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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.

Chapter Text

Marta’s in the middle of getting her hair ready for Harlan’s birthday party when she hears the knock at the door. She already knows it’s Ransom before calling out, “Yes?”

“It’s Ransom.”

Marta takes a breath. “Come in.”

Ransom opens the door, but stays in the hallway, leaning against the doorway. “Ready for tonight?”

Marta gives him a quick smile, trying to finish up the last of her braids--she’s planning on pinning it up after finishing, it’s from a Pinterest tutorial Alice sent her. “As ready as I’ll ever be, once I finish with my hair.”

Ransom nods, seemingly distracted--his gaze keeps catching on her fingers working in her hair. “Heard my dad came by to talk to you,” he says. “What happened there?”

He seems so calm, calmer than Marta’s seen him be in months now--but that just means that all of the anger Ransom carries with him, like an inferno, is banked, leashed. Marta can still feel the heat of it on the back of her neck, though, if she concentrates.

She’s done a good job of not concentrating, these past few months.

“He...wanted to see how everyone was managing,” Marta says, very diplomatically and mostly truthfully. “Your parents are still worried, after...after last month.”

Ransom gives her an unimpressed look. “You realize all I’ve got to do is go down and ask him, right?”

Marta takes another breath to keep from asking, so why don’t you go and do that then? She’s been trying to be more patient with Ransom since--since August. And September. “Your parents don’t think we should make any more attempts at severing the bond,” she tells him, quietly. “I tried to reassure them that no one, least of all me, wants to see you suffer--”

“Plenty of people want to see me suffer,” Ransom corrects.

“Well,” Marta says, lifting her chin, “I don’t want to see you go through another grand mal seizure, and I told your father that, but he--wasn’t convinced.” Ransom lifts an eyebrow, silently prompting her to elaborate, but Marta stubbornly keeps her mouth shut, because all of what she’s said is true. It’s just not the whole story.

(Richard hadn’t been satisfied with Marta’s reassurances. “Listen, kiddo,” he’d said to her, with a grimly determined look that Marta had found disturbing because she recognized that expression when it was on Ransom’s face. “I understood, we all understood, that this was your call to make.”

“Mine and Ransom’s,” Marta had corrected, but Richard had barrelled right over that.

“And that’s great, you know--right to choose, all that. But this is my son’s health. His future we’re talking about. Now it’s seizures, but what happens when you try again? Brain damage?”

Marta’s stomach chilled, remembering Ransom’s grey face in the hospital, after their last, ill-fated attempt. “That won’t happen.”

“Good,” Richard said. “Good. So you’re giving up on breaking the bond.”

Marta froze. “I--”

“Marta, Marta,” Richard had said, soothing, taking her by the shoulders. “I know you’re worried, but it’ll be okay. You know, coming into this family, it’s quite an adjustment.” He laughed, adding, “I would know, right?”

Marta didn’t laugh with him, but that didn’t discourage Richard or slow him down. “And what I want you to know is that Linda and I will do everything we can to make this adjustment as smooth as possible for you and for your family.” Marta had no idea what to say to that, and Richard didn’t give her a chance to try, releasing her shoulders so he could reach into his pocket--and pull out his checkbook.

“Oh no,” Marta said, finally finding her voice. “Richard, no, I don’t need this--”

“Listen, it’s okay, a regular allowance is perfectly normal when you’re dealing with family, and we are family now, Marta--”

“Richard, I don’t want your money!” Marta blurted out, putting enough force behind it that at least Richard was finally looking at her, instead of searching for a pen to, what? Write her a blank check so that she would live with Ransom for good in that glass house, not as a wife or a partner or even a friend, but just a keeper?

But before Richard could answer--before he could try to bribe her with more money--Harlan had stepped out of his study and barked, “Richard!” and then they’d disappeared to the study where Marta could hear more shouting, at least before she quickly made her escape to her room, where she changed into her running gear and went for a jog around the grounds, the better to avoid the family for as long as she could.)

But Marta won’t tell Ransom about any of that, not the attempted bribe, or why Harlan was shouting at Richard in the study, or what photos are on Harlan’s computer, waiting for Linda to see them.

So Marta looks at Ransom now and just lifts a shoulder in a shrug. “Your parents are worried, I can’t blame them for that.”

Ransom snorts. “Give it time.” He looks at Marta and says, “Don’t hide up here for too long. They’ll take it as a show of weakness.”

Marta doesn’t object, just nods and says, “Okay.”

He looks at her for another moment, and then turns to leave. “Cheer up, Cabrera,” Ransom says over his shoulder, his voice growing fainter as he walks away. “Whatever else, this party can’t be as eventful as the last one.”

“Here’s hoping,” Marta murmurs, and then turns back to her vanity to finish her hair.

*

After the last, horrible attempt in September, Marta asked her mother if she was being selfish.

Her mother had visited her in the hospital, because even though Marta was mostly healthy, Ransom was still nowhere near being discharged. They were still monitoring him for seizures, so Marta had taken the moment to meet with her mother in the hospital’s rock gardens.

“Marta,” her mother had protested, but Marta shook her head.

“Mama, I want to leave, but I don’t want to keep hurting people--Ransom’s in the hospital, his parents are so upset--”

“Marta, don’t you dare,” her mother had said, cutting her off. “I didn’t raise you to deliver yourself up as a sacrifice for a man who doesn’t deserve you.” As Marta had taken a shuddering breath, her mother had continued, her voice rising with conviction as she spoke. “Now, this Ransom? He is a grown man who can make decisions of his own, no matter what you or his parents or even that rich abuelo of his say. He chose to do this with you in July, he chose to try it again in August, and he chose to try it again now. The doctors cleared him every time to make the attempt, right?”

She waited impatiently for an answer, and Marta obediently said, “Yes, Mama.”

“Did you hold a gun to his head to make him do it?”

Marta rolled her eyes, but still obediently answered. “No, Mama.”

“There you go, then!” Her mother had reached out to hold her hand in her chin and say, quiet and loving, “Marta, sweetheart--don’t take on more responsibilities than you can carry.” Her dark eyes had drilled into Marta’s face as she added, “And any family you’re too afraid to introduce me or your sister to, is not a family I ever want you to join, all right?”

Marta nearly slumped over from the relief of knowing that her mother understood, despite everything--or perhaps because of everything. “All right.”

*

Thankfully, the first person in the Thrombey family that Marta runs into as she’s coming down the stairs is Meg. “Marta!” Meg says, smiling, and pulls her immediately into a hug.

Marta hugs her back, finally starting to relax. “Hey, Meg.” She points at Meg’s red beret. “I like your hat.”

Meg grins and drops a little curtsey. “Why, thank you.” She links her arm through Marta’s and tugs her down the stairs, hissing, “I’m so glad you’re here, at least there’s someone normal to talk to.” She shoots Marta a sidelong look and adds, “Plus, I want to hear what’s actually happening with you and Ransom, instead of getting it second-hand through my mom.”

Marta doesn’t stiffen up, but it takes an effort not to, especially once they’re at the bottom of the stairs and Marta can see the family moving around, hear their voices and the clink of champagne flutes. “I doubt there’s much more to tell.”

“Uh, there is plenty to tell. Are you guys going to try again? Make another attempt to break the bond?” Meg thankfully has dropped her voice lower, to keep from being overheard.

Marta presses her lips together. “The doctors are...they’ve advised against Ransom trying again. Not with the seizures. We got the news just last week, we haven’t told anyone in the family yet.”

Meg’s eyes go wide. “Holy shit. So, that’s...that’s it, then, right? If he can’t go forward with it, then neither of you can go forward with it.”

Marta doesn’t speak at first, and Meg presses, “Marta?”

“Neither of us can go forward with it...in this country,” Marta says, very slowly. Meg’s eyes are wide and uncomprehending, and Marta leans in a little closer, and lowers her voice as she explains, “Dr. Kamara, he sat down with me and explained there’s a new experimental procedure in Germany. Where one person from a soulbond can go in, and have the bond severed by themselves. Theoretically, I could go and try, and Ransom could stay back in the US and be safe, because I’d be the one taking the risk on.”

Meg’s mouth falls open. “Germany...that’s one of the countries where you don’t need dual consent, right? So if only one person wants to break the bond, that would be fine.”

“It doesn’t matter here, since Ransom wants to break the bond too, but yes.”

“So even if the family tried to stop you, it won’t matter once you’re over there,” Meg continues, working it out. “Holy shit--holy shit, you’re set. You’re golden.”

Golden is not how Marta would describe the situation.

“Can you afford to go?” Meg asks, genuine concern in her voice. “Because listen, if you need help, just say the word. Mom and I have you covered, I promise.”

Marta smiles gently. “Thank you, Meg, but I’m fine. Your grandfather’s taking care of it.”

Meg’s shoulders slump with genuine relief. “God. This is great. Marta, this is so great.” Half-laughing, Meg pulls her into another hug, and Marta laughs and relaxes into it, sharing in Meg’s relief for one moment--

--until she’s hit with a wave of blinding fury, so hot as to leave her feeling practically scorched. Marta flinches a little, and turns her head to look at what she already knows she’ll find--Ransom looking over from the hallway, champagne glass in hand, eyes burning into her head.

Meg notices too, she pulls back a little and calls out, “Problem, asshole?”

Ransom salutes them with his glass and walks off without a word.

“God, what a jerk,” Meg mutters, rubbing comforting circles on Marta’s back. “No wonder you want to get rid of him.”

Marta grimaces, but doesn’t protest--she’s not even sure of what she would protest to. Ransom is a jerk. And she does want to be rid of it all--of the weight of his presence in her head, in her life, and the anchor of the horrible family he brings with him.

*

“You know you played this all wrong, right?” Ransom asked her at dinner, that night in September before their last (to date) attempt at breaking the bond.

Marta had paused, then lowered her spoon back into the soup bowl. She could try to ignore Ransom, but that just spurred him on, usually. Not even Harlan could hold him in check. “Excuse me?”

Ransom’s eyes were so horribly intent as he watched her. “You played this wrong,” he repeats. “We’re about to have this bond broken for good tomorrow--”

“We’re about to try,” Marta corrected. Given how their last two attempts had gone, Marta wouldn’t assume anything anymore.

Ransom waved this off, literally, fingers dismissively flicking through the air. “It’ll work. But when it does, you’re screwed, because you’ll have lost all your leverage.”

Marta sat up a little straighter in her seat. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Harlan slowly lowering his utensils as well. “Leverage for what?” she asked Ransom quietly.

Ransom just shrugged, theatrically. It was September, so Ransom’s wardrobe had switched from neat polo shirts and linen button-downs to cardigans and soft sweaters, and Marta found it all obscurely irritating in some way. “Anything, but mostly money.”

As Marta stiffened, Harlan sighed and said, “Ransom, hard though it may be for you to believe, not everyone is as mercenary as you. Or the rest of this wretched family,” he added in a low mutter.

“Please,” Ransom said, dismissive. “That’s a lie people tell themselves because they don’t have enough money to start with.” He turned his attention back to Marta, and Marta could feel it like needles pricking her skin. “But you could’ve had the money, if you had just held out for a week, tops. Mom and Dad would’ve written you out a six-figure check, easy.”

“What, exactly, would they be writing me a check for,” Marta asked, with forced calm.

Ransom just looked at her like she was being willfully stupid now. Of course, he’d always thought of her as stupid, the same way he looked down at Fran, or the security guard, or the gardners that kept the grounds so pristine. They were all the same to him.

“They’d pay you off to agree to break the bond,” Ransom said, and laughed--laughed--at the looks on their faces, as though he wasn’t suggesting something that was illegal, that laws had been passed to specifically prevent, for exactly this situation. “Oh, come on! It’s not even a bribe, not really, you’ve been gagging for your freedom from hour one. All you needed to do was hold out for some...compensation.”

“I don’t need your compensation,” Marta said, fighting not to spit the words at him.

Ransom raised an eyebrow even as he smiled at her, sharp and mean, signalling that he knew how angry Marta was, how angry he was making her, and he was going to keep on going anyway. “You sure about that? Because six figure settlements go a long way in taking care of your mom’s issues, right?”

Marta froze, her body going cold all over. “What did you just say?”

Ransom had the nerve to act innocent. “Your mom’s immigration status. She’s undocumented, she could be deported at any minute in Trump’s America, and if you--”

That was all it took, that was more than Marta had ever wanted to hear from this hollowed-out, rotten, spoiled trust-fund pig. She didn’t even consciously make the decision, suddenly she was on her feet, rage darkening her vision as she took her wine glass and threw the contents over Ransom’s handsome, spiteful face.

“Jesus!” Ransom spluttered, blinking frantically as red wine dripped down his face.

“Don’t talk about my mother,” Marta said, through her teeth, and Ransom jerked up to look at her, eyes very wide. “How dare you--did you spy on us? Did you send some investigator to look into my family?”

Ransom wiped some of the wine off his face, still eyeing her warily. “Well, yeah. Of course I did.”

Marta’s hand tightened around her wine glass, and for one wild moment she thought of smashing it over Ransom’s stupid, ignorant head--

“Ransom, what the hell is wrong with you?” Harlan thundered.

“Better it was me than my parents, or Walt and his Nazi wife--”

“You don’t have the right,” Marta said, cutting over them both. “You don’t have the right to anything about me.” Her voice was rising, her hands balled into fists, and both Harlan and Ransom were staring at her now. Good. Good. “It’s been over two months that I’ve been stuck with you in my head, and you want to try and lecture me on how I should’ve handled it? You want to tell me how much money I should have taken to make myself as low and dirty as the rest of you? You have the nerve to tell me to put a price on myself?”

Ransom leaned back in his seat, but not out of his usual arrogance, his eyes were too wide for that, his face too shocked for that. Marta didn’t know how he felt, there was no room left for anything but how she felt, her anger eclipsing everything else.

And so, Marta finished up the most unprofessional moment in her career by saying quietly, venomously, “Go fuck yourself. Hugh.

She turned and walked off without a second glance at any of them, and launched herself up the stairs and to her room, slamming the door and locking it behind her, heart pounding, her head aching.

Harlan had come to her room half an hour later, knocking gently on her door. It had been long enough now that the fury had dissipated, leaving behind exhaustion and worry in its wake.

Marta had tried to apologize, not for what she’d said precisely--she still couldn’t regret that--but for losing her temper so thoroughly in front of Harlan.

Harlan had waved it off. “Oh, don’t apologize, he deserved every word of it.” Harlan shook his head, and carefully sat down at the chair by the writing desk, looking every bit his age. “Christ, how he deserved every word of it.” He looked at her and said, “Marta, my dear--I’m so sorry.”

The sincerity in his voice made Marta’s chest ache. “It’s not your fault.”

“Oh, but I think it is,” Harlan said. “At least somewhat.” He paused, and then added, “Marta--will you believe me that whatever happens tomorrow, whatever the result is--I’ll stick by you? You won’t be trapped for eternity in this bond that you don’t want, I can promise you that.”

Marta had nodded. “Okay. Harlan, I trust you, of course. I always have.”

Harlan had offered her a small smile at that, and the discussion had been settled--at least for that night. But later, after she and Ransom were released from the hospital, Harlan...he’d started to share more with her, about the family. About his disappointment, his fears for the future and his worry for the present. And after nearly three months of living in his house, Marta had felt more comfortable sharing her opinions too--agreeing about Joni’s wasteful habits, or how disturbing it was that Walt seemed not to realize or care how radical his wife and son really were.

And then Dr. Kamara, who had become her psychiatrist, rather than hers and Ransom’s, had told her about new experimental procedures in Munich, and Marta had taken the literature he offered, and, her heart pounding, had shown it all to Harlan.

The smile he offered her in response was enough to reassure Marta that yes, there was one Thrombey worth trusting after all.

*

It’s clear within fifteen minutes of being at the party that no one knows what to do with Marta.

