Philippa has known one thing all her life, and that is that she is that she is meant to love a dead man. Since she was a child and met a witch-fairy on the grimy street outside the apartment building she grew up in, the words have stayed with her, more a curse than a prophecy of the future divined from the reflection of her face in a crystal ball. When she was seven, the words frightened her, but as she grew older, she grew equally more fascinated by the curse as she was determined to fight it. She’s had girlfriends before, though she didn’t more often than she did when she was in college, up late studying for exams with forgotten cups of coffee and her classmates, or working her clinical hours and staggering home too late to think of anything but something hot to eat before tumbling face first into her pillow, only to roll out of bed for an early morning lab class.
She’s never so much as kissed a boy in her whole life, somehow sure the touch of her lips would deliver a kiss of death, a curse as strong as the one the witch-fairy whispered to her before she turned and ran. She rises every morning and lives a thoroughly unmagical life, as if that might keep the truth of the curse away from her, though she hears plenty of whispers about which of the fairies and witches around the city are genuine, which are best for a love spell, or a quick charm, or a proper magical relic. At twenty-three, she knows better than to think that now, but her tastes are ironclad, and she’s well at peace with the women she’s slept with, with the idea that she’s never admired a man from the bar like her friends do when they drag her out for drinks after a shift at the hospital, which she often leaves early in favor of a few extra hours of sleep before her shift the next morning.
It’s after one such night that Philippa comes to work yawning, clutching a cup of coffee and waving to the head nurse at the desk before she comes around and hangs her coat on the back of a chair. Her usual shift is later in the day, and this is just an shift she’s taken up to make some extra money while Melody is out of town for the holidays. She recognizes the head nurse and a few of the assistants from other extra shifts she’s worked, and from the hospital cafeteria.
“We’ve got a comatose patient in 931,” the nurse, a rotund woman named Gail Merryweather, tells her, stopping beside Philippa’s computer to set down a new case file. “She’s in your rounds today, just transferred in from the hospital across town.”
Philippa swallows the last of her coffee and takes the case file for a woman named Aurora Rose, flipping through it while her computer boots until she finds a line in her treatment history indicating magical treatment at her last hospital.
“She’s had a number of spells cast to wake her up, so be mindful of the spell net when you go in. She’s still attached to it,” Nurse Merryweather continues when she sees Philippa looking at the page. “Parents’ insistence, that is. She collapsed one afternoon, no explanation. Her family seems to think it’s the work of a curse, but if you asked me, I’d say it’s trauma-related.”
“Is anyone asking you?” Philippa asks before she can stop herself, and Nurse Merryweather arches an eyebrow at her, as if examining her for any insolence. When she doesn’t seem to find any in Philippa’s even, unbreaking smile, she huffs and wags a finger at her.
“Of course not.”
“I’ll give her an extra check, then,” Philippa answers, interpreting Nurse Merryweather’s grumbling as a veiled order, which isn’t uncharacteristic of the woman. She gathers up the other files she needs and waves to her, tucking a stray strand of hair behind her ear when she heads down the hall to her section, taking a deep breath before she pushes the door to the room, every hair on her arms standing on end when she stands in the faintly glowing blue light of the intricate spell web over the young woman’s body. Resisting the urge to sweep her hand over the whole web, Philippa opens the file again and reads over her information to shake off the uncomfortable sensation crawling over her, presumably from the overwhelming presence of magic in the room.
“Let’s see what modern medicine can do for you, shall we?” she says to no one in particular, and looks up at the woman’s pale face, illuminated only by the spell light. With a quiet sigh, she sets the file aside and opens the curtains with a sweeping motion, her sneakers squeaking over the floor the only perceptible noise. Natural light looks good on the woman, and Philippa pauses to admire the shimmer in her red-gold hair and her soft-looking lips. She doesn’t even look like someone in a coma, more like a peaceful sleeper, with the exception of some pale bruising that echoes of her collapse.
