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If I'm Haunting You, You Must Be Haunting Me

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It seems horribly fitting that when Marta’s soulbond arrives, it’s in the most absurdly ridiculous, horrible way imaginable. It involves the Thrombeys, so of course something that should be wonderful just ends up being terrible in the end.

Harlan had asked her to be here for the family’s Fourth of July party, and so Marta had come, and eaten the barbeque that other people made while the Thrombeys sat around and drank too much wine and margaritas and played croquet on the lawn and bickered.

Marta sticks to one margarita, and politely takes the croquet bat when someone offers it to her and pretends like she knows what she’s doing when she tried to hit one of the striped balls, and quickly finds somewhere else to be when the family gets into yet another debate about politics and pretends to want the opinion of anyone other than themselves.

At least Harlan appreciates her being there. He’s been busy of course, bickering with the family, but he circles back to her, urging another plate of food on her, warning her to reapply her sunscreen. “We eat lobsters, we don’t look like them,” he warns with a waggle of his finger, and Marta smiles back.

Marta already is nursing a headache when someone--she thinks it’s Donna, Walt’s wife--suggests they play a round or two of some game called Mafia. And of course, Marta’s being drafted in to play. “What’s Mafia?” she asks Meg in an urgent whisper, and it’s some roleplay game, and Marta’s not worried until she gets assigned to be part of the Mafia side, which means that people will ask her questions and she’ll have to try and lie.

“Uh, I don’t think this is such a good idea,” she tries to tell Joni, who is part of the Mafia side, along with Ransom and a very competitive Richard.

“Oh don’t worry, honey, you’ll be great,” Joni says, leaning in. "And besides, it's fun to let your dark side out for a bit," she adds, with a wink and a wriggle of her shoulders.

"Fun," Marta says weakly.

It's not very much fun for Marta when she starts puking half an hour into the game, rushing for the nearest empty vase and emptying out what feels like the entire contents of her stomach.

Over the rushing in her ears and miserable gurgling of her stomach, Marta hears the family exclaiming in disgust and dismay behind her, Richard wondering, "Good God, what's wrong with her?"

"I hope it's not food poisoning, new caterers are such a risk--"

"Marta, are you all right?" That's Harlan, of course, and then he barks out, "Ransom, for heaven's sake, help the girl to a chair--"

"I'm fine," Marta says, waving her free hand as she wipes her mouth, but it's too late, she can hear Ransom's footsteps approaching as he says, "Sure, give me the worst job. Listen, don't puke on my loafers, okay?"

Marta tries to wave him off, but it's too late. Ransom's hand closes around Marta's bare arm, and for a second, all she can feel is his hot, too-firm grip, and then Marta feels the heat of his hand impossibly spreading up her arm, sinking into her bones until it's as if her entire body is burning up--

Through her tear-filled eyes, Marta looks up to see Ransom staring down at her, his face shocked, mouth agape. "Fuck," he says, blankly, and Marta wrenches her arm away, stumbling back, a hand over her mouth, breathing harshly in the sudden silence that's fallen over the entire room.

*

Marta has never been the sort to go to those soulbond gatherings, to touch dozens and dozens of strangers for the slim, slim chance that one of those sweaty-palmed strangers would be her soulmate, her intended. If she wanted to try for something with odds that small, she would buy a lottery ticket instead.

But that didn’t mean Marta didn’t have an idea, a dream, of what it would be like. Not when she had the example of her own parents, bonded from the time they were twenty-three years old, right up until her father’s death at forty-eight. Her parents were the ideal, two people who fit together perfectly.

“The bond didn’t build our life together,” her mother said to her and Alicia, when they were old enough to understand. “It’s wonderful, it’s important, but it can’t be everything. Only a foundation to start with. You and your partner have to do the rest.”

Her parents had been so lucky, Marta knows. Lucky to find each other, lucky to have that connection, that foundation...and to have a partner willing to do the work for everything that came after.

*

Marta picks fretfully at the skirt of her dress. She hadn’t been planning on wearing this originally, but the weather forecast had predicted such hot temperatures for this weekend, and it was meant to be a holiday. So Marta had decided to wear the dress she’d ordered online months ago, trusting in the tea-length hemline and the modest neckline to hopefully deflect any unwanted attention.

It’s easier, now, to focus on the print of the dress, red flowers scattered across the navy-blue fabric, than to try and listen to whatever the Thrombeys are saying. Or to think of--

But not thinking of him is nearly impossible, not when she can feel him, feel his gaze on her, feel him there inside her head--

Marta closes her eyes, and breathes slowly, until she feels the heat receding from her neck.

She hears footsteps approaching, and jumps in her seat as she turns her head, but it’s only Fran, holding a drink out to her. “Here,” she says, kindly. “I think you could use it.”

Marta has never developed the taste for whiskey, but she still reaches out, saying, “Thank you,” before knocking the entire glass back in a few quick gulps.

“Hey Frannie,” Ransom speaks from his armchair; it’s the first thing he’s said since they were shuffled off together while the rest of the family had their theatrics elsewhere. “Get me one of those.”

Fran glares at him but goes off to do it. Marta keeps her teeth clenched, but it doesn’t work; she doesn’t look at him as she says, “Her name is Fran. And you should say please when you’re asking for something.”

“Oh, you’re finally talking now?” Ransom asks, holding a hand to his chest in mock-surprise. “What’s the matter, Marta--nothing nice to say to your soulmate?

She flinches, she can’t help it, and Marta knows that Ransom sees it--that he can feel it, just like she can feel him, that barely-leashed rage and disdain like a gathering storm in the back of her head.