Meg hasn’t breathed a word of the Germany plan, and so Marta is sure that the rest of the family think she’s resigning herself to staying, that she’ll be worn down eventually, that she’ll give in. Richard and Linda apparently deciding to make a show of their acceptance, Linda waving Marta over as she complains loudly about the city’s new proposals to encourage more affordable housing, Richard waving Marta over as he tries to defend immigration policies that Marta loathes, using her as a silent puppet along the way.

It’s cold comfort, knowing that Richard wouldn’t be doing this if he actually knew about her mother. Ransom was telling the truth about that much, at least.

Marta holds her tongue, and takes his dirty plate, thinking to herself, chanting it silently like a mantra, Soon I’ll be gone. Soon I’ll be free.

And then she hears shouting from Harlan’s office--when did Ransom and Harlan go in there--and right as she hears Ransom yelling, muffled only somewhat by the walls, “You can’t be serious!”

Marta only has enough time to take one shaky breath before her head splits open, and what feels like an ocean of fury crashes in, enough to leave her gasping as she leans back against the wall for support. Her hand reflexively balls into a fist, and she’s shaking with the rage, that white-hot, murderous rage--

And then Ransom storms out of the office, not looking at any of them as he grabs his coat and walks out of the house, and Marta stares after him as she hears the engine to his car start, and speed off.

“Wowww,” Joni says in a low whisper that carries even more than if she just spoke normally. “I wonder what happened there.”

“Well, he’s been under a great deal of pressure lately,” Linda says, and Marta didn’t have to turn to know that everyone was looking at her.

And maybe it was the aftershocks of the rage still moving through her, maybe it was her own long-held frustration, but Marta says quietly, not bothering to turn around, “We’ve all been under a great deal of pressure lately, Linda.” And not waiting for any of them to answer, Marta walks away, making a point of leaving the plate behind as she does.

*

If only it could be left there. If only Marta could let it go.

She ended up hiding in one of the side rooms for the rest of the night, swallowing ibuprofen to help with the headache, mindlessly texting her sister Alice with random observations about the party. She thinks she’s doing a good job of it, until in the middle of describing how many extra belts Joni has on her dress, Alice texts out, Not that I don’t enjoy hearing about the weirdo rich people, but Marta are you okay?

Marta stares down at the screen, at the white space where her reply should be.

At last she types out, slowly, I don’t know. It’s been a weird night. I’ll come home tomorrow and talk about it.

A brief pause, and then Alice replies, okay, love you, don’t let the weirdo white people get you down!!!!

Marta snorts without thinking, and then feels a spurt of--momentary bewilderment that feels alien to her, outside of her, and then the white-hot rage comes over her again, equally alien but unfortunately more familiar.

Wherever Ransom is, whatever he’s doing, he hasn’t calmed down at all. He’s only getting worse, the fury and hate building up and up until Marta wants to vomit from the stress of it all.

Somehow she keeps it together until she comes out and finds Harlan, finally ready to call it a night half an hour before midnight. He turns to her with his usual smile, and Marta’s head feels almost ready to split from the dissonance--she feels nothing but her usual affection, but Ransom’s fury at his grandfather is a toxic spill in her mind.

“Marta?” Harlan asks, concerned, and Marta waves him off.

“Let’s get you upstairs,” she says, and puts a steadying hand up his shoulder as they slowly make their way up to Harlan’s room, the stairs creaking beneath their weight.

Reading her mood, Harlan doesn’t make a show of resisting her or trying to stay up late, he just heads to his room and as soon as Marta shuts the door, he asks, “What’s wrong?”

“I think I should be asking you that,” Marta says, reaching for her medical bag. “What happened with Ransom tonight?”

Harlan sighs. “I told him. About the plan to send you to Munich.”

Marta stares at him, baffled. “That--that’s it?”

“That was enough,” Harlan says, with a shrug as he carefully sits down on his bed. “It’s been a day of me telling my family truths they don’t want to hear.”

“Walt?” Marta asks, understanding suddenly.

Harlan nods. “And Joni, and Richard--good God, even Jacob earlier in my office. I said I would for months now, and tonight I did. Cut them all off.”

“It could be for the best, though,” Marta offers up, wanting to reassure him.

“We’ll see, won’t we?” Harlan says, giving her a wistful smile.

“Yeah, I guess we will,” Marta says, pushing aside her own worries, and the foreign rage still boiling away, to smile back. She takes a breath, and she smiles at him, before offering, “You know, you’ve had a really long night. Want to do drugs?”

Harlan’s eyebrows shoot up. “Oh ho,” he says, eager, and Marta laughs and gives him his usual dose of Toradol, before carefully administering the small dose of morphine to help him sleep.

Harlan sighs as she starts packing up, loosening his other sleeve. “Marta--don’t be a stranger, eh? After Munich, after you’re free. Visit me sometimes.”

Marta pauses at the doorway, smiling at him affectionately--for that one moment, Ransom’s fury and hate are blotted out from her brain, and later, she’ll be so grateful for that--that she could look at her friend and not have it tainted from emotions that weren’t hers, that he didn’t deserve. “Of course I will. Who else am I going to play Go with?”

She leaves him there, chuckling to himself happily. But Marta’s smile fades as she comes back down the stairs, and before she quite knows what she’s doing, even less why--she’s grabbing her coat and her car keys and slipping out the front door, distractedly saying goodnight to Walt as she leaves.

She doesn’t go far, she just takes her car down the drive, past the hideous elephant, and then, her breath coming unevenly, she puts her car into park, and closes her eyes.

Marta really doesn’t know what she’s doing. She’s never tried this before, she just knows the theory of it, remembers her parents, how they could communicate without spoken words.

So Marta closes her eyes, and reaches back to that dark space inside of her mind, and thinks silently, over and over again, Ransom. Ransom, come to me.

It’s foolish, maybe. Marta could just try and call him with her phone, except that she knows he won’t answer, not if he sees her name on the screen, not in this pitch-black mood. But she has to try at least, she can’t leave it like this, with Harlan taking the brunt of her decisions.

It takes what feels like very little time at all, before Marta hears the roar of a car approaching, sees headlights coming through the trees. Shaking with disbelief, Marta fumbles twice with the seatbelt before getting out of her car, shutting the door behind her and waiting.

Her headlights are on, which means she can see Ransom’s set, coldly furious face as he gets out of his own car and walks towards her. “The fuck do you want, Marta?”

Marta takes a breath. “You shouldn’t blame your grandfather for this.” The question she’s holding back for now is, why would Ransom blame him at all? This is their best option now, the only real option left.

Ransom laughs bitterly. “Oh, trust me, I can blame my grandfather for a lot of things.”

“Well, you shouldn’t,” Marta says, with more heat behind it now. “He’s only trying to help me--” Ransom laughs again at this, and her own anger rising, Marta continues, “He’s only trying to do the right thing by both of us, and that’s how you thank him for his months of help? Storming out of his birthday dinner--”

“Oh please,” Ransom groans, throwing his head back, his breath visible in the night air. “Spare me the fucking lecture, I’ve gotten hundreds of them before, never cared about them then, don’t care about it now.”

“I wouldn’t be bragging so much about that if I were you,” Marta says, lifting her chin. “Maybe if you’d taken someone’s advice at some point, your life wouldn’t be such a mess now.”

“Oh wow, the sweet little kitten has claws after all!” Ransom says, mockingly clapping his hands together. “You know I could buy and sell three of you if I wanted to, right?”

He’s crowding into her space now, broad-shouldered and so tall, and Marta keeps her chin lifted and her feet firmly planted into the damp ground, refusing to move an inch. “You couldn’t buy one of me, Ransom, do I keep needing to remind you?”

“Yeah, you do keep telling me that.”

There’s no one else around them now, no one else to witness, no one else to interfere, no one else to distract them. Marta takes a deep breath, because as much as her mother and Alice and Harlan and the doctors reassure her she’s doing the right thing, Marta still can’t help but remember what it was like to see Ransom unresponsive on the hospital floor, body jerking helplessly in the throes of a seizure, and she thinks--she knows--she at least owes him the courtesy of saying the truth to his face.

“Are you always going to live like this?” Marta asks him, and Ransom rears back a little, visibly startled. “Are you always going to, to be like this--angry and spiteful, choking on your hate and resentment?”

Ransom takes a step away from her, the first time in over three months she’s seen him retreat from anything. “The fuck are you talking about?”

“Ransom, I’ve been in your head for the last three months. You think I don’t know what you’re like by now?” Marta asks. On instinct, she moves forward--Ransom takes another step back before he realizes what he’s doing, and holds himself still, his expression wary. “You don’t have to...you don’t have to feel like that all the time. Be like that all the time, every single day.”

Ransom’s mouth twists, and for just a moment, for less than a second--Marta can see the hurt behind the bitterness. “You forget I’m a Thrombey. Resentment and spite are the family legacy, or haven’t you noticed that by now?”

“You have a choice,” Marta says quietly. “You could choose differently, if you wanted.”

Ransom’s mouth is hard, his jaw unyielding. “I don’t have a choice in anything.”

Marta could almost laugh, because what does this rich white boy with his trust fund and Ivy League degree know about not having a choice in life? But she holds back, because in this moment, she knows Ransom means it--for whatever reason, he really doesn’t think he has a choice but to keep on going forever in this dead-end life.

“Of course you have a choice,” Marta says gently, and on some instinct--the same instinct that’s been powering her forward since she left the house, she reaches up, and touches her chilled fingers to Ransom’s cheek.

*

In three months, Marta has made sure never to touch Ransom Drysdale, and he’s equally made sure never to touch her.

It was just smart to avoid it. Touch was how you deepened a bond, everyone knew that, and deepening the bond was the last thing either of them wanted. So they kept their distance when walking past each other in the hallways of the house, they kept to their separate bedrooms, they didn’t so much as pass the salt directly to each other at dinner.

Marta had always been glad for the unspoken rule--some days she could still feel Ransom’s grip on her arm, as if his fingerprints had been imprinted on her skin. Which they had, really--except for the one time Marta lost her temper and her control. So it almost makes sense that it’s Marta who breaks that boundary, once again.

*

For that first second, it’s as if everything in Marta’s mind has gone blank. Her brain is offline, nothing but the blue screen of a computer that’s completely crashed for good.

And then, slowly, perception comes back to her--how hot Ransom’s skin feels against her fingertips. How wide his eyes are, shocked and disbelieving. How quickly her breaths are coming now, Ransom’s breathing matching hers--

As if she’s moving in a dream, Marta slowly moves her hand to cup Ransom’s chin, her fingers curved over his jawline, feeling a thrill of something like triumph when Ransom doesn’t pull away from her touch.

They’re so close now that Marta can feel the warmth of Ransom’s body, close enough that she can feel his breath coming in warm puffs against her skin.

Marta keeps going, keeps exploring the planes of Ransom’s face like...like she’s entitled to do it, as though this is the most natural thing in the world, as heat suffuses her body and she creeps closer to him, wanting to get closer, wanting more.

“Jesus Christ,” Ransom groans, and suddenly he’s touching her, an arm looping around her waist as he pulls her to him, and then he kisses her desperately, his mouth hot against hers, his lips moving against hers like a plea.

Despite not even conceiving of this just a few hours ago, Marta doesn’t hesitate in kissing him back, rising up as she throws her arms around his neck, her fingers tangling in his hair. Ransom’s groaning into her mouth, pressing against her everywhere, and even with the cold October air slipping through her clothes, Marta still feels like she’s burning up, every inch of her alight.

Marta’s so lost in the embrace she barely realizes that they’re moving, stumbling together until their sides brush against a smooth surface--it’s the side of Ransom’s car, gleaming in the moonlight.

“Oh my God,” Marta says vaguely, pulling away just enough to try to breath, gulping in breaths while Ransom frantically tugs at her coat, his mouth at her jawline and throat, his free hand slipping underneath the hem of her sweater and shirt and making Marta groan as his palm curves around her stomach.

She’s so already so wet that she’s aching with it, and without thinking, Marta takes Ransom’s hand and presses it to the front of her jeans, so desperate for just a little friction.

Ransom pulls back to stare at her, dazed, and Marta looks back at him--is he about to stop, does he not want? But then Ransom slowly sinks down to his knees, uncaring of the muddy ground or what it’ll do to his expensive pants, and works at the button and zipper to her trousers with shaking hands.

Marta stares up blindly at the night sky, stars ringed by treetops, as she feels Ransom’s hands moving along her thighs as he pulls her pants and underwear down, and then she looks down, just in time to see Ransom looking up at her as he slides two thick fingers inside of her, and Marta’s mouth opens on a shaky gasp as the perfect stretch and burn of it, at the wet noises they can both hear as he slides them in and out, crooking his fingers until she swears and blindly reaches out to grab at his head, fingers tangling in his hair.

For just half a second, she remembers the last time she’d touched his hair like this, blind with fury at the dinner table, but if Ransom’s remembering that he gives no sign of it, shuddering beneath her as he leans forward, his mouth hot and wet at he carefully licks at her clit, fingers continuing to relentlessly move inside her.

Marta tries and fails to stay quiet but she can’t seem to stop herself, hissing out instructions and praise as she clutches at Ransom’s hair, hips helplessly bucking forward--God, what she wouldn’t give for some leverage, for the chance to clench her thighs around his face and hold him right where she wants him, but this is still so good, it’s still so unbelievably good--

And, right as Marta already thinks she’s going to melt, she hears a zipper being opened and realizes that Ransom, Ransom who is going down on her like it’s the only thing he’s wanted to do, Ransom is already so desperate for relief that he’s jerking himself with one hand while he continues to eat her out, and the realization, the sound of him working his cock over as he makes desperate noises into her cunt--it’s enough to push her over the edge, as Marta comes with tears in her eyes, a cry in her throat as her hand tightens in Ransom’s hair, her grip brutal.

*

“Oh my God,” Marta says weakly, not that much later. They’re both in Ransom’s car now, trying to come down from--from what they just did, and mostly failing.

“Yeah,” Ransom agrees, sounding equally dazed. His hands are tight on the steering wheel, and when Marta looks at them, all she can think of is the feeling of his fingers moving inside of her.

She squirms a little, remembering it, and Ransom turns to look at her, wild-eyed, and she knows that if she doesn’t say something now, they’ll end up fucking inside the car, instead of against it.

Marta’s not proud of it, but the only thing that’s stopping her is that the backseat isn’t big enough for the two of them. So she clears her throat, but her voice is still hoarse as she says, “Ransom. We need a room. And a bed.”

Ransom’s gaze darkens, but he starts the car, saying, “My place isn’t that far from--” Marta winces, and he shakes his head. “Right, stupid.”

“There should be hotels nearby,” Marta says to him. “We can check into a room.”

Ransom is still staring at her, his gaze flicking over her like he’s already imagining being in that room, and what they’ll do what they get there.

Marta licks at her lips, and watches him watch her do it. “Ransom,” she says, her voice hoarse but steady. “We need to get moving.”

Ransom blinks slowly, then starts to nod. “Yeah.” And just like that, they’re making their way through the woods.

Neither of them talk very much during the drive. At a loss for what to do with herself, Marta absently starts to take down her hair, pulling out the bobby pins and unraveling the braids. She’s only a third of the way through when Ransom notices; he swears loudly and the car briefly swerves on the (thankfully deserted) road, the bobby pins falling out of Marta’s lap as she yelps with surprise.

“Ransom!”

“Fuck, sorry, but Jesus, warn a guy,” Ransom spits out, getting them safely back in the correct lane again. Marta stares at him, bewildered, and Ransom stubbornly keeps looking at the road, but when she turns back to finish undoing her hair, she can still feel when he sneaks quick glances at her, to finish watching her do it.

The closest hotel, as it turns out, is a Holiday Inn. “Jesus fucking wept,” Ransom groans, but he pulls into the parking lot without hesitation.

*

That night is one of the more surreal moments in Marta’s life.

