket in her hands. The girl shook her head, then turned it to rest her cheek on her knees.
For a split second, Beth saw red. “You.” It was the girl from the pizza place, the one she had in a few of the classes she TA’d for, who did the costumes for the musicals. Penny Harvard, more like Penny Dreadful. She’d always been quiet, a little off, like she wasn’t one-hundred percent there. Beth had always had the uncomfortable feeling that Penny had been crushing on her something fierce. Apparently she should have paid more attention to that feeling.
The two women guarding Penny looked up sharply, their faces decidedly blank, their eyes vicious. Penny opened her eyes, rolled them, and turned her face away.
“You’re up,” the tall one said by way of greeting. It was almost an accusation. “I’ll call the nurse.”
“No need, I’m here.” Another woman walked in, deceitfully cheerful in her Mickey Mouse scrubs. She had a strange set of maroon gloves on. “Glad to see you finally came around,” she chirped. She was a heavyset woman, beautifully dark, her black eyes glistening. “You took quite a conk to the head; we were certain you’d have a concussion, but Molly here has a few talents with healing and took care of it before we even reached you.”
Molly– the tall one– smiled at Beth, but it didn’t reach her eyes. “Well, we can’t have you just dying on us, can we?”
“No, too true.” She grinned at Beth as she began her routine, checking Beth’s vitals. “I’m Zoe, the nurse on duty. How much do you remember of what happened?”
Scowling, Beth threw a furious glance toward Penny. “The last I remember, she was telling me not to walk through a door.”
“If you’d listened, we wouldn’t be here,” Penny snapped, not bothering to turn and look at Beth.
“Words you should have heeded,” Zoe agreed. “You walked through an enchantment.”
Beth paled. She didn’t have a lot of experience with magic people. Sure, she knew they were around– everyone did, it was a pretty common thing nowadays– but she didn’t interact with them on a very intimate basis. “What kind of enchantment? What do you mean?”
“Turns out the two of you were involuntarily bonded.” Beth’s jaw dropped, and Zoe nodded. “Someone cast a concealed bonding spell on the door– very poorly, I might add, as Miss Penny here sensed it immediately.”
“Practice.” Penny’s voice was drier than burnt toast. The blonde beside her looked positively distraught, her hand inches from Penny’s hair, as though she was afraid to touch the smaller woman. “Liv, I’m fine,” Penny snapped, and the blonde–Liv, apparently–jerked back. “I don’t need to add burn victim to my list right now.”
Penny looked up and smiled at Liv. “I know, sweetie. I appreciate the thought.” She turned to Beth and arched a brow. “That’s why I asked you if you felt like there was something wrong with the door. I could feel it in my skin.”
“I suppose it would be easy to sense a spell you cast.”
“Oh, get over yourself!” Liv snapped, cutting off Penny, who had opened her mouth to reply. “Not everyone at this godforsaken school wants in your damn pants.”
“I don’t want in anybody’s pants,” Penny whined, straightening up so that Zoe could check her vitals, too. “I don’t even like people.”
“I thought that was my shtick,” Molly commented. “I’m the asexual.”
Penny stuck her tongue out at Molly, then watched Zoe work. “Those gloves are enchanted, yes?”
Zoe nodded. “So we can care for newly bonded people, especially in the case that their mate can’t care for them.”
“I’m not her mate!” Nobody even batted an eye at Beth’s outraged shriek. “What do you even need enchanted gloves for, anyway?”
Zoe maintained a level, patient tone. It was as though she had dealt with this multiple times. “A new bond creates a magical second skin that protects new mates from outside harm. An outsider’s touch interferes with that magic, so until the bond settles down, the only people you two can touch are each other. And,” she waved her gloved hands, “people with these.”
“Spectacular.” Beth sneered. “What if the couple doesn’t want to be bonded?”
“Usually, that doesn’t happen,” Zoe said. She snatched up the clipboard at the bottom of Penny’s bed and began to scribble on it. “For one thing, it’s illegal. Entering anyone into an unwanted marriage falls under the same category as child marriage and those sort of things. For another, mates who hate each other are almost more toxic than abusive couples, because they’re literally forced together by magic.”