But then the door to Harlan’s office opens, and thank God, it’s just Harlan there, asking, “How are you two managing in here?”

“Well, I don’t have any booze, so not great,” Ransom retorts.

“I’m fine,” Marta says.

Harlan gives her a smile--and his grandson a reproachful look. “So.” As he moves to sit behind his desk, Harlan explains, “We have Dr. Cohen driving up now to make the official diagnosis, but I see no point in denying the obvious. It’s clear you two have bonded. What is not clear is what’s going to happen next.”

Marta takes a deep breath, remembering despite herself the Thrombeys’ collective disbelief as Ransom spit out the news that he’d just bonded with Marta. “To the nurse?” Richard had asked, disbelieving, as Walt had offered up, “Maybe it was static electricity, you know, walking around on all the rugs.”

And then it had descended into another Thrombey squabble, everyone talking over everyone else, as Marta had sunk to her knees and tried to make sense of how her entire life was blown apart, all in the space of a few seconds and an uncaring touch to her arm.

“You’re going to say we should break it,” Ransom says. “That’s what they were all campaigning for outside, right?”

Harlan levels him with an unimpressed look. “Seeking help for severing the bond is an option--one, Ransom, I will remind you, that is only available should both of you consent, in writing, to make the attempt. And success is hardly guaranteed..”

Ransom makes a show of settling back into his seat, but doesn’t speak further.

“What do you want, Marta?” Harlan asks gently. “If you want time to consider, that can certainly be arranged. Or if you’d like to consult your own doctor, get a second opinion--”

“I don’t need a second opinion,” Marta says, interrupting Harlan, in the way she never dares to do in front of the rest of the family. “And I don’t need time to consider.”

She can feel Ransom’s attention, like the hot glare of a spotlight trained right on her.

Marta lifts her chin. “I want to break it. The bond, as soon as possible. I think that would be best for everyone.”

In the beat of silence, Harlan dips his head, in the faintest of nods--and she can tell, he’s not surprised by her decision at all, unlike Ransom, whose surprise is obvious, and not just because he says, “Well. Shit. She has a spine after all.”

Marta folds her hands in her lap and doesn’t look at him. It doesn’t matter, not when there’s one person here who understands her, at least. It’s just not the person she’s bonded to.

 

*

The next two days are...not good. The conversation with her mother is probably the hardest part, Marta holding her mother’s hand as she says, haltingly, “Mami, I know...I know I should be grateful, but I can’t. Ransom, his family, I...it can’t work.”

Her mother had stayed quiet, then she took Marta’s hands in hers. “Mija,” she said. “What I had with your father, the bond we shared, I wouldn’t have let that go for anything. That’s what I want for you, not--not something you’re desperate to get away from. No one would want that for their child. And if your father were here, he would say the exact same thing.”

Her mother hadn’t said anything else after that, just hushed Marta and wiped the tears off her face.

So that was settled. What wasn’t settled was...anything else.

For all of her mother’s reassurance, for all of Harlan’s promises that he would help, Marta still can’t sleep that night. Despite the fan running in her room, Marta’s burning up that night, sweat breaking out all over her skin, her brain caught in a loop of the same thoughts over and over again. And deep within, she can feel the rhythmic thud of a fist that’s not hers, hitting a pillow over and over again. She can feel the ache in her jaw, from teeth that aren’t hers being clenched tight, can feel the frustration simmering, and that part--that feeling, she’s not sure who it belongs to.

So no, Marta doesn’t sleep that night.

And in the morning, Linda Drysdale is in her family’s kitchen, looking around and saying, “What a nice place you have here. Very cozy.”

Her temples throbbing, Marta asks, “Linda, what’s going on?”

Linda turns to look at her, tilts her head and says, “Wow, you’re not looking so hot. My son looks worse, of course, but still…you look like crap.”

“Thank you,” Marta says after a moment.

Linda gives her a tight smile. “So here’s the thing,” she says briskly. “Whatever comes next, you are still bonded to Ransom, which means that distance for you is both deeply unhealthy and detrimental to that bond.”

Marta swallows, and says, “Linda, I--”

“I understand what the plan is, my father has made it very clear that you aren’t to be dissuaded,” Linda says, with a touch of bitterness that Marta suddenly understands; Linda doesn’t want Marta as a daughter-in-law, but the idea that she would reject Linda’s precious son is still an affront. “But does that mean that Ransom needs to be tortured in the meantime?”

Marta exhales. “No, of course not.”

“Good,” Linda says, getting to her feet. “So you’ll be moving in with Ransom, of course--”

“Wait, what?” Marta says.

But Linda is implacable, and for all that Marta doesn’t want to be tied to Ransom Drysdale for the rest of her life, she’s not looking to physically torture him either. So she packs an emergency bag, reassures her mother and sister, and gets into Linda’s car to be driven off to Ransom’s place.

Marta hasn’t thought much about what kind of place Ransom Drysdale would live in—if she had to guess, she would’ve envisioned some sort of expensive penthouse, not some secluded house with glass walls in the middle of the woods.

She can see Ransom moving through the (thankfully frosted) walls, and when he answers the door, Marta blinks in surprise, because he does look awful, a gray cast to his skin and eyes red-rimmed from lack of sleep, leaning against the doorway like he needs the support.

“So you got her to come,” Ransom says to his mother. “Nice work.” He doesn’t look at his mother as he speaks, though, his gaze heavy on Marta’s face. “Gotta say, when I pictured a hot nurse being delivered to my door, I was hoping for a sluttier outfit.”