When she thinks back to it later, she remembers the desperation with which Ransom stripped out of his clothes, how Marta’s mouth had gone dry when he was standing naked in front of her, gripping his erection and looking at her with longing.

Mostly, what stands out for Marta is how sure she felt, confidence straightening her shoulders as she bossed Ransom about, told him where to put his fingers, how to use his tongue on her. She was so sure, not just of herself, but of Ransom, confident that for tonight, he belonged to her, that she could possess him like this and not fear the consequences.

And at every turn, Ransom proved her right, with the way he leaned into her touch, pliant, obedient, the way he gasped and shuddered but never said no, never rebelled. How he melted, every time she told him how good he was, how good he was being for her.

For that night, just for that night--Marta caught a glimpse of what a bond could be like, where you were as sure of the other person as you were of yourself, where everything about your bondmate was a delight, as if they were designed specifically to give you joy.

But it comes to an end, and Marta’s lying naked on top of the sheets, sweat cooling on her skin.

“Jesus,” Ransom mutters next to her. He’s lying on his stomach, and Marta can see the scratches she left on his back, red streaks vivid against his pale skin. Marta stares at them, and then slowly reaches out to touch his back. “Does this hurt?”

Ransom’s eyes are bright, glittering when she looks at his face. His hair is a wreck from her fingers pulling on it. “It’s fine.”

At a loss, Marta starts to pull her hand away, and inhales sharply when Ransom reaches out and puts a hand on her stomach, low, right beneath her navel.

His hand is so warm, and he’s saying now, “Just--look, the room’s paid for. You don’t have to rush out of here.”

Marta would say that she’s not thinking of leaving, except that would be a lie. And whatever mood is hanging over them now, puking would definitely ruin it. “Yeah, I can stay,” she agrees. “You’ll have to drive me back to my car, in the morning.”

From this close, she can see the tension leaving Ransom’s body at her answer. “Yeah, I think I can manage that.”

*

At some point in the night, Marta wakes up and has to use the bathroom. She slips out from Ransom’s embrace (he’s thrown his arm around her waist, his head tucked into the nape of her neck) and goes off to use the bathroom, staying as quiet as possible all the while so as not to disturb him.

Once she’s washed her hands, there’s a moment where Marta turns and looks at the bed, where Ransom’s still sleeping soundly, illuminated from the light pouring from the bathroom.

Despite sleep still clouding her drowsy brain, Marta’s stomach clenches, and she whispers to herself, “What am I going to do with you?”

There’s no answer, either from Ransom, or from her own head, and after a moment Marta turns off the bathroom light, and slips through the darkness to climb back into the bed, warm from their shared body heat.

*

The next morning, Marta wakes up to Ransom’s arms curled around her, and over a dozen missed calls on her phone, mostly from Meg, but a few from Linda, Walt, even Joni. “What…” Marta murmurs, rubbing at her eyes, and then quickly jostles Ransom awake. “Ransom, check your phone, something’s happened.”

While Ransom groans and grumbles as he reaches for his iPhone, Marta quickly calls Meg back, mindful of the fact that her battery is running low and she didn’t bring a charger with her. “Meg?” she asks, as soon as she answers. “Meg, it’s Marta, what’s happening?”

“Marta,” Meg says on the other end, her voice choked up, sobs escaping as she tries to speak. “Marta, it’s...oh God, it’s Granddad. He’s dead. Someone killed him last night.”

Chapter Text

Marta has few memories of that frantic drive to the house, Ransom breaking what must have been half the traffic laws in Massachusetts, but she remembers coming up the drive to see flashing lights, police cars everywhere, the family scattered all over the front lawn…

The second that Ransom parks the car, Marta rushes out to Fran, who is quietly weeping by the door, tissues clutched in her hand.

She immediately reaches out for Marta as Marta approaches, pulling Marta into a hug. Marta hugs her back, asking through the pain, “Fran, what happened?”

Fran sniffles as she pulls back. “I, I went to bring him his breakfast like I do every morning, coffee and croissants--and I went up to his room, and he was there, with a knife in his throat…” Fran breaks down into sobs again, and collapses into Marta’s arms again. Marta holds her, shaking, as she imagines it, Harlan lying there on the floor of his bedroom, blood everywhere--

“Who could do that to him?” Marta asks, horrified.

Fran shudders, and looks over at where Linda Ransdale and Walt Thrombey are arguing loudly with two of the police officers. “I don’t know...but I’m telling you, that family has something to do with it.”

*

The police have sealed the entire house off as a crime scene, but they allow Marta to come into her room to pack some things. Once Marta is done--it takes longer than she thinks it will, she’s moved so many of her things here, in the last few months, she sinks down slowly onto her bed.

The officer watches her quietly, but doesn’t try to hurry her along.

Marta sits there, in the room that Harlan gave her as sanctuary, and breathes slowly.

She could go back to her family, try and see if she can live on her own without Ransom--or see if he can live without her. She can try and take Meg and Joni up on their offer, or find a way to fund her trip to Germany on her own.

She has choices. She always will have a choice.

When Marta comes out of her room, Ransom is waiting at her by the foot of the stairs, hands stuffed into his pockets, his mouth tense and his body rigid.

Marta doesn’t make him wait. “Does your creepy glass house have a guest room?”

Ransom stares up at her for a second, his face stunned. It’s a good look on him, Marta decides, even if it lasts only for a moment. “Yeah. I’ve got a spare room.”

“Okay,” Marta says with a nod, the echoes of Ransom’s relief causing the tension in her body to ease. “I’ll follow you there in my car.”

*

Marta holds herself together until she’s at Ransom’s house, left alone in the sterile extra room, and only then, does she feel tears slipping down her cheeks as she reaches for her phone, and calls her mother.

Her mother picks up immediately. “Marta? Marta, where are you, the reporters on the news are saying your boss has died--”

“He has,” Marta chokes out. “Someone killed him.”

“What?” her mother gasps, shocked. “Marta, oh my God, what happened--”

That’s the last push Marta can take, as she breaks down at last, sobbing into her hands while her mother makes soothing noises over the phone, murmuring over and over again, “Oh sweetheart, oh my baby. It’s okay, it’s going to be okay.”

“It’s not,” Marta says, wiping futilely at her wet face. “Mama, it’s not okay, someone killed him, who would do that…” She dissolves into another storm of sobs at that, thinking of Harlan, his easy smiles and gnarled hand patting hers comfortingly, as he reassured her, again and again, that he’d stand by her, he’d do right by her.

“Marta,” her mother says now, with a newfound firmness. “Marta, tell me where you are, I’m going to come get you.”

Marta flinches. “Mama, you can’t.”

“What? Why not? Marta, you’re upset, you need your family now--”

“I’m at Ransom’s,” Marta says, ripping it off like a band-aid. “I agreed to stay with him, at least for now.”

There’s a shocked silence, and then her mother asks, disbelieving, “You--what? Why?”

Marta can’t even begin to explain why, not even to herself, much less to her mother. “I...I don’t know. It seemed best.”

“Best for who?” her mother demands. “Best for that spoiled rich white boy to be coddled some more--”

“Mama, please,” Marta says, wearily, and her mother thankfully falls silent. “Please, just--not now, okay? I’ll come and visit you and Alice later.”

Her mother sighs heavily. “Marta--take care of yourself, huh? And you better come home tomorrow, we want to see you.”

“Of course,” Marta agrees, because she wants to see them too.

They say their goodbyes and hang up, and Marta wipes at her face once more before getting up to throw the door to her room open, finding Ransom standing right outside--just like she sensed he was, two minutes into her phone call.

“What do you want, Ransom?” Marta asks, exhaustion thick in her voice.

Ransom looks at her for a long moment, then finally says, each word coming out of him so slowly it’s as if they’re being pulled out with pliers, “Can I get you anything?”

Marta blinks at him. “No. Thank you.”

“Marta,” Ransom says heavily, like she’s somehow being difficult now.

“Ransom, I don’t need anything--”

Ransom sighs, and says through set teeth, “Look. My grandfather’s dead because some psycho stabbed him in the throat, I’ve got you here in my house, your misery’s practically screaming in my ear, I need--give me something to do.”

Marta stares at him, surprised--she’s spent so long, dealing with the side-effects of having someone like Ransom tethered to her mind, it’s never occurred to her before now that she could impact him at all, negatively or positively.

Ransom stares at her, face grim, but he adds, “Please, Marta.”

Marta turns away, folding her arms. “Um. Okay, I--I could use some tea.”

Ransom squints. “I don’t have tea. We can order some, but it’ll take time for the delivery guy to get here…” He trails off at the look on Marta’s face, and offers next, awkwardly, “But I’ve got coffee. Or kombucha.”

“Coffee would be good,” Marta confirms, and Ransom nods and goes off to...make her some coffee, Marta has to assume.

At a loss for anything else to do, Marta follows him into the kitchen. Ransom has some gleaming espresso machine that looks like it’s a mix of something from NASA and Apple, and Marta leaves him to it.

The house is absolutely spotless, and Marta momentarily thinks of asking Ransom a question about it before realizing that of course it's spotless, he's likely got a cleaning service that comes in regularly. So instead she sits down on a couch in the living room and watches Ransom work in the kitchen, his broad back turned to her (she can still remember clutching at his shoulders the night before, her nails sinking into his flesh).

Marta exhales, wishing that at least there was a wall separating the two of them now--she's never been a fan of the open-concept designs or whatever they're called (Alice is the HGTV addict in their family, not Marta) and looks around for something to distract her, before she starts crying again or remembering last night in technicolor detail.

There are a stack of recent New Yorker issues piled up on the coffee table, and Marta reaches out and blindly starts flipping through the most recent one--and pauses about halfway through, and begins to read again more closely.

The headline reads Last of the Gentleman Sleuths, and the portrait is of a blond man with a chiseled face, and Marta feels her breathing slow down as she reads on about Benoit Blanc, legendary sleuth originally from Louisiana, who could (and did) solve any case that came his way...

"Marta?" Ransom calls out, and Marta jerks her gaze up, the magazine clutched in her hands, to find Ransom standing in front of her, holding a cup of coffee.

"I only had almond milk in the fridge," he says gruffly, and sets the cup on the table in front of her.

"That's fine, thank you," Marta says automatically, blowing on the surface to cool it before taking a cautious sip. She continues to sip at the coffee, reading the article again more closely. Ransom seems content to sit next to her and watch her drink her coffee and read the New Yorker, and for once, Marta's not discomfited by his gaze.

Once her coffee is finished--it doesn't take long, it's a small cup--Marta turns to Ransom and says, firm, "I have several things I need to do today. If you really need something to do--"

"I do," Ransom says immediately, and looks surprised at his own answer.

Marta takes it in stride. "Then you can come with me and help, if you want."

Ransom looks at her, and then says, "Fine, but I’m driving.”

*

Ransom insists on making a run to Dunkin before running any other errands--"If I'm standing in line, I'm not doing it on an empty stomach," he insists, and Marta is still finishing up her glazed jelly donut when they walk into the bank.

"You know I don't have any accounts here, right?" Ransom asks as they walk in, and Marta rolls her eyes. "It's not your money I'm getting," she says, and goes to fill out a withdrawal slip for her savings account. She feels a momentary qualm at filling out the form--the last time she'd put down this many zeroes, she was depositing her tuition check for college--but then she remembers Fran weeping, the glare of the police lights, and stiffens her spine and her resolve.

Ransom, of course, makes no pretense at respecting her privacy. Looking over her shoulder, he asks, "Uh, what are you doing?"

"Making a withdrawal," Marta says briefly.

"Yeah, and that's a lot of money for a withdrawal." Marta looks up, raising her eyebrow, and Ransom elaborates with a roll of his eyes, "Yeah, it's not a lot of money for me, but for a girl whose wardrobe is exclusively from Old Navy and Target, that's a fuckton of money."

Marta doesn't answer, both because he's not wrong, and because she doesn't want to explain herself to him. So she just goes to wait in line, Ransom sighing faintly behind her as he follows.

The bank teller tries to talk Marta out of emptying her savings account, but Marta is quietly firm, and before long, she has an envelope stuffed full of all the money she'd managed to save over the last few years, all three thousand, two hundred and forty three dollars of it, broken down into 100 and 50 dollar bills.

She clutches her tote bag close to her as they leave, silently promising herself that if Ransom is to say one word to her, she will put him in his place. But Ransom, whether he can sense her mood or has finally developed some self-preservation, doesn't say a word until they're in the car, and even then it's only to ask, "Okay, so what next?"

"Next we go to the post office," Marta says, exhaling. "Wait--do you have a notebook here?"

Ransom has a moleskine tucked away in the glove compartment, and Marta quickly flips to a blank page and starts to write, forcing herself to write slowly enough that her writing will be neat and legible.

Dear Mr. Blanc,

I'm writing to you now because my employer, Harlan Thrombey, was murdered last night...

Marta keeps it short, but urgent--either Mr. Blanc will be won over by her letter and her money or he won't, either this will work or it won't. At least Marta will have tried, at least she'll have done something for Harlan. Once she's finished with her letter, she carefully rips the pages out of the notebook, folds them up and stuffs them in the envelope with the cash.

"Why do I feel like I'm in one of Granddad's novels?" Ransom asks rhetorically.

Marta doesn't bother answering, she just says, "Now we can go to the post office." Ransom chuckles, but obediently starts up the car and pulls out of the parking lot.

The wait at the nearest USPS office is terrible, but Marta keeps herself busy with answering Alice's increasingly frazzled texts and trying to fend off Ransom, who keeps reading her phone over her shoulder. "Is this that cute sister of yours?" he asks, his breath warm on her ear as he leans in.

Marta pointedly turns her shoulder away from him, but since they're in line, her ability to move is limited. "Yes, I'm texting Alice. What, your private investigator looked into her too?"

"Duh," Ransom says, unashamed. "Also she's on Instagram."

Marta takes that in, and then looks at him. "Ransom, did you create an Instagram account just to follow my sister's account?" Alice would have blown Marta's phone up had she noticed that Ransom Drysdale followed her on Instagram, and thanks to Meg, Marta knows that Ransom's normal Instagram account has his name in it.

"Maybe. Okay, yes. The alternative was getting on Facebook to follow your mom."

"My mother's not on Facebook."

"My point exactly!"

Deeply aware of how many people are around them overhearing this, Marta whispers heatedly, "We're talking about this later, and not in public."

Ransom theatrically holds his hands up, "Whatever you say, Cabrera."

Marta closes her eyes and breathes in and out, refusing to let his amusement get to her, and it's only then that they finally reach someone who can help Marta send her letter and money to Benoit Blanc via Priority Mail.

By this point, of course, Ransom has caught on to what she’s doing—he’s many things but stupid isn’t one of them, Marta has long since realized. He waits until they’re out of the office to call her out on it, saying in a voice thick with disbelief, “Marta, are you seriously blowing your entire savings on hiring out your own private detective to investigate Grandad’s death?”

“Yes,” Marta says, simply, and that takes the air out of Ransom’s rant, he just stares at her as she says, “I owe him. He’s gone but,” her voice wavers momentarily, “But I still can do something for him, and I will.”

Ransom continues to stare at her, and then exclaims. “Jesus fuck. Fuck!” And without another word he storms off to the car, leaving Marta to follow, baffled.

Whatever fueled that momentary outburst, at least Ransom gets over it quickly enough. He’s silent for a moment in the car, his hands flexing on the wheel, his irritation like gravel in Marta’s shoes, before the sensation eases, as does Ransom’s grip on the wheel. He asks her next in a more normal tone, “Any other errands you need to run? Wanna hire a witch doctor to cast a curse on whoever killed my grandfather?”

“No, but we do need to get groceries.”

Ransom raises an eyebrow at her. “You know we can have them delivered, right?”

“I know, but we’re already out and the stores are nearby.” Marta tells him.

Ransom shrugs, and takes them to the local Whole Foods. Of course he does. Marta looks at the store, and says, “For the prices this place charges, you’re paying.”