Her mother died when she was small enough that the memory of her face faded to nothing but the image immortalized by her father’s pictures by the time she was a teenager, and the woman in front of her reminds Philippa of her smooth, pale skin and high cheekbones. Then she regains her composure and steps wide around the spell net to check the machines she’s attached to, change the saline drip on her IV, and move her limbs slowly, shifting her weight around in the bed to keep blood from pooling.
When she’s finished, Philippa steps back and stares at the single blue strand wrapped around her wrist, holding the spell net to her, and allows her eyes to follow the line of her arm up to her face.
Footsteps in the hallway grab her attention, and she turns in time to see Nurse Merryweather passing by, muttering under her breath. Philippa wastes no more time with the rest of her examination, grabs up the files, and leaves for the rest of her rounds with only a single lingering, backward glance.
The woman is still in 931 when Philippa comes to work two days later, and then still a full week later, with Christmas bearing down on them. There won’t be any time to take off from work, but she’s already filled in her availability for the rest of the year, since her father won’t be home anyway, her grandparents are too far away, and her friends all have other plans. Nurse Merryweather seems to be working with her more often than before, explaining one morning over an enormous mug of steaming coffee that she’s taken up a lot of the shifts other people don’t want to work.
“While everyone else is off on Christmas vacation, I’ll be right here, doing my job like always,” she says and drops another heaping spoonful of sugar into her cup. “With you.”
“With me,” Philippa confirms cheerfully and picks up the files for the patients that include the woman in 931. “I’ll start rounds.”
Nurse Merryweather leans over the counter and keeps stirring her coffee. “Bring extra clothes with you tomorrow. We’re expecting heavy snow. Might have to sleep here when it gets rough.”
“Shouldn’t the weather witches be able to handle it?”
The woman bristles a little, and Philippa only laughs when she rounds the corner. Nurse Merryweather has been very clear about her opinions on weather witches, every shift Philippa’s worked with her.
She takes her time with her rounds, and saves 931 for the last. Even though she doesn’t expect the room to look any different than before, the fact that it does look eerily unchanged sends another shiver down her spine. The woman’s face is the same, and it stays with her when she leaves the hospital later that night. There are already clouds gathering in the sky to confirm Nurse Merryweather’s prediction about the snow, and a long line of idling salt trucks waiting for the signal to begin. For a moment, she pauses to consider the sleeping woman in 931, can’t think why she’s still on her mind, but then Philippa pulls her coat tighter around herself and trudges down to the subway with her hands in her pockets and her head down.
There are only a few windswept flurries that night, but the dark, heavy clouds hanging in the sky promise more snow the next day when Philippa leaves for work and slips on the ice outside her apartment, dutifully carrying a duffel bag with her pajamas, a fresh set of ruby scrubs, and leftovers to serve as her Christmas dinner while working through the night, when the other nurses are steadily snowed in and kept with their families for the holiday.
Nurse Merryweather is leaning against the counter of the nurse’s station as ever when Philippa steps off the elevator and sets down her bag.
“Well, at least someone listened to me,” she grunts as way of greeting and makes another mark on the chart she has in front of her. “Half the staff for tonight called in already, citing icy conditions. Hospital can’t write them up after the debacle last year, and I can’t blame them, but we’re stretched a little thin tonight.”
Philippa looks down the hall while she has her coat in her hands and sees that the door to 931 is cracked, without responding to the rest of Nurse Merryweather’s tirade. “Is someone in 931?”
“Family’s visiting before the snowstorm comes in strong. Didn’t like leaving her alone for Christmas, but you know how people are.” She waves to the room to indicate that Philippa is welcome to take that corridor for her rounds. “Sentimental.”
The woman’s family stays for another hour before Nurse Merryweather raps on the door and informs them that the snow is coming down thick and heavy outside the windows and they’ll want to be on their way if they plan to make it home to roast their Christmas turkey the next day. A thin woman and her tall husband shuffle out together, whispering about curses. Philippa watches them leave when she comes out of 928 and waves, wishes them a merry Christmas as if she heard none of their conversation, and walks into 929 with something heavy settling on her stomach, like something expected of her, or the tug of the ocean on her feet while standing in the surf.