Marta takes a deep breath, and moves past Ransom--careful not to touch him--and steps inside the house, holding onto her hastily-packed duffel bag with a tight grip. She slowly looks around her, at the glass walls and impersonal decor, and says immediately, “I’m not staying here. This is horrible, this is like a serial killer house.”

Excuse me?” Ransom and Linda say in unison.

Feeling slightly hysterical, Marta gestures around her. “Look at this! Who lives like this? Who builds a house made out of glass walls in the middle of the woods?”

“I’m sorry, you’re an architecture critic now?” Ransom asks, incredulous, but Marta squares her shoulders and just looks at him, and he groans in disgust. “Jesus fucking Christ.”

“Is she serious?” Linda asks Ransom, and Marta says, “I am right here, and I will speak for myself, thank you.”

That certainly gets their attention, and Linda opens her mouth to browbeat Marta into agreement, but Marta won’t buckle, not on this. “I won’t stay here.”

Linda huffs before demanding, “Do you have another solution?”

Marta takes a breath. “Yes, I do, actually.”

*

When they ring the doorbell, Harlan is the one who answers the door for once, not Fran. The first thing out of his mouth is to Linda, saying, “Really Linda, you should have just brought them both here to start with, far more suitable,” before waving them all inside. He pats Marta’s shoulder as she walks in, silently reassuring, and Marta gives him a grateful look, relieved beyond words.

And this is how Marta (temporarily) finds herself moving into Harlan Thrombey’s country house.

*

It turns out rejecting a bond is not as easy as simply saying out loud that you will.

There are consultations with the doctors, an awkward meeting with the family lawyer Alan, at Richard and Linda’s behest, where Marta is formally advised that once the bond is broken, she will be renouncing any claim to Ransom’s estate, or the Thrombey estate generally.

Before Alan finishes speaking, she picks up the pen on the desk and signs the papers. “Is that it, or do you need me to sign anything else?” she asks, into the sudden silence.

Alan has his mouth open, but closes it before saying, slowly, “No...no, that’ll do it. Thank you, Marta.”

Ransom abruptly gets to his feet and storms out without a word to anyone, not even his parents. Marta watches him leave, and just barely keeps from sighing. He’s been especially impossible over this past week, even for him, and Marta has no idea how to help keep the peace. Her previous strategies for avoiding the attention of Harlan’s various family members don’t work, not when she’s at the center of the dispute to start with.

Despite being in the same house as Ransom, bedrooms right next to each other, Marta still isn’t sleeping well at night. Ransom’s silent presence feels like angry bees buzzing in her head sometimes, other nights she can feel the ache of clenched, bleeding fists that aren’t hers, and knows that Ransom is down in the basement, pounding away at the punching bag he’d brought over from that horrible glass house of his, not caring how late he’ll be up--or how late he’ll be keeping Marta up with him.

On those nights, Marta holds onto her temper and her patience, and reaches out for the next book on her nightstand, keeping the reading lamp on until she finally hears the heavy tread of Ransom as he makes his way up the stairs, going to bed at last.

Even then, Marta stays away, her body thrumming with frustration, eyelids heavy, until that presence, that constant presence in the back of her mind finally lessens, and she’s as sure as she can be that Ransom is finally asleep. Only then does she let her hand slip between her legs, beneath the waistband of her underwear, and she carefully strokes herself, her free hand over her mouth, tracing careful circles against her clit and not thinking of anything but the pleasure of it, imagining the weight of a heavy body on top of her, fingers pinching her nipples, a soft mouth between her legs.

She comes like that, tension drawn tight as a bow before it finally snaps and releases, leaving her heavy and languid and with a mind that is finally, finally quiet and still.

But sometimes--sometimes before Marta falls asleep, she can feel the fainest flickering in her mind, like a light being turned on in the dark.

*

Even with the Thrombeys’s resources, it takes several days, and multiple doctor’s appointments, before Marta and Ransom are finally able to see the psychiatrist who will, by law, have to sign off on their attempts to break the bond.

The psychiatrist, Dr. Kamara, looks at them with patient dark eyes that reveal very little, as he asks them to once again go through the moment where they touched, and then when they decided that they were not going to stay bonded to each other.

Ransom is very unhelpful during this questioning, offering monosyllabic answers, when he even bothers to speak at all. Their cell phones were taken away earlier, so Ransom just sits there like a lump, picking at his cuticles like all of this, the doctors, Marta, even this office, is all beneath him.

Marta is almost breathless with fury, and when Dr. Kamara turns to ask her a question, she just inhales sharply before saying, her voice clipped, “Doctor, is it all right if I show you something?”

Dr. Kamara raises an eyebrow. “Certainly, Marta, if you think it would be helpful.”

Oh, it’ll be helpful. Marta turns in her chair to look at Ransom, and incredibly, he’s looking back at her for the first time during this appointment.

“Ransom,” Marta asks, very levelly. “Where am I from?”

Bond or no bond, Ransom clearly isn’t expecting that. “Sorry, what?”

“It’s a simple question,” Marta says. “I’ve worked for your grandfather, for your family, for almost four years now. Surely you know where my family and I come from, I’ve told you all repeatedly when you ask about my origins.”

There’s a dull flush rising to Ransom’s face now, and she can practically hear his mind racing, trying to dredge up a fact he never cared about when he heard it the first time. “Brazil,” he says at last, slowly, and grimaces even as it leaves his mouth.

“That’s not even the right continent,” Marta tells him, unable to keep the snap from her voice, and not really bothering to try.

She turns away to look at Dr. Kamara. “I understand that you have work to do here, I do, and I will happily answer any questions you have, but let me assure you--this? Me and him? It will never work. It would be a disaster, it--” she fumbles for words, before remembering the sentence she’d heard Donna Thrombey utter at that party.