Ransom snorts. “I think I can afford it,” he replies, winking at her as he gets out of the car.

Marta shakes her head, but follows him inside. Once they’re in there, however, she makes Ransom maneuver their shopping cart as she wanders up and down the aisles, Ransom trailing in her wake as she buys organic, free-range, fair trade everything, making herself look past the price tag and choose solely based on her own whims, what she thinks will work for the meals she’ll have to make for what, the next week? How long does it take to analyze a crime scene—

Marta pulls away from that train of thought quickly, and throws another half-pound of beef into the cart.

When they get to the cash register, the total cost is enough to make Marta blanch, for all her earlier confidence, but Ransom just hands over his black Amex without hesitation.

*

Two days later, Marta gets a voicemail from an unknown number. The man on the other end says, simply, “Ms. Cabrera, this is Benoit Blanc. I look forward to taking on your case.”

Marta has to sit down on the floor of Ransom’s kitchen, cool tile beneath her hands, and breathe into her hands until Ransom’s worried voice cuts in, his hands warm on her shoulders as he repeats, “Marta? Marta, who the fuck was that on the phone? Are you okay?”

“I’m fine,” Marta says, blinking as she comes back to herself. Ransom’s face is very close to hers--he’s kneeling down on the floor with her, vegetables and the meal they’re preparing for dinner forgotten on the counter. “I’m fine, I just...that was Benoit Blanc. He’s taking the case.”

“Okay,” Ransom says, still looking at her worriedly. “Okay, good.” He breathes out in relief, before saying next, “Now can you get up off this floor and stop freaking me out?”

Marta snorts. “Only if you stop mangling the carrots, and start chopping the onions like how I showed you. That expensive Ivy League education and you still don’t know how to cut and peel vegetables?”

She takes his hand without thinking and lets him help her back up, and it’s only until after she’s back on her feet that she’s struck by how strange that moment was--or how strange it wasn’t, not in this new reality where Ransom will bring her coffee without arguing and will agree to do any task she sets of him, whether it’s running interference with his family at the upcoming funeral or simply dicing onions in the way that Marta knows onions should be diced.

He can listen to her, Marta’s learned, and the knowledge is still surprising, even as the evidence in favor of it keeps piling up.

*

Despite that voicemail, the first time that Marta sees Benoit Blanc is at Harlan’s house, where they’ve all been summoned to go through another round of interviews and statements. Marta comes with Ransom, but they’re quickly split up when Richard insists on pulling Ransom aside for a quick chat.

Linda, to Marta’s surprise, pulls her in for a brief hug, patting her on the pack. “How are you doing, kiddo?”

Marta swallows, touched by the concern. “I... it’s tough. Of course, you know.”

Linda briskly rubs her back. “Of course it is. I’m glad you and Ransom are sticking together through this, that’s important.” Of course it’s important to her, Marta thinks to herself, but then tries to be generous--it makes sense that with what happened in the summer, Linda and Richard would be invested in seeing this bond succeed.

She just hopes Linda doesn’t try to open up her checkbook and bribe Marta into staying.

But Linda doesn’t try to bribe Marta, just takes her in hand while she talks about the police, how they’re still grilling everyone over their alibis, over the timeline, “...even though I keep telling them, time and time again, I would have heard it if someone had gone up the stairs--”

“Those stairs are the only way up to Harlan’s room,” Marta says, staring at her.

Linda nods emphatically. “Exactly! And if I didn’t hear it, then nobody went up that way. It is physically impossible.”

Marta struggles for words, and then says slowly, “But...Harlan.”

Linda’s expression falters. “I don’t know,” she admits, and that must be the first time Marta’s heard Linda use those words. “God, maybe Walt’s right, maybe Dad was goofing around with his collection, mixed up a trick knife for the real thing.”

Marta holds her tongue before saying how impossible that idea is, not when Harlan could tell you the backstory of every knife in this house, from the Victorian-era dagger he won off an actual baronet in a poker game, to the trick knives he had commissioned from a specialty shop in Hoboken.

He wouldn’t have ever mistaken one blade for another, not ever. But Marta holds her tongue, because she doesn’t have to say this to Linda--not so long as she explains it to the police.

So Marta impatiently waits outside the library, her foot bouncing on the floor as she watches the clock, and tries not to look at the portrait of Harlan outside, his painted face grave and somber, holding what very might well have been the knife that killed him…

The door opens at last, and one of the detectives is standing there, his expression calm but not unfriendly. “Ms. Cabrera? Please come in.”

Marta nods and gets to her feet, wringing her hands together as she comes in--and there, looking over the giant display of knives, is Benoit Blanc.

He turns to her, and smiles, though Marta can feel him inspecting her, looking her over. “Ms. Cabrera,” he says, coming over to shake his hand. “Benoit Blanc. A pleasure to meet you at last.”

“At last?” one of the cops asks, sounding confused.

“Ah, forgive me,” Blanc says, turning to look at them. “Trooper Wagner, Lieutenant Elliott, you asked earlier who had hired me to peer into this curious affair. I’d like you both to meet my client, Marta Cabrera.”

He’s still holding Marta’s hand as he introduces her, and Marta finds herself oddly grateful for the support, as both Lieutenant Elliott and Trooper Wagner look at her assessingly.

“Mind sharing with us why you hired one of the greatest private detectives in the modern era?” Lieutenant Elliott asks.

Marta sits down in the chair facing them all. “I wanted to do something, anything, for Harlan. He was so good to me, and--I felt like I owed it to him to try and help.”

“We can use your help now, Marta,” Benoit says to her, hands jammed in his pockets. “What we’re struggling with, beyond anything else, is finding a motive for anyone to harm Harlan Thrombey. We’ve gotten hints of petty squabbles, the odd family tiff, but there’s nothing on the scale of a feud so bad that it would spur someone to thrust a knife straight into the bared throat of their family patriarch.”

Marta winces, but doesn’t argue with that. “You want to know the family’s secrets.”

“I think a nurse, a trusted friend, might’ve...seen more, been privy to more, than we as outsiders might expect at first glance.” Blanc’s blue eyes are very alert, but still somehow kind as they survey Marta. “Is that the case, Ms. Cabrera?”

Marta takes a breath. Normally, she wouldn’t think twice about stonewalling someone that was prying into Harlan’s secrets. She’d taken it as a measure of trust when Harlan began to confide in her, began sharing his concerns and worries, his fears and his frustrations. She hadn’t shared them with anyone, not even Fran, not even for her family at home.

But Harlan’s gone, and Marta said that whatever she could do for him, she would.

She can’t falter at the first hurdle now.

“So then you don’t know about Harlan threatening to reveal Richard’s affair,” Marta says evenly to them all. “Or how he was going to remove Walt from the publishing company.”

“Ohhh, what?” Trooper Wagner says in shocked delight, while Lieutenant Elliott starts writing in his notebook and Blanc starts rocking back on his heels, satisfied with himself.

“Plus there was Joni,” Marta adds. “Harlan was about to cut her and Meg off completely.”

“So I’m going to need you to start from the beginning,” Elliott tells her, glancing up over his notebook.

“That’s fine,” Marta agrees. “Whatever you need.”

*

Ransom’s waiting impatiently for her as her interview finally winds to a close, and Marta keeps losing her train of thought as she keeps being distracted by imagining him pacing back and forth, feeling his impatience rising, his irritation like a papercut on the hand, the sting of it impossible to ignore, even when she wants to.

“Marta?” Wagner asks. “Everything okay?”

Marta blinks, and tries to put a smile on her face. “I’m sorry. Ransom’s waiting outside, it’s...distracting.”

She only realizes that sentence only makes sense if you know about their bond, but from the looks all three men are sharing, it’s clear they already do. “You mean Ransom Drysdale,” Elliott says. “The, uh, the bondmate you’ve been working to get away from for the past three months.”

There’s not much Marta can say to that except for, “Yes.”

“Now, Marta,” Blanc says, leaning forward as he speaks. “One thing that everyone confirmed is that Ransom had one hell of a dust-up with his grandfather that night in his office, bad enough that he stormed out and wasn’t seen for the rest of the evening. But you haven’t mentioned him in the list of people who might want to do harm to Harlan. Why is that?”

“If it’s because he’s your bondmate--” Elliott says, in the gentlest voice he’s used with Marta to date.

“That’s not it,” Marta says, looking at them all squarely. “Yes, Ransom was furious that night. So furious,” she adds, her voice faltering at the memory of it. “But he couldn’t have killed Harlan, because he was with me that night. All night. At the Holiday Inn.”

Blanc and Elliott share a look at this, then they look back at Wagner, before all three of them turn to stare at her. “Well, that is...an interesting twist in the tale,” Blanc says slowly. “Given, uh, your history with Mr. Drysdale, up to this point.”

Marta refuses to squirm, even though she can feel her face flushing. “It may be interesting, but it’s also the truth.”

“Yeah, but why?” Elliott asks her, sounding genuinely baffled. “You’ve been trying to get away from this guy for months now, you attempt procedure after procedure to sever the bond, we hear from Meg Thrombey that you’re days away from going overseas to break it for good, and then one night you do a complete 180?”

“Is this really relevant?” Marta asks through tight lips--she’d been so relaxed before, sharing her theories and observations with them all, as if they were collaborating, as if they were colleagues, and now it’s as if she’s being cross-examined, grilled.

“It’s relevant given the timing,” Elliott says, his voice more gentle now. “Especially if there’s a chance that there was...coercion.”

“I wasn’t coerced,” Marta says. “Or bribed or forced or whatever you think. We--that whole night I could feel him, I could feel how upset and angry he was, and I…” She swallows and looks down at her hands. “It’s true, I didn’t want him as my bondmate. But I thought...I thought I owed him one honest conversation, at least, and things…” She lifts a hand helplessly. “They went from there.”

Blanc and Elliott share another speaking glance, and then Elliott nods at last, chewing at his lip as he makes another note. “Okay. We’re still going to need to check that alibi, you understand.”

“Of course,” Marta says, relieved to be done with this. “Whatever you have to do.”

“Listen, uh,” Elliott says, sounding more awkward now, getting to his feet as he fumbles for his wallet, “If you need anything at all--”

Marta blinks, both at him and at the card he’s holding out to her. “Detective, please, I promise you I’m fine--”

“Think of it as a favor to me then, okay?” Elliott says, his dark eyes intent on her face, some emotion in them that Marta can’t read.

Slowly, Marta takes the card. “I won’t need this,” she says to him, “But I’ll take it, okay?” She offers him a smile, meant to reassure, and receives a small, crookedly relieved smile in return.

As Marta carefully tucks Elliott’s card in her jean pocket, Blanc says, “Marta, we’ve taken up quite a lot of your time at the moment, but if you’d be so kind as to stick around...I’d like to, ah, confer with you privately, if that would be all right?”

“Of course,” Marta says. She is his client, strange as it is to realize.

Ransom is, as Marta had said, hovering right outside the door. His gaze snaps to Marta as the door opens, and he immediately walks right into her personal space, asking in a low voice, “You good?”

“I’m fine,” Marta says, surprised by the question, and by the way that Ransom is practically vibrating with tension. Ransom stares down into her face for another moment, face uncharacteristically serious--and then he looks up to face everyone else, and that familiar smirk spreads across his face, and Marta nearly sighs aloud, because she knows what’s coming next.

“Well, you certainly do love to make a guy wait,” Ransom says, smile wide and mirthless.

Lieutenant Elliott looks unimpressed. “Hugh Drysdale, I take it?”

“Call me Ransom, only the help calls me Hugh,” Ransom says, walking in past everyone to sit down in the chair Marta just vacated.

Blanc is watching Ransom with his head tilted just so. “Ransom, we were just finishing up with Marta here--”

“Ooh,” Ransom says, making a show of settling into his seat, legs spread wide, hands resting on his knees. “I was not expecting the Foghorn Leghorn accent, but it’s cool, I can dig it.”

“Ransom,” Marta says, sharpening her voice. Ransom’s attention snaps to her, and she says, levelly, “I would appreciate it if you didn’t insult the detective I spent over three thousand dollars of my money to hire.”

Ransom doesn’t look abashed--it’s impossible for Ransom Drysdale to look abashed, Marta’s convinced-but his expression grows more serious, less taunting and flippant.

Marta turns to Blanc, and smiles at him. “I’ll be in the kitchen whenever you need me.” She thinks of shooting Ransom another glare, but what is she, his schoolteacher, lecturing him on how to behave?

So she walks out without a glance back at any of them, and goes to see if Fran needs help with anything.

*

"So who do you think it is?" Fran asks in a low undertone to Marta, as they're finishing up with the sandwiches.

Marta grimaces. "I still can't believe any of them would do that to Harlan." Except that one of them did, and she's working with the detectives, one of whom she hired, to find out who it was. Not that she'll tell Fran that. Marta likes Fran, but Fran is incapable of discretion.

"My money's on Walt," Fran says. "Or maybe it was that creepy wife of his."

Before Marta can reply, she hears footsteps thundering outside, and Benoit Blanc appears at the doorway, looking excited. "Marta, come with us--we've gotten a breakthrough thanks to that miscreant you're unfortunately bonded to."

"Miscreant's a good name for him," Fran says approvingly. "You could also call him a shithead while you're at it."

What everyone is so excited about, it turns out, is Ransom revealing that there is actually another way into the house and to Harlan's rooms.

"It's a trick window, based off one of his novels," Ransom explains casually, as they all troop outside and stare up at the window above the blue trellis. "He showed it to me, the summer I was working as his research assistant."

"Could someone have gotten out here without being caught on camera?" Marta asks.

Ransom shrugs. "They probably would have to circle around the long way through the woods, but yeah, I'd say so."

"And who else would have known about the window?" Elliott asks.

"Anyone that Granddad told," Ransom replies.

Blanc takes a closer look at the trellis. "That broken piece of wood looks fresh," he says slowly.

"Like someone tried to climb it in the last few days," Elliott agrees. "I've seen enough, I'm getting the crime scene boys back in, we're gonna have to go over this whole place again."

Trooper Wagner is looking up at the window with an awed expression on his face. "A secret passageway," he says softly, clearly delighted.

Blanc moves closer to Marta and asks in a softer voice, "Marta, might we perhaps retire for refreshments, and so that I can give you a full update on the case as it stands at this precise moment in time?"

"Of course," Marta agrees. "Fran's made sandwiches, we can go back to the kitchen if you want."

"Wonderful," Blanc says. "And--to confirm, you are my client, correct? Not you and Mr. Drysdale?"

Marta glances at Ransom, who is clearly eavesdropping and is just as clearly irritated by what he's hearing. "No, it's just me," Marta confirms.

"Magnificent," Blanc says, clearly pleased. "Please, lead the way."

Marta feels Ransom's eyes on her as they leave, but that's fine. She's become more used to his attention, these days.

Over sandwiches and coffee, Blanc becomes Benoit, and he gives her a thorough runthrough of the case. "It helps my process to talk things through," Benoit explains, gesturing in the air with a sandwich triangle. "And I have the feeling that you will make an excellent Watson."

Charmed, Marta smiles. "Thank you."

Benoit smiles back, then clears his throat, leaning back in his seat. "And uh, I also wanted to clear up a possible misunderstanding. Lieutenant Elliott, earlier, I hope you didn't take offense--"

"No, of course not," Marta says quickly, but the sandwiches she'd happily just eaten are turning to lead now, in her stomach.

"It's, ah, personal for Lieutenant Elliott, as well as myself," Benoit continues, awkward now but still undeterred. "You see, three days earlier, he and I became, that is to say we are--"

"You're bonded," Marta realizes.

Benoit bobs his head in a nod. "In a word, yes."

"Oh my God, congratulations," Marta says, smiling broadly, reaching out to squeeze Benoit's arm. "That's wonderful news!"