Beth gaped at her. “So un-cast the spell!”
Zoe leaned against the wall, clasping hands in front of herself. “Unfortunately, we can’t do that. Only the person who casts a spell can un-cast it; that’s true of all magic.”
Breathing deeply, Beth rubbed the bridge of her nose. She attempted to keep the accusation out of her tone as she spoke, looking at Penny. “So if you didn’t cast the spell, who did?”
Liv snickered. “Some guy who wanted you to be his wife, apparently. He said something about Penny being a wife stealing whore, or some bullshit.” Beth stared at her in undisguised horror, but noticed Penny’s lips quirk up. Liv continued as though she didn’t notice. “Lucky for you, the bond makes Penny extremely possessive. She may have gotten a little… overzealous in her protection of you.”
Beth turned her eyes to Penny. “God, what did you do?”
Penny opened her mouth to speak, and then stalled, blinking. “I– I have no idea,” she said, looking down at her feet as though they’d give her the answer.
“You threw him across the restaurant.”
At Liv’s deadpan statement, Penny made a choking noise, clapping her hand to her mouth. “Shit!” The choking noises continued, now muffled. Beth couldn’t help the concern that spiked through her, until she realized that Penny wasn’t, in fact, choking.
She was laughing.
That laugh turned into a gasping cackle as Penny dropped to her side, clutching her knees to her. “Why am I laughing? This isn’t even funny!” She gasped, clutching her heart as she sat up, her face flushed and her eyes strangely bright. “I could go to jail for this!”
“Actually–” Whatever fun fact Molly was about to share was abruptly cut off by Penny’s sharp gasp, and a piercing pain shooting through Beth’s skull. The screaming started again, louder and more concentrated this time, so violently that Beth had to touch her lips to be certain she wasn’t the one making those horrible sounds. Even still, Beth felt overwhelmingly nauseated.
“Oh god, make it stop.” Penny’s hoarse plea mimicked Beth’s thoughts exactly.
“What the fuck is that?” Beth demanded. She glanced over to see Penny curled into a ball on her side, her heart monitor going ballistic as Zoe bent over her. No one addressed her for a moment, before Molly looked up and decided, apparently, that Beth was worth visiting.
“This is going to happen for at least the rest of the day,” Molly informed Beth. “It should die down once Pen adjusts to being bonded again.”
“Again?” Beth’s brain felt like it had been filled with wool. “What do you mean, again? She’s been through this shit before?”
“That’s not my story to tell,” Molly said curtly. “Ask Penny when you finally get your head out of your ass and realize this is just as shitty for her as it is for you, and twice as painful at least.”
“I do not have my head–”
“And,” Molly interrupted, “wait until she’s ready to tell you before pressing for details. It took her two years to tell us, and we were there when it happened.” Molly’s expression became a mixture of bitterness, guilt, and something darker and colder that made Beth strangely uncomfortable.
Beth turned to regard Penny as the screaming continued. “What am I hearing?” She asked again.
“It’s Penny,” Molly answered. “You can hear her thoughts, feel her feelings… again, if you’d care to pull your head out of your ass.” Beth shot the other girl a look, but ignored the comment. “Consider it Penny’s internal monologue, but you’re the only one who can hear her soliloquy.”
“While I appreciate your use of theatre terms,” Beth said, “try not to mix them.”
Molly’s lips tilted into a half smile. “Sorry.”
Beth regarded Penny again as the sounds of her screaming died off. She looked so fragile then, laying on her side, her eyes shut, her face drawn in pain. Her breathing was heavy, her jaw clenched so hard Beth could see the muscles working on her face. If she concentrated, Beth could feel a vague wave of nausea, and wondered if that was her own or a diluted version of Penny’s.
In that moment, Beth felt the sharp slap of shame. She’d been unnecessarily cruel to this stranger, all because of a horrible mistake. Now she was stuck with this person, apparently, until the asshole who’d cursed them recovered enough to un-curse them.
“I’ll give her time to adjust,” Beth found herself saying, “and then we’ll tell each other all the need-to-knows and whatever.”
“Good plan,” Molly agreed. She then gave Beth a sharp poke in the arm. “And don’t fuck it up.”