“Such a shame, it’s such an unsuitable fit really.”

“It’s completely unsuitable,” Marta finishes. “I promise you that.”

Dr. Kamara’s gaze flicks from her, to a silent Ransom, and he makes a note, nodding slightly as he does.

The doctors sign off on the procedure. Marta is one step closer, even if she’s still trapped at Harlan’s house, all of Harlan’s relatives trooping through the house like it’s their property to complain about the bond, about Marta, as though she’s somehow the villain in this story, rather than a bystander trying to make her way through the wreckage as best as you can.

She tries not to eavesdrop, she tries not to pay attention, but sound carries in this old house, and she can’t help it that the door to the study is open as she’s walking past one afternoon and hears Walt say, “Dad, you know, we can’t help but feel like you’re taking Marta’s side over your own flesh and blood--”

“There are not any sides here,” Harlan says, voice crisp with impatience. “Both Marta and Ransom don’t want the bond to continue, and I believe it was your own wife, Walt, who deemed it, what was the word, unsuitable? I don’t see how my attempts to make this unfortunate situation easier on Marta constitute a betrayal of my own family.” When Walt begins a protest, Harlan adds, his voice rising, “Although I will say, given how everyone has behaved to date, the only one whose behavior I’m not ashamed of is Marta’s.”

Marta walks away before she can hear anything else, a smile briefly flickering across her face.

*

On the day they’re scheduled to break the bond, Marta is so nervous she can’t eat anything but dry toast and tea. Harlan insists on hiring a car for the day--he’s no longer able to drive himself, and after their appointment, neither Marta or Ransom will be in a state fit to drive.

Ransom is absolutely impossible for the entire drive there, making up nonsense songs about lobotomies and having their brains fried, set to tunes from The Wizard of Oz or Christmas carols, so not only are they terrible, they’re catchy.

“For the last time,” Marta says, her patience and her nerves fraying, “No one is having their brain fried or mutilated.”

“See that’s what they want you to think,” Ransom says, pointing at her. “But the second you’re in there, they’ve got you trapped to the table and then it’s zzzzz-“ He pretends to seize up in his seat, mimicking electrocution, and Marta turns away to look out the window.

“Ransom, do you honestly think anyone finds your tasteless jokes at all amusing?” Harlan asks, equally irritated.

Ransom pretends to think about it. “Well, I find them very amusing, so...yeah. I do.”

Once they’re at the hospital, they’re both whisked off to a private room with two sensory deprivation tanks. “Any last minute questions?” the nurse asks once Marta has changed into the plain one-piece swimsuit.

“Do you ever get people who are afraid of the water?” Marta asks curiously, ignoring Ransom as best as she can. It’s easier now that he’s on the other side of the room, with his own medical team to harass and annoy.

The nurse smiles. “So far not yet--you can’t drown in there, so most people can relax when we explain that. Are you worried?”

Marta smiles, but doesn’t shake her head, as they’re placing a sensor on her temples. “I was on the swim team in high school, I’ll be fine.”

And Marta is fine, even when she’s floating in the tank and the door are shut, leaving her in total darkness. She can leave her eyes open, but Marta closes her eyes, and hopes that when she emerges, she will be the only person inside of her head.

But it doesn’t work. At first everything is fine, low beeps and the calm voice of the doctors through the speakers--and then Marta’s stomach is cramping, so hard that it feels like her body is caving in on itself. And her temples--her temples are throbbing, pulses of pain that leave Marta gasping in agony.

“Help,” Marta says, calling out into the darkness and everyone that should be there beyond it. “Please, it hurts--”

And then the tank opens, blinding light pouring in, and hands are helping her up--and Marta blinks, her wet hair dripping into her eyes, stomach still churning as she looks to the side and sees Ransom, still soaking wet, on his hands and knees, dry-heaving and shoving away anyone who comes near him.

“What happened?” Marta asks a nurse, who is wrapping her up in a blanket and urging her towards a nearby stretcher.

“We’ll have to run some tests, but when one partner is more unstable than the other—“

“Fuck you, I’m not unstable,” Ransom says, between heaves.

“Don’t worry,” the nurse says, bracing Marta as she lies back on the stretcher. “Everything’s going to be fine.”

Marta closes her eyes, and she worries, because everything is absolutely not going to be fine.

*

“So that didn’t fucking work,” Ransom says later that night, his voice hoarse, in the hospital room they’re being kept in overnight for observation.

“No, it didn’t,” Marta agrees, cautiously. Ransom has been out of it for most of the day, sleeping off what Marta knows is a terrible migraine (she can feel the echoes of it in her own mind, and even that’s enough for her to wish every nerve in her body away). “You were sleeping when the doctor came by earlier. They want us to wait, before we make another attempt.”

“Another attempt,” Ransom says, his face twisting in a grimace. “You’re that eager for another round of this?

“It’s the only solution we have,” Marta says, surprised by his seeming reluctance. Although no one would be eager to repeat a day like today, she figures. “I know it was a lot for you though, it was--it was a lot for me too,” she admits, hoping the admission helps. “We’re not going to try again until you’re ready, okay?”

Ransom nods, not looking at her--and then he does, and Marta has to keep from flinching at the sight of his red eyes--a blood vessel had blown in the right eye, turning the sclera of his eye blood-red.

It helps that Ransom’s face is uncharacteristically thoughtful. “How are you doing better with this than I am?” he asks her.

“I don’t know,” Marta says. “Luck, maybe.”

“Yeah,” Ransom says with a low chuckle, no humor to be found in it. “Just luck.” He reclines back into his bed, and Marta settles back into her bed as well, and they don’t say anything else.