Benoit smiles. "Thank you, Marta." His smile fades, and he says next, more slowly than usual, "But you can see why your, ah, current state of affairs would be disturbing personally to Lieutenant Elliott as well as myself."

Marta pulls back. "You think I shouldn't try to break the bond?" she asks, trying to keep the offense out of her voice.

"By no means would I suggest such a thing!" Benoit protests. "No, Marta--what I am trying, very badly, is to communicate is my concern for you, now that Harlan Thrombey is gone." He meets her gaze squarely and says, "With him gone, will you still be able to travel to Germany?"

Marta exhales. "I don't know yet," she concedes. "My plans are...up in the air right now."

Benoit purses his lips. "I see. Well, as my client, you should feel free to call upon me should you ever feel the need. I speak for my bonded as well in this, just to be clear."

Marta's mouth quirks up. "Are you always this nice to your clients?"

"Only the ones I like," Benoit says, smiling crookedly at her.

It ends up being a very long day, but Marta heads for Ransom's home feeling confident, both in the investigation and in Benoit Blanc's skills as a detective.

Ransom, it turns out, does not share that confidence.

"That Kentucky-fried asshole is full of horseshit," Ransom fumes as he loads the washer with another load of laundry.

Marta ignores this, asking instead, "Did you separate the loads like I showed you?"

"Yes, Marta," Ransom says impatiently, and when Marta just raises an eyebrow at him, he sighs and says, "I am actually capable of separating whites from colors."

"And delicates," Marta says. "You don't get to treat my clothes the way you treat your own clothes."

"What's wrong with the way I treat my clothes?" Ransom asks. "I send them out to be cleaned by professionals, the same way I would send yours out if you'd just let me--"

"Tell that to the hole in your sweater's collar," Marta says dismissively.

Ransom grumbles, but gets back to work. Once the washer is going, he takes the basket full of dry, clean clothes and takes it to the living room to fold while watching Netflix. Marta leaves him to it and goes to start dinner, but the anger radiating from Ransom doesn't fade, and Marta eventually sighs and looks up from the cutting board to ask, "Okay. What's your problem with Benoit."

"Oh, it's Benoit now?"

Marta stays unruffled. "He asked me to call him by his first name."

“Oh, well, if he asked you,” Ransom sneers, shaking a pair of Marta’s jeans free from the pile of laundry with more force than is needed.

“Ransom,” Marta prods.

“Your new buddy kept grilling me about the night of the party,” Ransom says, his jaw working. “About what Granddad and I were fighting about.”

Marta blinks, trying to work through this, both what Ransom’s saying, and the tangled knot of emotions throbbing in the back of her head and his. “I told them you were with me that night, that you couldn’t have done it.”

Ransom smirks at this, obnoxiously making a finger-guns gesture with one hand and pointing it in Marta’s direction. “Thanks for that alibi, sweetheart.”

“It’s not about you,” Marta says, refusing to be distracted by another show of Ransom’s. “Benoit’s just doing his job. And he’s worried about me.”

“Worried about you?” Ransom asks, starting to frown. “Taking this client business a little too far, isn’t he?”

Marta shakes her head. “He and Lieutenant Elliott, they’ve bonded. That’s why they--that’s why they’re interested.”

Ransom’s smile is bitter now. “They want to get up close and personal with our fucked-up disaster of a fairytale?”

His bitterness is thick as tar, and Marta stays silent, thinking of the card still tucked into her jean pocket, but also thinking of the answer she gave Elliott, and then Benoit. The problem is--the problem is that Marta hasn't let herself think about that night, not in the specifics, and not in terms of what it meant for the future. If she looks inward, she knows that she's not afraid or wary of Ransom anymore--it's impossible for her to be wary of someone she's seen naked, who shuddered when she touched him and begged her to let him come.

For the past few days, Ransom hasn’t been an obstacle for her to deal with, he’s been...a help to her. A welcome distraction, someone for her to boss around, someone to assist her with ordinary chores, ordinary tasks, to keep her from thinking about her employer with a knife in his throat, or the killer that put that knife there.

“They wanted to make sure I was all right,” Marta says finally, deciding on honesty. “And I told them I was fine, there was no need to worry.” She tilts her head, and adds, “Although if you keep sulking rather than helping me with these chores, I’m going to be pretty annoyed.”

Enjoying the look of surprise on Ransom’s face, Marta turns her attention back to the carrots she’s chopping up for the soup, and when she hears the TV turn back on, she smiles quietly to herself.

 

*

Marta has no intention of going to the will reading, but Ransom and Benoit both disagree. Ransom because he’d already bullied his family into letting Marta attend the funeral with him, Benoit because he wants to keep Marta close to the investigation.

So Marta goes to the house with Ransom, and she stands in the back of the room with Benoit, which means that she is still right there on the scene when Alan Stevens reads out Harlan Thrombey’s new will...which leaves everything, the estate, the business, even the house to her.

Three things happen, almost exactly at the same time.

First, Marta breathes out, in shock and in horror, “Oh, holy shit.”

Second, Ransom starts to laugh hysterically, his disbelief ringing in Marta’s ears as loudly as his laughter.

And third, the Thrombeys turn on her.

Linda, rational, level-headed Linda lunges at her, yelling, “Were you boinking my father?”

“Jesus, Ma,” Ransom protests, getting in front of Marta, arms spread wide, as if he can hold back his family on his own. “Boinking? Are you still watching porn from the 70s?”

“I think a careful retreat might be in order,” Benoit urges in Marta’s ear, but that’s not enough to drown out the rest of them, especially not Jacob’s shrill voice rising above the rest, “You don’t deserve this, you damn anchor baby!”

Marta jerks back from that, and Ransom yells back, “Oh, fuck off, Nazi spawn--”

Marta tries to get away, from all of them, from all of that noise, but she can’t, she’s moving too slow and they’re moving too fast, and Marta is outside in the cold fall air, trying desperately to explain to one Thrombey and then another that this has to be a mistake, she doesn’t know what happened, she doesn’t know why Harlan did this--

And then Marta hears a car horn beeping, and it’s Ransom in the Beemer, gesturing for her to get inside, and Marta moves, maybe faster than she’s ever moved in her entire life, jerking the door open and slipping inside, right in time for Ransom to wheel the car around and speed away, shouting through his open window, “And fuck you all very much too!”

It’s not until they’re already on the road, the house no longer in sight, that Ransom says, all the laughter gone from his voice, “Okay, but what the hell, Marta.”

“I don’t know,” Marta says, numbly. “I don’t have any idea at all.”

*

“Marta, we need to make a plan,” Ransom says as they drive away from the restaurant where they’d had a hasty meal. They hadn’t said much at the restaurant, both to catch their breath and out of fear of being overheard. It had been a relief, to sit there in silence, to be in agreement. It has felt like they were in sync for a moment, a team, needing the same things at the same time.

But now they’re back in the car, and the gloves are off.

“A plan for what?” Marta asks doubtfully. “A plan for you to get your cut of the estate?”

“Now who’s being mercenary?” Ransom asks, flashing her a grin. “But no, for once, I’m not talking about the money.”

“Why not?” Marta presses. “Don’t tell me you’re not angry about being cut out of the will with the rest of your family.”

Ransom chuckles, darkly. “Sweetheart, if Granddad was here in front of me right now, I’d throttle him. But, lucky for me, we’re still bonded, baby. What’s yours is mine, and what’s yours apparently is 60 million, a publishing empire easily worth three times that, and a palatial country estate.”

Marta sighs and leans back in her seat, closing her eyes. “What?” Ransom says. “Come on, you can’t actually be surprised by that.”

“No,” Marta says, waving her hand at his direction, not bothering to open her eyes. “No, it’s actually kind of comforting, having you be so predictably craven.”

“Well, I aim to please.” She can feel his eyes on her, and he says, deliberate and serious, “Marta. Pay attention. There’s a murderer on the loose, a murderer in the family that just lost out on a fucking fortune to you.”

Marta opens her eyes. “Oh no.”

“Yes, finally she catches on,” Ransom says, exasperated. “Listen, my place has security but I’m not liking that it’s so isolated. If you want, we can go to a hotel--not the fucking Holiday Inn this time, I want a place with decent sheets--”

Marta shakes her head. “No. No, I want to stay with my mother and sister.”

Ransom pauses. “Oh.”

A cold feeling slithers through Marta’s stomach, a feeling that’s not hers. Marta looks at Ransom, takes a deep breath, and makes a deliberate decision. Keeping her voice light, she says, “If you say one rude thing to my mother, or to my sister, I’ll make you sleep in the closet. Or I’ll send you to that Holiday Inn and you can sleep on scratchy sheets all night and I won’t care.”

Ransom’s staring at her like he can’t believe it, and fair enough, Marta still can’t quite believe she’s made the invitation. “Well,” he says after a moment. “Your sheets can’t be worse than the Holiday Inn’s.”

They drive on for another few miles and Ransom says eventually, “Be nice to your mom and sister, huh?”

“It should be easy enough for you,” Marta says. “Whenever you feel the urge to say something--don’t.”

Ransom chuckles, but doesn’t argue.

*

It’s not that Marta didn’t think that her mother and sister wouldn’t have their own opinions on her bringing Ransom Drysdale home with her for the night.

It’s just that Marta didn’t realize how bad it would actually be.

Her mother is the first to see him, stiffening in Marta’s arms as she looks over Marta’s shoulder to see Ransom hovering in the doorway. “Marta,” her mother says very slowly, “What is this?”

Marta takes a breath, ready to explain, but Alice folds her arms and says, sounding deeply unimpressed, “It looks like that asshole Ransom Drysdale.”

Ransom’s mouth quirks. “Nice to meet you too.” Marta glares at him, and Ransom holds his hands up, but falls silent. Marta watches him for a moment longer, testing, but she can’t sense anything out of the ordinary, no rising amusement, no sense that he’s going to burst out with something horrible.

“We...needed somewhere to stay tonight,” Marta says, turning back to her mother awkwardly. “Mama, is this okay?”

Her mother still hasn’t stopped glaring at Ransom, but she strokes Marta’s head and says, immediate, “Marta, don’t be silly. This is your home, you don’t ever have to ask to stay here!” She looks Ransom up and down, however, and adds, “Even if you have to bring the trash with you.”

Marta’s jaw drops, and Ransom dramatically says, “Wow. I like your mom, Marta.”

“Shut the door,” Marta’s mother says, unimpressed. “You’re letting in a draft.”

Ransom shuts the door behind him, and just like that, here the four of them are, in her family’s apartment, and Marta has no idea how they’re all going to survive the evening.

Oh. Thinking about survival is...not a good idea right now. Marta quickly shrugs out of her coat, saying quickly, “Mama, can I help with dinner?”

“No, baby, I’ve got it, you sit down and get some rest.” As Marta heads towards the kitchenette, she adds, ominously, “But if he’s not allergic to work, he can come and help.”

“Sure thing,” Ransom says in amusement, taking off his expensive coat and hanging it on the nearby coat rack. “He can certainly come and help.”

Marta looks with alarm at her mother and at Ransom, and then looks to Alice for help. Alice just shakes her head as she leans in, whispering dramatically, “Okay, one) whatand two) you know Mama’s been storing up all her rage for months now, he’ll be lucky if she doesn’t just knife him and be done with it.”

“Oh my God,” Marta groans.

Her mother’s prepping vegetables for soup--Marta feels a strange pang when she realizes it’s the same stew she made with Ransom just last night. Her mother doesn’t pause before taking the chef’s knife and starts cutting up carrots, using more force than what’s strictly needed.

From the look on his face, Ransom gets the message, warily looking from her mother’s face to the knife and back again.

“So,” her mother says without bothering to look up from the cutting board. “Just what the hell is so wrong with you and your family that my daughter’s spent the past three months of her life trying to get away from you all?”

Marta sucks in a breath, but Ransom actually pauses to consider it before answering. “Lots of things, actually.”

Her mother scoffs. “That’s obvious. If that charming father of yours is any indication.”

Marta freezes, and so does Ransom. “You met Richard?” Marta asks, at almost exactly the same moment as Ransom asks, sharply, “My dad was here?”

“Mm,” her mother says, still chopping away at the carrots. “Came here a month ago to swing his fat checkbook around, talk about how we needed to be on the same team, on the same page. I told him there was no chance I would sell my daughter out, and I kicked him out of here.”

“Mama, why didn’t you tell me?” Marta asks.

Her mother looks at Marta over her shoulder and says sharply, “What, am I going to put more pressure on you when you’ve already got so much on your shoulders?” She presses her lips together, and then adds, more slowly, “But your grandfather...was very kind when we spoke. Very apologetic. He was a gentleman, and I’m sorry for your loss.”

Ransom looks thrown, genuinely thrown, for the first time since he’s stepped inside, his surprise sharp and bitter in Marta’s mind. “Thank you,” he says after a moment.

Her mother looks at him squarely, and adds, “But that doesn’t change the fact that if you keep making trouble for my daughter, kicking you out of this apartment is the least of what I’m going to do to you.”

Ransom’s smirk is expected, but it doesn’t have the edge of genuine malice Marta has seen in it before. “Oh, I believe you,” he says.

“Okay,” Marta says, as steadily as she can. “If everyone’s finished making threats at each other now, I’m going to put something on the TV. Ransom, come sit by me.”

Ransom rolls his eyes, but he does sit down on the couch with her, and doesn’t even say anything when Marta puts on the dubbed version of Murder She Wrote, in the hopes it’ll calm her mother’s nerves. Well, he opens his mouth to say something, but Marta digs her nails into his hand, and he shuts his mouth quickly enough.

And if Marta has to catch a breath for a moment, remembering the last time she clawed at him with her nails--well, nobody knows except for her, and maybe Ransom, and neither one of them are telling.

*

It’s a very long and awkward dinner, and a very long and awkward night--broken up by an awful call Marta gets from Meg where Meg tries to convince Marta to renounce the inheritance, and hangs up when Marta tries to reassure her that of course Marta will help with Meg’s tuition for school. So that’s great.

Marta’s still staring at her phone when Ransom enters her bedroom, without knocking. “So can we go to bed now, or do I need to sit through a couple more hours of your mom and sister glaring at me?”

Marta stares up at him, mutely, and that’s when she realizes that she’s not only going to have to share her room with Ransom, but likely the bed as well.

She instinctively looks at the floor, and Ransom follows her gaze and protests, “Oh come on. You know I've already seen you naked, right?"

For a moment, Marta thinks of just dropping a pillow on the floor to make her point--but then, unwillingly, she remembers what it had been like to slip into that hotel bed with him there, how the warmth of his body, the solid weight and bulk of him, had been...comforting, in a purely physical way that Marta couldn't ignore.

And besides, she did invite him here. It seems petty to balk now.

So Marta falls back against her pillow, and says, "This is my side of the bed. You have to stay on your side."

"Fine by me," Ransom says, but he doesn't get into bed immediately. Instead he prowls around Marta's room, looking over the photographs and art posted on the walls, the books stacked on her small bookshelf.

Marta sits up on her elbows and watches him, bemused. "What are you doing?"

"What, you've been poking around my cupboards and drawers for days--"

"I have no interest in whatever you keep in your drawers," Marta says, and Ransom flashes her a grin.

"But you've thought about it, haven't you?"

He's still looking at her bookshelf, and Marta realizes that the photograph of her and Alice with their dad is there, from when they were kids and their parents took them to the amusement park.

"Are you coming to bed?" Marta asks finally, unsure for once what's going on inside his head. Ransom’s emotions are so vivid, so crystal-clear in Marta’s mind, that it’s hard for her to remember that sensing his emotions isn’t the same thing as knowing the causes for them.

"Yeah," Ransom says, finally turning away from the photographs of her as a child. He turns off the bedside lamp, and Marta lies there, stiff as a board, while she hears and feels him sliding in under the sheets, the weight of his body making the mattress dip beneath her.

And then there's nothing to hear but the sound of the two of them breathing in the dark. There's not enough light for Marta to see it, but she knows--she knows Ransom's face is turned to her.