The same feeling persists through the rest of her shift, and when it finishes and Nurse Merryweather darkly informs her that they’ll certainly be spending the night, with the snow accumulations well over a foot already. She drags out her own bag and retreats to the bathroom, but Philippa volunteers for another round, ending at 931 with her hand resting on the doorknob, which feels warm from the glowing spell net inside. The night nurses are at the nurse’s station, and Philippa waves to them before she pushes the door open and steps inside, closing the door behind her.
The chair from the corner by the window is beside the woman’s bed, and Philippa sinks down into it slowly, never moving her eyes from her face. Her feet hurt, and her muscles ache from exhaustion. It’s already an hour and a half past the end of her normal shift, and she feels it acutely now.
“I wonder if you hear the people that come in here,” she says and looks at the sleeping woman, tucking her own messy hair behind her ears. “You get some visitors.”
There’s no answer, of course, and Philippa thinks that she should get up and leave, but something holds her in the chair a few moments longer. The minutes stretch to an hour, and she looks up when Nurse Merryweather opens the door and scowls in at her, with her face illuminated by the glowing spell net.
“You’ve really got something for this girl, haven’t you?” she asks and walks in, ducking past the spell net without the same cautious care Philippa employs. “You ought to get to sleep. There are some extra beds for the nurses staying.”
“A bit longer, I think,” she answers, and tries to think of a quick lie to explain why she hasn’t moved for eighty-three minutes, but nothing comes to her immediately, and Nurse Merryweather shrugs helplessly, indicating that she’s welcome to do as she likes.
There are hours before the night nurse comes in and jumps when Philippa is still sitting in the chair, watching her. She smiles apologetically and the nurse waves to her, clutching her heart when she walks back into the hallway. Philippa stands up finally and looks out the window, where the snow is still falling heavily. She can’t think of anything that could keep this woman asleep, and when she looks out at the night and the glowing sky, nothing else occurs to her, except there’s something she must do.
“I can find and cure an infection without fail. I’ve treated trauma patients like you before, but there was always something else to treat before they’d wake up.” Philippa turns back toward her and rolls her eyes at herself when she walks toward the bed again and drags her finger along the spell net.
“It can’t really be a curse,” she murmurs and shakes her head, allowing her fingers to touch the woman’s wrist and trace up to her cheek. Her skin is smooth and warm and Philippa bends forward without thinking clearly. Logic has been her protection with the absence of magic in her life, but she abandons it now and thinks only of everything she’s ever known of curses, the one thing she’s barely dared to think about while watching the woman sleep. Her lips fall onto the woman’s delicately stained ones, tinted brightly in an echo of livelihood. They’re warm and soft, and Philippa exhales softly against them and remembers with a rush the words of her own curse, the one she’s avoided for all her years.
Just as suddenly as the impulse to kiss her seized her, she pulls away and shakes her head, straightening her scrubs and whispering to herself that she must not have slept enough. Rationally, she tells herself, there are no curses on this woman, and she’s in no danger from the one set on her when she was a child, if it ever mattered enough to change her life to begin with.
“Good night,” she says to the sleeping woman, and tells herself that the rosy blush on her complexion is a figment of her imagination, cast by the spell light and enhanced by her own sleeplessness. She turns to the door and walks in heavy footsteps, disappointed in the ineffectiveness of her own foolish attempt to do what she knew must fail.
The door begins to close, and behind her, Philippa hears the hum of the machines, the beeping of her heartbeat rising. She turns back into the room, her mouth parted in an oh, approaching the bed in time for the blue spell net to dissipate in a puff of shimmering dust over the both of them.
The sleeping Aurora Rose blinks her eyes once, then twice. They stay open, and settle directly on Philippa’s, deep as the ocean blue.
“It was you, wasn’t it?” she asks on a soft breath, while Philippa only nods, and believes in the magic that binds the both of them together, that tells her immediately what it was she meant. She tries to think of some explanation, or any of her medical knowledge, something to carry her through this moment with dignity.
Instead, she smiles and closes her hand over Aurora’s. “It was me.”