*

Things approach a new normal, after that.

Marta settles into living at Harlan’s house--her mother and sister are worried, but Marta placates them by having dinner at their house most nights, and calling every day, even if it’s just for a few moments.

If it weren’t for Ransom, and having to stay at the house, Marta could almost trick herself into thinking everything is normal. Monitoring Harlan’s health, delivering his meds, reading books and keeping him company, it almost seems like normal.

One afternoon, she and Harlan are out together on the patio, enjoying the warm weather and playing Go, falling into their usual rhythm of teasing each other, and then Marta beats him at the end.

“Oh ho,” Marta crows, throwing her arms out wide. “And once again, victory is mine!”

“Cheating,” Harlan mutters, theatrically waving his hand at her in dismissal. “Cruel and unusual tricks!”

Marta idly rubs at her neck--she’d pulled her hair up in a concession to the heat, but the back of her neck is still prickling uncomfortably. If she gets a sunburn, Harlan will never let her live it down--

And then Ransom, who has been watching them from a balcony above this whole time, calls out, Scotch in hand as he leans over the railing, “Granddad, did you really let her beat you?”

Marta, twisting her head to look up at him, retorts without thinking, “Are you really drinking Scotch at two in the afternoon?”

Ransom grins down at her. “Sure I am.” He takes another sip of his Scotch and says, "You must be losing your touch, old man."

"I've been playing for four years now, that hardly makes me a beginner," Marta says. Ransom's still smirking, clearly pleased with himself for getting a reaction out of her.

"Oh, and I suppose you think you'd fare better against her," Harlan says, still indignant.

Ransom pulls an exaggerated expression of consideration, before saying flippantly, "Given that I'm not approaching senility...yeah, sure, I think I could beat her."

"Harlan," Marta warns, but Harlan's pride has been stoked, and he gestures dramatically at the board in front of him.

"Well then, you obnoxious young puppy, you take a shot at it then,” Harlan calls back.

Marta sighs. She briefly considers the option of putting her foot down and refusing, but dismisses it--she still has to live with Ransom for the time being, she might as well keep things civil and not make a point of storming off every time he so much as enters a room.

And, if Marta is honest--she really does want to beat him at Go.

So she carefully gathers up the pieces as Harlan pulls another chair to the table, and waits for Ransom to come out. He saunters out to the balcony just a few minutes later, wearing a navy polo shirt that stretches over his shoulders, and slacks in a color that everyone calls “Nantucket Red” but Marta still thinks of as salmon pink, loafers with no socks, and the entire outfit looks far better on him than it has any right to. He smirks as he sits down across from her, but Marta just looks back at him blandly, and makes the first move.

The smirk on Ransom's face doesn't last long. "Fuck a duck," he says blankly, staring down at the board as the first game comes to the expected end. "What the shit."

"One-nil to me," Marta says, and when Ransom looks at her, she gives him a slow, sweet smile and asks him, "I can go over the rules of the game with you, if you want--maybe your memory is rusty."

As Harlan chuckles loudly in his seat, Ransom's expression shifts to angry determination, and now he's the one clearing the boards, Marta’s spine straightening automatically with the echoed flare of aggression. "Fuck that, we're going again."

Marta beats him another two times before Ransom finally manages to eke out a victory, but even after he’s won, he’s still dissatisfied, glaring at the board and then at Marta like they’ve both personally offended him.

His eyes seem very blue, in the afternoon sunlight. Marta tilts her head, absently brushing the few tendrils of hair that have escaped from her ponytail back from her face. “Yes?” she says. “Do I need to beat you another three times, or will you take your victory where you can get it?”

Ransom’s eyes go wide, and Marta flushes as she realizes she’s slipped--that’s she’s been slipping all this time, talking to Ransom like he’s...he’s Harlan, or her family or friends or Fran, someone she can relax around, someone she can trust not to take offense at her existence.

“You know, I’m going to see if Fran needs any help with dinner,” she says quickly, getting to her feet.

“Aren’t you banned from cooking in your mother’s kitchen?” Harlan wonders out loud. “Something about you burning water when you so much as look at a stove?”

“How can I improve if I don’t try?” Marta calls over her shoulder as she makes her escape into the house.

But after that, Ransom is seemingly everywhere--for a house this big, it’s ridiculous how often Marta finds herself running into him. He’s even decided to be useful for once and offers to help Harlan with research for his latest novel, so while Harlan is working away on the manuscript, Ransom is hovering in the background, Googling random facts about Austria (Harlan’s villain is from Austria) and sharing them whenever he’s bored, which is often.

Half of the time, Harlan has medical questions as well, so Marta gets pulled in despite herself, explaining that no, exsanguination does not work like that, or if Harlan really needs a dramatic but not immediately life-threatening injury, she doesn’t understand why he can’t have the heroine suffer a collapsed lung.

Harlan waves this off. “No no no, you already gave me that tip in the last book, remember? Den of Thieves, that took three chapters to resolve.”

“Repeating plots worked for Agatha Christie,” Marta teases, holding up Harlan’s hardback copie of Murder On The Orient Express, which she’s been rereading while Harlan works and Ransom...looms. (He’s been pacing back and forth all afternoon, especially hovering over her own chair.)

“I always thought that one was overrated,” Ransom says casually, looking up from whatever he’s been tapping on his phone screen.

“You think Murder on the Orient Express is overrated?” Marta asks, incredulous. “It’s one of her most famous novels--it’s a classic!”

“Eh, Death on the Nile’s better.” Ransom pulls a face before adding, “But it’s really the same trick she used in half a dozen other books.”