“Meg called me,” Marta says into the darkness, looking for a distraction, something to say, and Ransom shifts, turning onto his side to face her.

“Please tell me you didn’t pick up.” Marta doesn’t answer, and Ransom sighs. “So what did the little hypocrite scammer-in-training want?”

“She--she wants me to renounce the inheritance,” Marta says. “Or the family does, and they’re pressuring her to ask me for it.”

“Huh,” Ransom says. “They must realize they’ve got a weak-ass case, if they’re already going to the guilt trip well.” He pauses and asks, “Please tell me you’re not going to fall for it.”

“I don’t,” Marta starts, and licks her dry lips. “I don’t understand why Harlan would do this--but if it’s what he wanted, then--”

“That’s my girl,” Ransom says, smugly.

“But Meg’s worried about paying for her school,” Marta continues.

"Fuck her school," Ransom says, as if that's the only answer possible. "Wasn't that the whole point of Granddad cutting Joni off? So Joni could figure out how to take care of her kid for once?"

Marta shakes her head. "Just because Joni screwed up doesn't mean Meg should pay for it."

Ransom sighs theatrically. "You're going to shell out for her tuition, aren't you."

"Yes," Marta confirms.

"Fucking--Jesus, fine." Ransom says, exasperated but backing down, respecting that Marta is making the call. But now that that decision is settled, Marta can't stop herself from thinking about everything else that needs to be decided, what to do about the house--will Fran still be willing to work for Marta, now that they've moved from coworkers to employer and employee? Is she going to have to hire a lawyer? Will the will even hold up in court, or--

God, how is she going to explain all of this to Alice and Mama?

“Hey,” Ransom says. “Marta, hey. Whatever you’re panicking about, it’s not gonna happen, okay?”

Marta swallows. “Okay.”

She thinks it’s going to take her a long time to fall asleep, but somehow she finds herself breathing in sync with Ransom, deep and steady, and then she’s asleep, between one breath and the other.

*

“Marta! Marta, ¡levántate!”

Marta jerks awake, disoriented as she emerges from a deep sleep, Ransom’s body a solid weight nestled behind her, his arm heavy and solid around her waist. “What?”

“The fuck?” Ransom grumbles, rebelliously pulling Marta closer into the warmth of his body.

“Marta!” Alice is in her room, shaking Marta’s arm and pulling on her to get up out of the bed. “Marta, we’re on the news! Are we rich? There are cameras and reporters right outside, oh my God, get up, move, white boy--”

And Marta is dragged up and out of bed at last by her sister, mind reeling and still foggy with sleep, to the sight of her mother anxiously peering out past the window blinds at, yes--a small crowd of reporters and on-lookers hovering outside their apartment building.

The TV’s on, and the local news reporter is talking about--about her, a photo of her face next to Harlan’s author photo, the reporter talking about the shocking legacy that was left to her--

“Marta, what is going on?”

“Marta, are we rich?”

“Maybe,” Marta says slowly, eyeing the crowd through the blinds. “It’s complicated.”

“But the short answer is yes,” Ransom says from behind her. Marta turns to glare at him, but is unfortunately distracted by the way his plain white sleep shirt stretches across his broad chest and shoulders, how rumpled and disarming he looks, knuckling the sleep out of his eyes, his normally sleek hair standing on end. “Granddad left everything to Marta. The house, the money, the publishing rights.”

Her mother sucks in a breath, hand over her mouth.

“Holy shit,” Alice breathes out, eyes wide.

“Yeah, that’s what your sister said when the will was read out,” Ransom says. “You should’ve seen her face.”

“Better than you,” Marta grumbles. “You just kept laughing like a hyena.”

“And still I was more dignified than the rest of my family,” Ransom retorts. He comes forward to look out the window with Marta, and shakes his head in disgust. “Fucking vultures.”

His face is close to Marta’s, and Marta is distracted by the line of his jaw, the hint of morning stubble that has yet to be shaved. Shaking her head to snap herself out of it, Marta says, “I need to take a shower.”

Ransom looks her over and smirks, but thankfully does not make the offer of joining her with her mother and sister still listening.

*

Marta takes a very quick shower and hustles back outside as soon as possible, urging Ransom to go and take a shower next. Once he’s in the bathroom, her mother comes back from the front door, where she’s had to send away yet another accountant looking to get Marta’s business, now that she’s been announced to be an heiress.

Heiress. God.

Her mother has a grim look on her face, hands full of cards and envelopes, and Marta is not ready to have any of the conversations she knows her mother wants to have, either about the estate or about Ransom. “I’m going to go see if the back way is clear,” Marta says. “Otherwise we’ll be stuck in here all day, not answering the door.”

“Marta--”

But Marta’s already slipping out the door, but when she turns to look down the hallway, Walt Thrombey is there, lurking in wait for her.

Marta leans back, Ransom’s words about a murderer in the family lingering in her head, but what Walt has to say is nothing so simple as making physical threats. No, it’s far worse than that.

Somehow, somehow Marta gets away from him, slipping back into the door and shutting it firmly behind her, locking it quickly, afraid that she’ll hear that cane banging away on the door, Walt’s hoarse voice demanding she give him everything otherwise he’ll destroy her family, destroy Mama--

“Marta?” Ransom calls out, and Marta whirls around, heart pounding, to see Ransom wearing nothing but a towel, dripping wet, suds sliding down his bare chest--he must have rushed out of the shower when Walt scared her, sensing that something was wrong through the bond. “Marta, Jesus, what happened? Did the cops show up?”

“You couldn’t dry off before coming out to ask her that?” her mother asks, waspish at the sight of Ransom dripping water all over her carpet.

Marta sets her teeth. “Ransom, come with me.” She pushes him into the bathroom, still humid with the heat of the shower--God, he hadn’t even turned the water off before rushing out for her.

It doesn’t matter, it doesn’t matter that Ransom’s skin is hot and slick beneath her hand as she pushes him forward, nothing matters if he--

The second that the door is closed behind them, Marta demands, “Who did you tell about my mother? Did you tell anyone?”

“No,” Ransom says, staring at her with wide blue eyes. “Marta--”

“Ransom, this isn’t a game, I need to know who you told--”

“Marta,” Ransom says, taking her face in his hands, “Marta, baby, I didn’t tell anyone--look at me, I did not tell anyone about your mother.”

Marta stares up to his face. There’s no way he can lie to her, no way he could hide from her if he did it. “So it was Meg then,” she says numbly. She feels sick.

“Marta, tell me what happened.”

Marta tells him, about Walt, about his threats. In the moment, Ransom’s fury, his overwhelming fury, feels good, feels almost comforting. “I’m gonna kill him,” Ransom mutters. “I’m going to take that cane and bash his fucking head in--”

Marta covers her face with her hands. “I didn’t want this,” she says into her hands. “I didn’t ask for any of this--”

“I know you didn’t,” Ransom says. “Baby, I know you didn’t. You didn’t trick my grandfather into anything, Marta, I know that.”

He means it. He actually means it.

Marta lifts her head, looks into Ransom’s face, and she says, slowly, “I think...I think you’re right. I think we need to go somewhere safe. Somewhere your family can’t get to us.”

Ransom nods. “I can get us a couple of rooms at the Ashford hotel, it’s a few miles out of town. They’ll have security, cameras everywhere. We won’t tell any of my family where we are, and they can go fucking choke.”

It’s easier for her to breathe now, her heartbeat steadying at last. It’s easier to think, to plan, and Marta realizes, with muted surprise, that part of that is Ransom, is his anger and determination in her head, helping to push her past her initial fear and panic.

She could do this on her own, Marta knows, she doesn’t need to be rescued by Ransom.

But Ransom is here, and right now he is on her side--and Marta doesn’t want to pretend she’s not glad of the support.

“Thank you,” Marta says. “You…” her eyes catch on the suds drying down on his shoulder, the smell of lavender rising off his skin, and her mouth twitches instinctively, realizing he smells like her old body wash. “You should rinse off, and then we need to talk to my family. I’m going to need help explaining this to them.”

Ransom’s mouth quirks upwards. “Yeah, who better to explain the Thrombeys than one of their own?”

Marta could let that go, and even just a few days ago she would have. “But you’re not like them,” she says, feeling the truth of it even as she’s saying it aloud. “You’re with me now. Aren’t you.”

Ransom’s eyes are very blue, and Marta is feeling warm in a way that has nothing to do with the humidity in the room. “Yeah,” he says slowly. “Yeah, I’m with you.”

Chapter Text

The conversation with her mother and Alice is painful. Mostly because it involves explaining a lot of things that Marta has tried to protect them from, until now.

“Marta,” her mother says at last, sounding almost winded by the scope of everything she’s heard, “Marta, how did you not tell us about this?”

Marta flinches. “I didn’t want to worry you about--about any of this. I wanted to protect you.”

“We are your family,” her mother says, gesturing at her. “I am your mother--I protect you, not the other way around! How can I do that if you don’t tell me what’s going on, if you’re not truthful--”

Marta flinches back from that, and she can feel Ransom’s eyes on her, watching her do it.

“Mama, it’s okay,” Alice urges, placed in the unfamiliar role of peacemaker, putting a hand on their mother’s shoulder.

Her mother shakes it off. “It’s not okay! It’s not okay that this man’s terrible family are out to get us, to get your sister, all over money and some creepy house--”

“To be fair,” Ransom interjects. “It’s a lot of money and a really expensive creepy house.”

Marta glares at him reflexively, but as Ransom leans in, arms braced on his legs, she realizes he actually has a plan here.

“Mrs. Cabrera,” Ransom says, all blue eyes and sincerity--a sincerity that sits better on him than it has any right to, given his personality. “I get that you’re scared and worried about your family, about your daughter. I don’t blame you, you’re right to be worried.”

“Of course I’m right,” her mother says huffily, but she’s still listening at least. Marta’s listening too, relaxing despite herself, falling into the rhythm of Ransom’s words, her worry eased by his absolute focus.

“But Marta was also right when she tried to keep you out of my family’s dysfunction. Now, someone in my family went and took a dagger and stuck it right in my grandfather’s throat. Now that Marta’s inherited his entire estate, she could be a target, and you could be targets with her. That’s what we need to be focusing on.”

Her mother takes a deep breath, but thank God, doesn’t argue. “So, what, we go to a hotel?”

“The Ashford’s already got rooms set aside for us,” Ransom offers.

“We’ll stay there, away from the media, away from everyone, and let Benoit and the police do their jobs,” Marta offers.

“And after that?” her mother asks.

“I’m not sure,” Marta concedes.

“But you’ll be able to make plans without having to worry about a murderer on the loose,” Ransom offers.

Her mother sighs, getting up to her feet. “Well, let’s hope this detective of yours knows what he’s doing. Come on, Alice, let’s go pack.”

Alice gets up as well, but hesitates. “There’s a pool at this hotel, right?” Ransom nods, and Alice gives a thumbs-up. “Cool. If we’re going into hiding, it better be someplace with a pool.”

As they go off, Ransom looks at Marta and asks, “Any chance you’ll be packing a bikini for the hotel?”

Marta rolls her eyes. “A one-piece, don’t be ridiculous.”

“Hey, I’ll take what I can get.”

*

But once they’re in the hotel, nobody goes off to the hotel pool. Instead, they all gather in the suite that’s been set up for her mother and Alice, and start making plans.

“So,” Marta says, sitting down at the chair by the hotel desk. “The first question I think we need to ask is, should I keep the money?”

Ransom does an elaborate double-take. “I’m sorry, that’s your first question?”

“Of course we keep the money!” Alice protests, and Ransom points at her, indignant. “What she said!”

Marta holds up a hand. “Let’s be realistic. If I keep this money, if I keep the inheritance, do we actually think that Ransom’s family will just let it go? We’ll be fighting them in court for months, if not years. And even if we were to win, and keep the money--”

“Which we would, because your case is airtight,” Ransom points out.

“We would still have to deal with the Thrombeys,” Marta says.

“That is what God and the great state of Massachusetts invented restraining orders for,” Ransom says, and Alice pulls a face.

“I don’t like it when I agree with the white boy,” she grumbles.

Marta gives Ransom a look, and he holds his hands up, silently agreeing to stay out of it.

“Marta,” her mother says, fixing her with a look now, “You don’t honestly think you should give up the money, I know you don’t. This is what Harlan wanted for you, for us. You didn’t trick him, you didn’t cheat anyone out of this. This is what you deserve, mija.”

“If it helps,” Ransom offers, “it’s not as if you’re stealing from poor people either. Everyone in my family has two houses, minimum. They’re going to be just fine, even without this inheritance.”

“See?” Alice says. “Let them be miserable in their houses, and let us be happy in the creepy house!”

Marta can’t help but chuckle at this, and Alice pounces. “So it’s settled? We’re not going to give up the money, right?”

“Right,” Marta concedes. “But if we’re keeping it...we’re going to need a lawyer. Maybe even more than one.”

Ransom holds up his phone, which he’s kept turned off up until now to keep from dealing with any calls from his family. “I know some names, we can make some calls.” He smirks a little and adds, “Find you a rabid piranha of a lawyer to rip to shreds anyone standing in your way.”

“I don’t need a piranha,” Marta protests, but she’s reaching for the complimentary notepad and pen on the desk anyway.

They start brainstorming, the four of them together, on what steps to take next--hiring a lawyer, looking into getting an accountant or business manager, agreeing as a family not to give any interviews or talk about it on social media--”Not even Instagram, Alice, that means you--”, what to say to friends or family that are calling to ask about what’s going on.

And Ransom, texting old classmates from college, getting names for who they should consider hiring as lawyers, what accounting firm to use, writing out names and phone numbers next to Marta’s neat outline of plans. He’s steadier than Marta’s ever seen him before, his constant presence in her head quieted down to a dull murmur, his focus on the task ahead of them like machinery working almost silently in the background.

They finally break to order room service, and over fish and steak--Ransom ordered the steak-- her mother and sister start grilling Ransom for real over the Thrombeys. Marta quickly shakes her head at him, warning him silently not to mention Walt’s visit, and Ransom keeps quiet over that, but holds nothing else back, his commentary on his family members scathing but truthful.

There’s not the same bitterness Marta would expect when he speaks about them though, not like it’s been before. Marta feels a jolt when she realizes--it’s because Ransom isn’t focused on himself. His anger, his pain, his long-held grudges...they aren’t his primary motivation right now, they can’t be.

Ransom falls silent mid-sentence, looking at her curiously--he must have felt her surprise, and Marta quickly waves him off, stuffing a forkful of mashed potatoes into her mouth to keep her busy.

Alice finally puts a halt to it. “Okay, that’s enough weird shit for me. I’m going to the pool.”

“I need to call into work, tell them I’m not coming in tomorrow,” her mother agrees. She touches Marta’s face. “And you need some rest, you look exhausted, sweetheart.”

Marta nods. “I know, I’m making it an early night.” She hugs her mother and Alice goodnight, and slips through the door to head to her room across the hall, Ransom right on her heels, carrying her suitcase and duffel bag with her.

It’s not until Marta’s inside her room that she sees the king-sized bed--the only bed--in the room. She looks at it for one moment, and then looks at Ransom.

Ransom, whose hands are shoved in his pockets and is looking at Marta with an expression of mingled hope and defiance. “Look, you can’t blame a guy for trying, all right? If it’s an issue, I can sleep on the couch in the other room or see if--”

“No,” Marta says slowly, considering. “No, it’s not an issue for me.”

Ransom goes very still, looking at her.

Marta sits down on the edge of the bed, hands in her lap, and says to Ransom, “Go ahead and take your clothes off for me, please. All of them.”

Ransom is still for only half a second longer, and then he whirls into action, toeing off his shoes as he pulls his sweater over his head in frantic tugs, tossing it aside carelessly.