“And what’s your point?” Marta asks. “It’s a good trick and it works, every time.”

“Oh come on, don’t tell me you weren’t a little bit disappointed when you realized The Mysterious Affair at Styles and Murder at the Vicarage are basically the same plot twist with the genders swapped out--”

They go back and forth on this for a long while, Marta getting especially worked up when the topic lands on the recent Poirot adaptations--Marta, thanks to PBS and her mother, grew up on the David Suchet series, while Ransom tries to make a case for the recent John Malkovich adaptation, and the less said about that awful miniseries, the better.

Marta gets so carried away in fact, that it’s only when she catches a glimpse of Harlan’s face, eyebrows raised high and his mouth carefully hidden by a hand that she realizes how long this debate has been going on, and who she’s been fighting with. “Anyway,” she finishes awkwardly, “That’s why you’re wrong.”

“Marta, thank you for your spirited defense of one of the greatest mystery writers in the history of the genre,” Harlan says at last, eyes twinkling. “Ransom, everything you have said this afternoon is completely wrong, and I can only hope you got a thrill out of playing devil’s advocate just now.”

Ransom laughs at this, the dimple flashing in his cheek as he does, and it’s--startling, to hear him laugh and to know that this time it’s not sardonic or cruel, that he’s laughing just because he’s amused and happy and wants to show it.

Marta takes a breath and opens up her book again, right at the point where Poirot finds the missing kimono inside his own trunk.

*

So yes, there are good moments. Moments where it is easy, where Marta can forget herself and relax in this house, secure in Harlan’s good will, and think of Ransom...not as a friend, not as her bonded, but as someone with whom she can be friendly. Moments where the bond is still and quiet in the back of her brain.

And then there is the rest of the time, where Ransom still insists on making Fran and the other “help” call him “Hugh”. Nights where Ransom stays up too late playing online poker and Marta is kept up with him, her stomach an unhappy mix of too much adrenaline and frustration, and her mouth sour from the taste of too many disgusting energy drinks she’s never actually had herself.

Or the evenings where Richard and Linda insist on coming over for dinner, “just to see how things are going”, only to spend the entire evening eyeing Marta up, as if they can’t understand how she is still a problem for them. Richard spends half of the dinner quizzing Marta on her family, what her mother does, where they’re from, as if she hasn’t already answered him a dozen times before. As if he’s going to bother to remember this time.

“And, forgive me, but your family knows what’s happening, right?” Richard presses. “They know about--you know,” he says, waving a hand between her and Ransom.

“Of course,” Marta says, keeping her face blank.

“That’s good, that’s good,” Richard says quickly. “It’s just, we didn’t see them at the hospital…”

“I asked Fran to keep them updated,” Marta explains, and carefully does not add that she wants to keep her family as far away from the Thrombeys--Harlan excluded--as possible while the bond is still active. “I didn’t want my mom to get anxious at the hospital, start worrying.”

This is technically true, but Ransom squints at her like he can hear her stomach gurgling unhappily at the equivocation.

“And...just to be safe here...they don’t object, right?” Richard goes on.

“Honey,” Linda warns, glaring at him.

“What? I just want to check. I know that a lot of families, traditional families, Catholics, they have religious or moral objections to a bond being severed by medical intervention, and I think it’s fair to ask if Marta’s family might be one of them,” Richard says, putting on his most innocent expression.

“My mother understands,” Marta says, quickly coming in before Linda or Harlan can say anything else. “She just wants me to be safe and happy, the way all parents do.”

“Well,” Richard says, his answering smile coming half a beat too late. “Well, isn’t that good.” Whatever he’s going to say next is interrupted with Ransom’s cutlery scraping against the china plate with an excruciating screeching sound, and the next fifteen minutes are taken up with Ransom and his parents sniping at each other, while Harlan shares weary looks with Marta.

So, when Dr. Kamara asks her during a follow-up appointment if she is still sure she wants to sever the bond, Marta doesn’t think twice before saying yes.

*

Marta can’t quite explain, even to herself, why she throws off her sheets and comforter one night and deliberately leaves her bedroom in the middle of the night to go to find Ransom where she knows he’ll be, in front of the TV, watching Goodfellas or poker matches on ESPN or...whatever Ransom watches what he needs to wind down and won’t or can’t fall asleep at a reasonable hour.

But when she finds him in the TV room, it’s with a giant bowl of popcorn next to him, and Riverdale playing on the TV.

He freezes as he sees her, his mouth full from popcorn, and Marta just says, “Which season are you on?”

Ransom covers his mouth with his hand as he speaks, voice muffled. “Two.”

Marta sits down—not on the couch next to Ransom, but in the chair nearby. “Can you hit play?”

Ransom, still watching her warily, does. Marta doesn’t speak, just lets the sounds from the TV wash over her.

“Was I keeping you up?” Ransom asks finally.

Marta shrugs with one shoulder. “I don’t need a lot of sleep.” Ransom is still watching her, and Marta concedes, “Not that I could get a lot of sleep, with your habits.”

Ransom coughs. “Yeah, I’ve always been a night owl.”

“Is that the word for it,” Marta murmurs before she can stop herself, and when Ransom eyes her, she holds up her hands. “I’m not saying anything, I promise.”

“Better not be,” Ransom warns. “Can’t have distractions when I’m trying to Netflix and chill.”

“Mm,” Marta says, but she curls up into the armchair and stays quiet, even when questions occur to her--is that redheaded boy starting a gang? Why are all of the parents so negligent? And why is this show a horrific mashup of the 1950s and 2018?

Marta thinks she’s doing a good job of hiding her dismay, until Ransom looks over at her again and bursts out laughing. “You should see your face, you look so horrified right now.”

“Why are they calling the major drug in this town Jingle-Jangle?” Marta blurts out, horrified. “Just say it’s cocaine! We all know it’s cocaine!”

“Could be molly,” Ransom offers with a grin, and when Marta gives him a look of utter dismay, he just laughs harder. “Oh my God, just go with it, the whole point is that it’s supposed to be absurd.”

Marta sits back in her seat, but can’t help but grumpily mutter, “They still just should call it cocaine.”

After the episode finishes, though, Ransom reaches out with the remote and offers, “Here, you can put on one of those cooking shows you and Granddad love so much.”

“Really?” Marta asks, surprised, but still reaching out for the remote--she’s careful not to let her fingers overlap his as she takes the remote from his hand.

“Yeah, it’s fine,” Ransom says with a shrug. “Just none of that Great British Baking Show shit, that show’s boring.”

Marta heroically refrains from fighting him on this, and just sets Netflix to binge through several episodes of Nailed It! She expects Ransom to complain immediately, but he stays quiet through the first episode, watching her as she giggles through the contestants’ hapless attempts to make cake pops, or make multi-tiered cakes with decorations that would make a professional artist worry.

“This seems like an oddly sadistic show for someone like you to watch,” Ransom observes, when she’s taking the remote to switch over to the Nailed It! Holiday! edition of the show, just so she can get to see her favorite judge, Sylvia Weinstock, again.

“It’s not sadistic,” Marta objects. “It’s fun. Everyone has a good time and it doesn’t matter if you mess up, so long as you keep trying.”

“It matters to the judges,” Ransom objects. “What if you give someone food poisoning?”

Marta waves this off, and Ransom chuckles but doesn’t object further, and Marta gets to laugh again at the episode where Jacques Torres breaks for the first time in the show and advises a contestant to avoid baking in the future, that it’s safer for him to just buy cookies from this point on. Marta’s still giggling helplessly when Ransom says, thoughtfully, “I think I get why Granddad likes this show.”

Still smiling, Marta says in a confiding whisper, “It’s because he has a crush on the host.”

“Wait, that Nicole lady?” Ransom asks. At Marta’s nod, Ransom makes a considering face and says, “Way to go, Granddad.” He looks over at Marta and says, “You’ve got him going on Netflix binges, what next? Starting fights on Twitter? Putting his meals on Instagram?”

“He likes new things,” Marta says mildly. “He’s not as old-fashioned as everyone thinks.”

“I thought it was bullshit,” Ransom says, inspecting his hands. “Granddad getting a pretty nurse to keep around the house, dope him up when he’s bored--but it’s not bullshit. You actually like him.”

Marta doesn’t know how to respond to this. “Your grandfather needed a friend,” she says slowly at last, before adding, “And he...has become a good friend to me.” She smiles and looks down at her own hands, throat tightening as she admits, “I’m going to miss him.”

“Miss him?” Ransom says.

Marta lifts her eyes at this, surprised it has to be said aloud. “When I leave. After the bond is severed, obviously I won’t be able to stay--it wouldn’t be fair to any of you.”

Ransom is staring at her, his face blank, but Marta knows that’s hiding a sudden storm of emotions--she can feel them in the back of her own head, but can’t make sense of any of them. “Right. When you leave.” He turns back to the television, which is in the middle of changing over to a new episode, but blurts out after a moment, “And you’re not, like. Worried about finding a new job or anything.”

“I’m a nurse,” Marta says with a shrug. “Jobs aren’t that hard to find.”

“Right,” Ransom says, nodding slowly. “Right, that...that makes sense.”

Marta watches him for a moment, trying to pick through what she should say next, what might get through to Ransom, help him sort through...whatever he’s feeling in this moment. “I’ll be all right, you know,” she says slowly. “So will your grandfather.”

“Course you will,” Ransom says, dismissively--he seems to have gathered control of himself, his emotions coalescing into what feels like a hard little knot of tension in the back of Marta’s head. “You’ll find a new job in a heartbeat.”

Marta chooses to stay silent and leave that alone. They keep watching Netflix, even though Marta can’t help but poke at that knot of tension in her head at times, like an open cut inside her mouth.

She drifts off to sleep at some point during the second season of Nailed It! Holiday!, warm and quiet, and stays asleep until the next morning, where she wakes up in the same armchair, a crick in her neck and a blanket carefully tucked around her that wasn’t there the night before.

*

But Ransom is gone for the entire morning, his Beemer nowhere to be seen. Marta doesn’t worry at first--the bond allows for them to leave, Marta usually takes her mornings to stop by her mother’s place or run simple errands--but as the morning stretches into afternoon, she feels a faint restlessness, a growing anxiety, that she tries and fails to hide, from Harlan, from Fran, and especially from herself.

“I’m sure he’s fine,” Harlan says, when Marta has been staring at the same page of her book for five minutes straight. “He’s just…”

“Acting out,” Marta says quietly. Because it’s true--Ransom is not here, but she can still feel him, she can feel what he’s feeling, that brute determination mixed with childish spite, bitter enough to make Marta choke.

Harlan looks tired, even in the warm sunlight pouring in through the window. “Yes. Have I mentioned that my grandson can be quite the fool?”

Marta summons up a smile for him, because Harlan is kinder than all the rest of his family combined. “Yes, you’ve said so once or twice.”

But by the time dinner comes around--held late in the vain hope that Ransom will appear--Marta is not capable of smiling. Instead, she finds it increasingly difficult to hold her thoughts together, her fingers clumsy as she reaches for her water glass, everything taking more effort than it should--

“Oh,” Marta says, looking up at the chandelier, a part of her brain helplessly admiring it. “Oh, I think I’m drunk.”