God, he’s beautiful to look at. Marta drinks in the sight of him, that gorgeous body in motion, stripping off at her command. Finally, once Ransom is fully naked, Marta lifts up her chin.

“Now come here, and kiss me.”

Ransom draws in a sharp breath, and then he goes to do as she says, yet again.

She can feel his desperation as soon as he kisses her, and for a moment Marta drinks it in, the hard press of his mouth, the way that he holds her face like she could disappear at any moment.

But when he impatiently starts to tug at the hem of her sweater, Marta pushes him away. “No. Get on the bed, I’ll take my clothes off.”

A muscle in his jaw twitches, but Ransom does it, obeys her, lying stiffly on top of the bed, every line in his body rigid with tension as he watches her.

Marta takes her time undressing. This isn’t like last time, where she was moving through a fog of desperation and desire, the force of it catching her unawares. Now she still feels that hot twist of desire, low in the pit of her belly, but it’s as though the adrenaline has cleared her eyes, steadying her hands and her mind.

So she calmly, carefully pulls her sweater over her head, taking off each piece of clothing as if she’s alone in her bedroom, getting ready for sleep at the end of the day. It’s nothing like a show, nothing like a striptease, but Ransom’s breathing is going ragged anyway, and his gaze on her is a hot, heavy weight on her skin.

Once she’s naked, Marta pauses for a moment to consider the sight in front of her, Ransom laid out in front of her like a present, and then she carefully climbs on, crawling on top of him, shivers going through her at every point their bodies brush together.

By the time they’re at eye-level, Marta carefully bracing herself on Ransom’s shoulders, Ransom is already breathing so heavily you’d think he’d just run a marathon. Marta leans in, so close that she can feel his breath on her lips, and whispers. “Kiss me again. Slowly.”

She can feel Ransom shudder at her words, but he does it, his mouth moving over hers tentatively. Marta sighs into it and sinks into him, the full-body contact making her groan out loud. Ransom’s hands curve around her bare waist, but he doesn’t try and push for more, not even with his erection heavy against her thigh.

Marta keeps the pace slow, even when she rolls onto her back and pulls Ransom on top of her, she pulls at his hair when he tries to press down against her, when he tries to slip a hand down to grip his cock.

“Christ, Marta, you’re killing me,” he groans, panting.

Marta laughs, and feels his surprise rising up in response. “I haven’t even started yet,” she points out, and takes advantage of the space between their bodies to slip a hand between her legs, her fingers carefully circling against her clit.

Ransom lets out a shuddering gasp, pulling back onto his arms to watch Marta touch herself. “Oh, fuck,” he breathes out. Marta laughs again, feeling--feeling invincible, like she could do anything she wanted, absolutely anything at all.

Her hips rise up as she fingers herself, and Marta keeps going for another minute longer, just to enjoy the feeling, before she lifts her hand away, and uses it to push at Ransom’s shoulders, guiding him downwards. “Use your mouth on me,” she orders, and Ransom doesn’t resist at all, settling himself between her legs without hesitation.

He’s caught the rhythm of it by now, going cautiously at first, but then he fastens his lips onto her clit and sucks and Marta hisses in approval, her fingers raking down against his bare shoulders. “More,” she says, “Keep going--”

And he does, Ransom keeps going at the steady but relentless pace she’s set out, using his mouth and fingers on her until Marta’s sobbing for breath, her thighs clenching around him as she comes, her body going taut, back arching up, before she finally sinks back into the soft mattress.

Ransom finally lifts her head, his mouth and chin wet from her, and Marta lazily waves a hand at him, urging him to come back up to her.

Ransom falls over her like a starving man at a five-course meal, his desperation finally pushing him past his caution, his teeth sharp on her mouth, her neck, his hands rough where he grips her close.

Marta revels in it, lets it go on--and then she pulls him up with a sharp tug to his hair, her grip brutal enough that it drags Ransom’s head back, exposing the long line of his throat.

Marta taps his slick mouth with her fingertip, and says, “Now you can fuck me. Slowly.

Ransom bows his head with a groan before nodding, past words at this point, and Marta clutches at his broad shoulders as he sinks into her, stretching her open, her nails digging into his skin as Ransom buries his head in the nape of her neck, his breath coming in hot pants against her skin.

He stays there, frozen, and Marta sighs and arches up against him, clenching around his cock and enjoying the low desperate noises that escape Ransom’s mouth, despite what’s obviously his best efforts. At this point, his desperation almost feels like a physical weight, like something she can taste in her mouth.

Marta sighs, sated at last, and presses a soft kiss to the delicate skin just below his ear. “Ransom, move for me, baby.”

He rocks into her, slowly, his thrusts slow and deep, and Marta arches her back and moves with him, letting herself lose control just a little--clutching at his back, not caring if her nails catch against his skin, not caring when she bites his shoulder to muffle her moans, teeth digging in.

But she cares about the desperate way that Ransom’s begging now, saying over and over again, “Marta, please, please,” before he finally holds himself still, body trembling as he says, “Oh God, I can’t--”

Marta sighs into his ear, rocking up against him. “Yes, you can,” she promises him. “You can do it for me, come on.”

He makes a small, whimpering noise that sounds absolutely perfect to her ears, but Marta is proven right, and he keeps going, just for her, just because she’s asking it of him.

At last Marta comes with a soft cry, and as soon as she can breathe, as soon as she can think beyond that wave of pleasure, she says softly, “Go ahead,” and Ransom gasps and thrusts into her, hard, his low groans echoing in Marta’s ears as he comes, his pleasure rolling through her like aftershocks.

*

Marta wakes up the next morning to 28 missed calls on her phone, Benoit Blanc calling her for the third time, and Ransom curled around her. Marta picks up Benoit’s call, not bothering to get out of bed, stroking the arm that Ransom’s thrown around her waist. “Hello, Benoit?”

“Marta,” Benoit says. “Marta, we need you to come over to the house.”

“Will the Thrombeys be there?” she asks.

“Yes, but you may be assured that they will behave themselves on threat of arrest,” Benoit assures her. “Can you come?”

“Sure, I’ll be there.”

“Good. And Marta? Be sure to bring Mr. Drysdale with you.” Benoit ends the call there, and Marta sets the phone back down, wondering at the odd note in Benoit’s voice towards the end.

Putting it aside, Marta twists around in the bed, gently shaking Ransom’s shoulder. “Ransom, we need to get up.”

Ransom groans, not bothering to open his eyes. “Fuck’s sake. Are you like, morally opposed to sleeping in? Is this a work ethic thing?”

“And what do you know about work ethic?” Marta retorts, sitting up on her elbow, and Ransom mimes clutching his chest, finally blinking up at her, his long lashes fluttering.

“Ouch. Went right for the jugular there, Cabrera.” Marta reaches out to stroke his hair, without thinking, and Ransom leans into the touch, his expression open and relaxed. “So what’s going on, where do we need to be?”

“That was Benoit,” Marta explains. “He wants us to come back to the house, something about the case, maybe.” She pauses before adding, “And your family will be there, still.”

Ransom’s mouth goes tight, and Marta raises her eyebrow. “Benoit said he’d make sure they’d behave. Can I trust you to behave as well?”

“Sure,” Ransom says. “I’ll be good.”

Marta doesn’t believe him, of course, not when she can taste his anger in the back of her throat, that barely-leashed fury. Still, Benoit asked for Ransom, and if he wants to spend time sniping back and forth with his relatives while Marta deals with Benoit, that’s fine with her.

It’s not until they’re parking in front of the house and Marta sees Walt smoking on the porch outside that she has an idea of what Ransom’s been planning.

“Ransom,” Marta says as Ransom unbuckles his seat belt. “Ransom, you said you’d behave--”

“I said I’d be good,” Ransom says, not looking at her. “And trust me, this is going to be good.”

He gets out of the car without a glance back, and Marta scrambles to get out of the car, already knowing it’s too late.

“Hey, Walt!” Ransom calls out, with a brilliant, feral, absolutely vicious smile.

“Ransom,” Marta says through numb lips. “Ransom, don’t--”

But for the first time in days, Ransom doesn’t listen to her, he just charges forward, and as Walt is taking a cautious step backwards, Ransom goes and knocks him to the ground with one well-placed punch to the jaw. But he doesn’t stop once Walt goes down, Ransom just pounces on top and keeps hitting him, fists swinging, and even as Elliott and Wagner are having to literally drag Ransom away, Ransom lashes out with his leg, and stomps on Walt’s knee.

Walt’s howling with pain, everyone is shrieking and yelling as they rush outside, and Ransom, Ransom has gone absolutely insane, yelling back at Walt as the police march him into the house, “If you ever threaten her again, I will break your goddamn neck--”

Donna, teary-eyed and red-faced as she clutches her husband’s bloody face, shouts at Marta as she rushes up the steps, “Did you do this? Did you put him up to this, you bitch?”

“No,” Marta says, keeping her voice as steady as she can. “I didn’t have to put him up to anything. And you should get him ice for that knee, and keep it elevated.”

She doesn’t continue further, just rushes into the house where Elliott and Wagner are still having to restrain Ransom, finally tossing him into an armchair and Elliott barking out, “Sit the fuck down and shut the fuck up, Drysdale.”

He turns to look at Marta and asks her, “What the hell was that?”

“I don’t know,” Marta assures them, and turns to Ransom. “I didn’t ask you to do that!”

Ransom’s still breathing hard, and he looks up at her, defiant. “Some things you don’t need to ask me for.”

“Did you know he was going to do that?” Elliott asks her in a more gentle voice.

Marta shakes her head. “No, of course not.”

“Okay, so you wanna tell us why Ransom just tried to beat the crap out of his uncle?” Elliott presses.

Marta’s throat closes. As sympathetic as Lieutenant Elliott is, there are some things she will never trust any police officer with, and her mother’s immigration status--her undocumented status--is one of them. She sends a glare Ransom’s way, and says carefully, “Walt...came by my apartment yesterday. He was menacing me, but he didn’t say anything I could press charges over. I made the mistake of telling Ransom--”

“You didn’t have to tell me, he scared you shitless,” Ransom protests, and Marta sends another, darker, glare his way.

“Be quiet now,” she orders, and continues with her explanation. “And Ransom decided to take matters into his own hands, despite what I told him.”

Elliott rubs the bridge of his nose, before turning to glare at Ransom. “I ought to bring you in on assault,” he says. “And if Walt presses charges, I just might have to.”

Ransom sneers at this, looking everything like the spoiled trust-fund brat Marta’s thought of him as for the last four years, and nothing like the man she shared a bed with last night. “He doesn’t have the balls to press charges.”

Marta tries to hold her words in, knowing they won’t do any good, but she bursts out, rubbing at her face, “We talked about this, we all agreed to be careful, and then you have to go and do something so stupid--”

“Marta,” Ransom says, urgently, responding to her emotions, getting up out of the chair to crowd into Marta’s space, tugging gently at her hands. “Marta, come on, look at me, you know I had to do it.” Marta shakes her head, trying to twist away, but Ransom stays with her, his hands moving to her shoulders, leaning his head in against hers, the sheer bulk and warmth of him overwhelming. “I had to--I couldn’t let him get away with it, you know that--”

“Mr. Drysdale,” Benoit’s unamused voice cuts through, and Ransom pulls back to glare at him. “If you’ve quite finished with the theatrics and the gratuitous violence, we have some questions for you.”

“Oh yeah? What do you want to hear, Blanche Devereaux?” Ransom asks, sneering.

“Blanche was always my favorite of the Golden Girls,” Benoit says musingly, a momentary whimsical pause, before getting back to business. “But I’d prefer to discuss the fight you had with your grandfather, the night of his death.”

“What, that again?” Ransom asks, irritation spiking up. He huffs out a long breath, jamming his hands in his pockets as he says, “Harlan told me about Marta going to Germany, I was pissed off at not being consulted, we got into it, I left. That’s all.”

“Yes, but that’s not all, is it, Mr. Drysdale?” Benoit asks. “Not when you’re the only member of the family to admit to knowing about the secret passageway. No one else knew about it.”

“Okay, a) someone is clearly fucking lying and b) I’m the one that told you about the trick window, remember?”

“Benoit, what is this? What’s going on?” Marta interjects, increasingly worried.

Benoit looks grim. “What’s going on is that Ransom had one of the strongest motives for wanting his grandfather dead. Because Harlan was about to send you away, Marta, for good this time.”

Marta takes a small step back, from Benoit and from Ransom. “I don’t--I don’t understand,” she says slowly, wrapping her arms around herself. “Ransom...he and Harlan were good at goading each other, but Ransom wanted the bond broken as much as I did.”

Benoit is shaking his head. “Marta, Ransom didn’t want the bond to be broken. That’s been obvious from the day I walked in here. He wanted to keep you. But Harlan was supporting you, Marta, he’d have sent you to Germany to have the bond broken and that would be it.”

Marta turns to stare at Ransom. Ransom, who is glaring at Benoit like he wants to punch him next, knock him to the ground the same way that Ransom knocked down Walt.

“And when Harlan told you that Marta was going to Germany, that she’d found a solution, that she was going to leave you for good,” Benoit says, relentlessly, stepping closer to Ransom, “You couldn’t handle it, could you? You threatened him, you warned him what would happen if he didn’t stop, but Harlan wouldn’t back down, would he? And then, he…miraculously dies that same night, and Marta’s escape route to Munich is oh-so-conveniently closed down.”

Marta feels dizzy, both from Benoit’s theories and from the way that Ransom is practically radiating fury and hatred. “Fun little theory you’ve spun out,” Ransom spits at Benoit. “But you don’t have a shred of evidence, and I have an alibi.”

Benoit shrugs. “You might have had an accomplice in the house. We’ve gotten a warrant for your phone records, we’ll see if you called anyone in the family that night.”

“Knock yourselves out,” Ransom replies. “You won’t find a fucking thing.”

“Excuse me,” Marta says faintly. “I need to be...not here right now.”

Benoit turns to her with concerned eyes, and Ransom reaches out for her, but Marta slips away before any of them can say another word.

*

Marta is at the window seat when someone finds her, but to her dismay, it’s not Benoit or Elliott or Ransom or even Wagner--it’s Meg.

“Marta?” Meg asks, tentatively. She’s twisting her hands together, her shoulders slumped, face guilty and anxious. “Marta, I...God, I’m so sorry.”

Marta looks at Meg. “Are you?”

“Of course I am!” Meg bursts out. “God, I didn’t want to tell the family, I really didn’t, but--everyone was so angry and upset, and my mom can’t pay for my school and when I heard you say you weren’t going to give up the inheritance--”

“You decided to sell me out,” Marta finishes, looking down at her hands. “Even though I told you I would help you, even though I said you didn’t have to worry.”

Meg swallows. “I...didn’t know if you meant it.”

Marta looks at Meg and says, coldly, “I’m not one of the Thrombeys, Meg, when I say something I mean it.”

Meg’s face crumples. “Marta, I--”

Marta exhales. Her anger--hers, not the echoes of Ransom’s emotions--is a hard lump in the pit of her stomach, but she won’t let it cloud her vision, she won’t let it compromise her. “Let’s be clear. I will pay for your tuition, and you will be able to finish your degree. But we are not friends anymore, Meg. And I don’t want to speak to you again.”

She turns away to look out the window, listening dispassionately to Meg stumbling back down the stairs.

A few moments later, she hears a heavier tread coming closer, and Marta exhales, waiting for Ransom to reach her. Once he’s standing behind her, Marta says, levelly, “I expected you to track me down faster than this.”

“Yeah, well, I had to get some lectures first,” Ransom says, and she doesn’t have to look at him to know he’s shrugging now. “First the cops, then my parents--Donna slapped me at one point, too, she’s got a hell of an arm on her.”

Marta finally turns to look at him. He does have a red mark covering his cheek.

Marta shifts over, and says, “You’d better sit down, we need to talk.”