Harlan, uncomprehending at first, says, “But you’ve barely touched your wine,” and then Marta looks at him, and Harlan realizes and finishes, outraged, “Oh, that--jackass grandson of mine.”

“Ugh,” Marta groans, getting to her feet with more effort than it should take, for someone who is technically sober. “I think I’m going to find the ibuprofen now. Just in case it works.”

The ibuprofen does not work. Neither does any of the water Marta drinks in an attempt to lessen the drunkenness that Ransom, wherever he is, seems determined to work up to a full out bender, and before midnight Marta finds herself slumped on the floor of the nearest bathroom, leaning her head against cool tile while Fran soothingly rubs her back and Harlan paces outside, leaving increasingly angrier voicemails on Ransom’s phone.

“God, what an asshole,” Fran mutters, as Marta’s stomach unhappily clenches and her head swims.

“Such an asshole,” Marta agrees quietly, and then her stomach churns dangerously and Marta lurches towards the toilet, knowing she’s about to need it soon.

*

Marta doesn’t make it out of bed until noon the next day. When she finally does, she doesn’t bother to brush her teeth or wash her face, or even change out of her pajamas (the ones that Fran had to help her into last night) and makes her way downstairs, clutching the half-empty bottle of water that Harlan had carefully left on her nightstand, along with a variety of painkillers he’d dug out of her nursing bag. (Most of them wouldn’t do any good in this case, but the thought counted for something.)

Ransom is exactly where Marta knows he would be, enjoying a late brunch at the dining table while Fran scowls in the background, and Harlan lectures him loudly from across the table. Marta’s stomach turns over unhappily at the smell of the food, but Ransom is not bothered, oh no, he’s cutting through his sausage with glee and nodding in faux-consideration as Harlan continues to berate him.

“Listen,” Ransom says, chewing noisily, “I don’t see what the problem is here. I had an excellent night--”

“You’re a little shit is what you are,” Harlan thunders at him.

“And it’s not like Marta died or anything, she’s standing right there,” Ransom continues, gesturing at where she is standing in the doorway. He looks over at her and actually winks. “Love the unkempt zombie look you’ve got going on.”

Marta is sure she does look just like a zombie, she doesn’t need Fran’s worried grimaces from across the room or Harlan’s concerned face to tell her.

“Marta,” Harlan says, getting to his feet in an old-fashioned gesture of courtesy that Marta would appreciate, if she had the energy for anything other than standing upright and being thoroughly, incandescently angry right now.

Marta looks at Ransom, and he looks right back at her, and she knows that he can tell how furious she is. He knows, and he doesn’t care, the defiance practically radiating off him.

All right, then.

In a voice that Marta keeps deliberately quiet and even, she asks, “Harlan, Fran, would you two excuse us, please? I need to talk to Ransom now.”

Harlan glances between them, visibly considers, and then sighs loudly. “If you can manage to get through to this ingrate, you’ll accomplish something no one else in this family has managed to date.”

“Thanks, Granddad,” Ransom says, theatrically rolling his eyes, but Marta stays silent right until Harlan and Fran are finally gone, and it’s only the two of them left.

Only then does she speak, asking roughly as she approaches Ransom where he’s still sitting at the table, “What the hell was that last night?”

“That?” Ransom asks, cutting at his waffles. “That, Marta, was a good old-fashioned bender. One that was very overdue. But uh, thanks for taking one for the team there. Appreciate it.”

Marta has no idea, later, what possesses her to do it, but in the moment, she’s so angry, so frustrated, that she reaches out and grips Ransom’s hair, yanking his head back so that he’s forced to look at her.

Heart pounding with fury and a darker emotion that Marta doesn’t want to look at, doesn’t even want to think about, she says, in that levelly quiet voice, “You’re an asshole. Everyone knows this, no one cares. I don’t care. But if you think you are going to pull that bullshit again, allow me to correct you.”

Her hand is tightening in Ransom’s thick hair. A flush is starting to spread across Ransom’s cheeks, down the line of his exposed neck, his jaw and throat working, but he stays mercifully silent.

“For as long as we are bonded to each other,” Marta continues, “there will be no more benders. You will show your grandfather, Fran, and me respect. If you want to waste your money on stupid poker games you’ll never win, you will play during the day, and you will stop at a reasonable time at night and allow me to sleep. Do you understand me, Ransom?”

He stays stubbornly silent. Marta, temples throbbing, her body feeling feverish, gives into the temptation and grips even harder, pulling his head back a few more millimeters. “Do you understand.”

His throat works again, and Ransom finally says, mouth tight, eyes staring right up into her face, “Yeah. I hear you.”

The sudden release of tension leaves Marta feeling almost light-headed. Knees feeling weak, her face and body still flushed, Marta has to deliberately loosen her fingers, the soft strands of hair slipping free as she pulls her hand away. She looks down at Ransom for one moment, and then deliberately turns and walks away, leaving him alone in the dining room.

But later, once that wave of rage finally recedes, Marta will be bewildered--not with Ransom, but with herself, with that stranger in the dining room who pulled someone’s hair and ordered him to behave, who looked at Ransom in that chair and only wanted to--to pull his hair harder, to slap his face, to make him obey her, however she had to do it.

Marta groans and covers her face, turning fretfully into her pillow. A bond can change people, she knows that, and it’s not unreasonable to think that, after all this time connected to each other, Marta might be changing as a result.

But Marta doesn’t want to change, not for Ransom, not for any of this.

She’s just afraid that she might not have a choice.