A lurch of anxiety that’s not hers roils through her stomach, but Ransom’s face is blank as he sits down next to her. Marta wraps her arms around her knees, and Ransom’s eyes move over her, before he turns to look out the window, asking her roughly, “Are you still planning on going to Germany?”

Marta answers that question with one of her own. “Is it true, what Benoit said? Did you really...have you really not wanted to break the bond this whole time?”

Ransom chuckles, mirthlessly. “Jesus, Marta. Of course I didn’t want to.”

Despite everything that’s happened, despite what Marta just heard, she’s still left speechless for a moment. “Why didn’t you say something?”

“How the fuck could I?” Ransom retorts. “You didn’t want it, Granddad was backing you up, what was I supposed to do, go to the girl who hated me and say, ‘I know I’m an asshole and you hate everything about me and my family, but give it a shot anyway’? Was I supposed to beg?”

“You should have been honest,” Marta insists.

“Yeah, like that would’ve gotten me anywhere,” Ransom says, derisive. “You wanted out from the second that I touched you--you hated everything about me, Marta, don’t pretend you didn’t.”

“I hated what you did!” Marta protests. “I hated the drinking and the late nights and the constant rudeness to anyone who has less money than you, as if you’ve ever done anything with all the money and privileges you’ve been given! I hated how you spoke to your grandfather, I hated that it took you being hurt at the hospital before we had even one decent conversation--”

Ransom makes a circling go-on motion with his fingers, his face twisted in disdain--but a disdain that’s not meant for her. “There it is, Marta, let it out--”

“Do you have any idea what it’s been like, having someone in my head who is so angry and hateful all the time?” Marta bursts out. “How was I supposed to know you didn’t hate me along with everyone else in your life?”

“Yeah, well, maybe it would’ve been easier if I had.”

“Does it feel easier to you now, Ransom?” Marta asks, staring at his face.

Ransom’s face twists once more, and he asks, an edge of desperation to his voice, underlying the disbelief, “You’re telling me if I’d just asked you, just said to you straight out, ‘Marta, I don’t want to break this bond,’ you would have said okay?”

“Maybe!” Marta shouts at him. “Maybe I could have!”

Ransom pulls back at this, shocked. “Bullshit,” he says hoarsely.

“I could have,” Marta insists. “I…” She makes herself think about it, really think about it, and nods. “If you’d come to me honestly, if you’d bothered to ask respectfully...yes, Ransom. I would have considered it.”

She’s lived with Ransom Drysdale, shared the same house and the same bed and the same brain, and yet she’s never seen that expression on his face before, that look of furious despair. Marta’s stomach tightens around that old knot of emotion, the shape of Ransom’s unhappiness familiar to her at last.

“Fuck,” Ransom says, staring down at his hands, and then letting out a grim laugh. “God. Granddad really was right.”

Marta asks, slowly, the curiosity burning inside of her, “What really happened that night?”

Ransom shrugs. “It was like I said. He called me in, told me that you were going to Munich to break the bond on your own and that he was going to bankroll it. I...was pissed off as hell, told him that he couldn’t be serious, that I wouldn’t let it happen. He told me it was already a done deal. I...I threatened him, like Jacob overheard from the bathroom.”

Ransom swallows, and finishes, “And then Granddad told me that he’d watched me toss away or destroy every good thing that had ever been given to me, but he wasn’t going to let it happen to you. That if I couldn’t--couldn’t figure out how to deserve you, how to ask you to stay, then I didn’t deserve to keep you in the first place.”

“You could have asked me,” Marta whispers.

Ransom’s throat works, and he says, “And if I asked you now?”

Marta grimaces, looking away. She tries to hold all of it in her mind, Ransom in that hotel bed this morning, leaning into her touch, eating dinner with her family, folding her laundry without a second thought. How sweetly he’d obeyed her every command last night. And then she remembers the look on his face as he attacked Walt, the fury she’d felt from him, the night that Harlan died.

Marta knows Ransom didn’t kill Harlan. But if she hadn’t called to him that night, if he hadn’t met her in the woods...he was angry enough to do it, Marta knows, fully capable of doing it.

“I don’t know what to do with you,” Marta admits at last, the words torn out of her. “Sometimes I think...I think that this can work, that we can build something, that I can trust you--but I can’t help but know you too, Ransom. I know all the anger and hate you carry, I know that you could have killed Walt today, that you wanted to kill Harlan that night. How can I trust that you won’t turn that anger on me someday?”

“I’ve never tried to hurt you,” Ransom protests.

“And how can I know that will continue?” Marta asks him. “I thought Meg was my friend, too, and look at how that’s turned out.”

“Because I’m not a hypocritical piece of shit,” Ransom says, looking right into her eyes, his face open, a mirror to everything that Marta knows he’s feeling. “You know better than to think I’m going to turn on you. Don’t give me that shit, Marta, you know.”

At a loss for what to say, Marta reaches out instinctively to touch his hair, the strands soft beneath her fingers. Ransom leans into her touch, but the look on his face tells her that he knows it’s not an answer on its own.

*

When Marta joins the rest of the family in the library, it’s with Ransom at her back, the two of them presenting as a united front.

Walt has an impressive black eye and split lip, and his leg is propped up on the table with an ice pack over the knee. “You should keep him on a leash,” he mutters, but as Ransom takes a step forward, menacing, Walt sinks back into the couch.

“There won’t be any more violence today,” Marta says clearly, for the family and for Ransom.

“Well, thank God for that,” Linda mutters.

“Marta,” Richard says, stepping forward--and then taking a step back at the look on Ransom’s face. “Marta, obviously you’re not going to keep the inheritance. Listen, I know that there was a...a misunderstanding, earlier, with Walt, but we can work this out.”

“Yes, we will work it out,” Marta says, smoothly. “I will keep the inheritance, and you and everyone in the family will continue to get the same allowances that Harlan gave you. Meg’s school will be paid for--” Marta sees Meg flinch at this, and continues levelly, “But the house and the publishing company will remain with me.”

“Of all the ungrateful--”

Unbelievable--”

“This is absolutely unacceptable--”

“This was Harlan’s wish,” Marta says, pitching her voice to carry over the yelling. “And frankly, it says far more about all of you than it does about me that this is what he chose to do. I can’t make you accept this, but I won’t lie down and let you try to snatch what Harlan didn’t want you to have.”

“And just for the record,” Ransom adds, “Marta might fight clean, but I will continue to fight very, very dirty. Isn’t that right, Uncle Walt?”

“How dare you,” Donna hisses at him. “Siding with her over your own family--”

“Well, this family sucks,” Ransom retorts, “So it’s not a hard call.”

Before the fighting can continue, Benoit comes in, whistling loudly. “Are we interrupting?” he asks rhetorically. “Yes? Good.”

“Oh Christ, what now?” Linda asks.

“Murder, ma’am. Specifically, finding the murderer lurking in plain sight amongst you all.” Benoit begins to pace in front of them, explaining, “One of the greatest struggles in pondering this case has been trying to find a motive strong enough to provoke one of you into murder. The only person with a strong enough motive, Ransom, has a rock-solid alibi--”

Thank you,” Ransom says emphatically.

“And the strongest motive for murder, the will, the disinherting of all of you, wasn’t revealed until after Harlan was dead.” Benoit pauses. “Or was it?”

He abruptly spins to look at Jacob. “Jacob, what did you and Harlan talk about, after Ransom so dramatically stormed off into the night?”

“I...what?” Jacob says. It’s hard to tell, given his usual pallor, but Marta thinks he looks a little paler than normal. “Nothing, it was nothing.”

“Hmm. Are you sure about that, Jacob?”

“Please do not speak to my son,” Donna snaps out, her face pinched with anger. “If you have a question, you can ask us, his parents. Or better yet, go through our attorney.”

“Why, certainly ma’am,” Benoit says, courteously turning to face her. He pauses, seemingly taking note of the dogs, which have been sniffing around Donna all this while, nosing at her shoes. “Actually, I do have a question for you, Mrs. Thrombey. Might I examine your shoe?”

“My shoes?” Donna repeats, and now she’s going pale. “What--why would you want to look at my shoes?”

“Just a little theory, it won’t take but a moment,” Benoit says, moving swiftly forward. “Wagner, get the lights!”

Wagner, who’s been lurking at the light switch, quickly turns the light off, and the room is dimmed, dark enough now that when Benoit shines a black light flashlight on Donna’s shoes, it’s dark enough to show the neon splatters all over her neat, sensible loafers.

Splatters...blood splatters.

“Oh my God,” Marta says, amid the growing murmurs of shock and horror from the family. “Oh my God, it was you?”

“You have blood on your shoes, madam,” Benoit intones. “And blood on your hands too.”

The lights snap back on, and Donna’s eyes are darting around, like a mouse caught in a mousetrap. “Don’t be ridiculous!” she tries to splutter. “I, I...I simply spilled something--”

“Yeah, like blood!” Meg bursts out.

“My mother didn’t do anything!” Jacob yells back at her.

Walt, meanwhile, is drawing away from his wife on the couch, staring at her as though she’s a stranger. “Donna?” he asks. “Donna, what--”

Donna turns to stare at him, and then her face crumples. “Baby, it was for us,” she whispers, reaching out to stroke his face, clutching at him even as Walt flinches and tries to pull away. “I know how hard you worked for him, all those years, all those brilliant plans he never listened to--and then he fires you? Then he tells our son that he’s going to be written out of the will, that we’re all going to be penniless--”

“You have a house in Malibu and a penthouse on the Upper East Side,” Ransom says in disbelief.

“I had to stop him, don’t you see?” Donna pleads. “We had to stop him before he ruined us, before he ruined everything--”

“Did you bring Jacob into this?” Walt asks, horror dawning across his face.

“Jacob provided the false alibi,” Benoit says. “He came down, dressed as Harlan, pretending to go for a midnight snack so you, Walt, would think he was still alive. Meanwhile Donna was sneaking up the trellis, through the trick window, knife in hand--”

“To kill my father,” Linda says, face red from anger. “You--you murderous bitch.” And before anyone can stop her, she lunches for the display of knives, snatching a dagger up, and launches herself at a shrieking Donna, plunging the knife into her throat, past the string of gleaming pearls--

Marta gasps, waiting for the spray of arterial blood from the jugular--except there’s nothing at all.

Linda, baffled, pulls back the knife--which is a trick knife after all. “Oh fuck it,” she says, and backhands Donna across the face instead.

And that is how the murderer of Harlan Thrombey was revealed, with shrieking and trick knives and the surviving Thrombey members all screaming, the house ringing with chaos.

At one point, Ransom moves to go forward, to jump into the fray, but Marta unthinkingly clutches at his arm. “No, don’t,” she says. “Stay.”

Ransom looks at her, surprised, but he stays by her side. Even as Donna and Jacob are led out in handcuffs, Jacob spitting slurs at her, Donna shrieking at everyone, Ransom stays right by Marta’s side, gripping her hand tightly the whole time.

*

“I can’t believe it was Donna and Jacob,” Marta says later, sipping the coffee that Benoit had thoughtfully brought to her.

“It was Wanetta who put me on the right track,” Benoit explains. “Once I sat down with her, she was the one that pointed out to me that for all of Ransom’s shouting and his theatrical exit, Jacob also had a conversation with Harlan where he looked upset afterwards. It’s just that no one else noticed because, well, he looks miserable all the time, what with being a Nazi on the internet and all that.”

“So you think Harlan told him about the will.”

“I think Harlan was cleaning house,” Benoit explains. “Why not go full hog and warn the next generation off expecting anything from him? But Jacob, furious at being cheated from what he thought was rightfully his, went to his mother--and they ended up concocting their murderous scheme, in the hope that Harlan’s plans to alter his will hadn’t been finalized yet.”

“But it was all for nothing,” Marta realizes, a lump rising in her throat. “Harlan had already--”

“Marta,” Benoit says, placing a light hand on her shoulder. “What you said in that library was true. At every point in this case, that family proved Harlan’s judgment about them to be correct. You should feel no guilt in carrying out his final wishes.”

“I don’t feel guilt,” Marta says. “Just...sorrow.”

Benoit pats her arm. “That’ll ease with time.” He moves to stand up, and pauses in the act of buttoning his jacket. “I’m sure you’ll have many demands upon your time, Marta, but might I call upon you to assist me with my next case? You have a perspective I find invaluable.”

“Certainly,” Marta says with a smile. “But won’t Lieutenant Elliott be jealous?”

“A healthy distance in our professional careers will be good for us, I think,” Benoit says musingly. “Balance is important in a bond, I’m finding.”

“Balance,” Marta repeats thoughtfully. “Maybe you’re right there.”

Benoit looks at her, and says carefully, “Should you ever need our assistance--”

“I know who to call,” Marta says, smiling. “But I’m going to be fine.”

“Yes,” Benoit says, turning to head down the stairs. “I believe you will be.”

Ransom doesn’t come upstairs until Marta’s nearly finished with her cup of coffee. “Finally got the family out,” he says, with a note of triumph in his voice. “They were all pretty subdued by their usual standards, but I’m sure the threats and calls from their lawyers will start up any day now.”

“I’m sure they will,” Marta agrees, looking at him.

For all of his supposed confidence, Ransom’s nerves are clearly getting to him. Hands jammed in his pockets, he stands in front of Marta and says, awkwardly, “So I guess you’ll be calling up your mom and sister, telling them we’ve got the all-clear?”

“Yes,” Marta says, looking down at her cup--the same one that Harlan used for breakfast every morning. “Yes, I need to call them, tell them everything’s okay.” She tilts her head, and says next, “And then...I need to figure out what I’m going to do with you.”

Ransom swallows visibly, then slowly gets down to his knees, so that they’re at eye level with each other. “I have a suggestion for that,” he offers, voice low.

Marta reaches out to stroke his hair. “And what is that?”

“That you can do whatever you want to do with me,” Ransom offers, holding himself still beneath her touch.

Marta considers it, his words, the depths of what he’s offering, and what it will mean for her and her future. She takes that all in, and then slowly, deliberately, takes her fingers and runs them along the line of his jaw.

*

Epilogue:

It’s been six months, and Marta is still unused to writing out large checks. But, looking at the faces of Mrs. Ali and Mr. Thao, it’s something she can learn to get used to doing.

“Mrs. Cabrera, this donation is...incredibly generous,” Mrs. Ali says, taking the offered check gingerly, as though it’ll crumble if she clutches at it too hard. “Our organization, I, the amount of newly arrived immigrants and refugees we’ll be able to help with a donation of this size, I’m…”

“We’re speechless is what she’s trying to say,” Mr. Thao says, laughing giddily.

“I’m happy to help,” Marta says, smiling back at them both. “Would you like a tour of the house before we sit down to lunch? They’ll have it ready for us on the patio.”

It’s when she’s showing them through the library, which she’s left mostly unchanged (except for the bearskin rugs, her mother was too creeped out by them to keep them around) that Marta glances outside and sees an unfamiliar car in the driveway. And someone very familiar getting out of the driver’s seat.

Marta sighs, but puts a smile on for her guests. “Excuse me for just a moment.”

By the time she’s out of the library, Ransom’s already emerging from the room he uses as an office for his mostly-legal hobbies and plans for how to thwart his family at every turn. “What’s going on?” he asks.

“Joni’s outside,” Marta says quietly, looking to not be overheard. “I know you sent her an email just this past week saying that her allowance is not going to be increased--”

“But the scammer can’t help but try and push it,” Ransom finishes, rolling his eyes. “Of course.”

“Take care of her, will you? Get her out of here--quietly and discreetly,” Marta adds. “I’d like not to be in the papers again.”

Ransom smirks. “I’ll do my best, but I can’t make any promises.”

“Of course you can,” Marta says, serenely, and Ransom pauses before leaning in to kiss her, his mouth hot and firm on hers.

Marta kisses him back, reveling in the heat radiating from him, and lets her nails scrape along the back of his neck. “Go,” she whispers into his mouth, and turns away, knowing that what she’s asked for, Ransom will do for her.