This chapter carries a specific content warning for body horror.
Monday morning does not go well for Penny. First off, she nearly goes down to breakfast without noticing her nails are still green; there’s no time to fix that for the moment, so she wastes precious minutes putting a glamour on them. As a result, her mother gives her a tongue-lashing for her “laziness” in getting out of bed. This has the knock-on effect of making her miss morning registration, forcing her to dash to her PSHE class just as they’re splitting into boys and girls. Goodie.
Suppressing the mischievous urge to go with the girls — the other girls, she makes sure to remind herself — she takes a seat among the boys, bracing herself for what’s bound to end up somewhere high on her list of Worst School Experiences. She’s never been particularly fond of these lessons, the ones that tell you all the ways boys’ bodies are meant to develop along a path she’s been doomed to follow from birth, but given that last week’s library session with Michelle taught her more about puberty than she cares to admit, it seems especially pointless now. Still, she feigns attention for the duration of the two hour session. Better that than listen to the snickering boys around her.
No wonder Michelle’s gay.
The morning break doesn’t come soon enough for Penny. The third-floor toilets are so far from the playgrounds and the bulk of the student population that they’re generally empty at this time of day, so she heads there when it looks like nobody’s looking and spends as much time as she dares trying on glamours, almost as a sort of therapy. While messing with her appearance she manages to lose track of time, arriving late again to her next lesson. It’s just that kind of day.
When lunch rolls around, Penny meets up with Michelle in the smaller playground: the one with the garden. They usually hang back a bit to avoid the worst of the lunch queues, and the garden’s a nice enough place for it. The air carries a scent that combines flowers and earth: it’s like an oasis in a desert.
“Where were you this morning?” Michelle asks. “I didn’t see you at break.” She gives this in a tone of mere observation, but it still manages to trigger a pang of guilt in Penny’s stomach.
“Yeah,” she says apologetically. “Sex ed got a bit much, you know?”
Michelle gives a knowing nod. “Yeah, mine aren’t much better,” she says. “These people flat-out refuse to say anything about how girls have sex with girls. Not that it’s ever me that asks.”
Penny tilts her head; she’s slightly surprised. “There are other lesbians in this school?”
Michelle shakes her head. “No,” she says. “Well, maybe. But that’s not why they ask: they think it’s funny.” The disgust in that last word is almost tangible.
Penny nods. “Sorry,” she says, quietly. She’s not quite sure what to say.
Michelle’s sexuality has been a bit of an open secret around school for some time now — despite her best efforts — so it’s not that surprising that she gets shit for it. Of course, as long as it’s not “official”, the teachers can avoid seeing that kind of thing as anything but good-natured joking. On the other hand, if she ever admitted to it publicly it’d almost certainly get back to her mother, so for now this is the lesser of two evils. Just about.
“You’ve nothing to be sorry for,” she says. “Besides, I’m sure you’ve got it worse.”
Penny shrugs. “Maybe.” She’s not convinced.
The rest of the school day passes without much trouble, and Penny and Michelle end up meandering homeward together. Penny spends most of the journey surreptitiously looking over her shoulder for supernatural stalkers, but it seems Rakesh has taken the day off. Maybe he’s got school, too. Michelle doesn’t seem to notice that anything’s off, which is probably a testament to how skittish Penny usually is.
The next two days grind on in the usual inexorable manner; school is more of a thing to be endured than enjoyed. Penny doesn’t see Rakesh on those days either.
On Wednesday afternoon, she heads to her next session with Yarn. She’s not exactly looking forward to it — after all, last session wasn’t great for her self-esteem — but she’s made a commitment to this apprenticeship and she doesn’t intend to give up on it yet. This session begins with her report on Sunday’s Umbratist meeting.
“How did it go?” Yarn asks, cutting straight to the chase. “Did your cover glamour hold?”
Penny nods. “They did some kind of scan, but it didn’t find me out,” she says.
“Good.” Yarn smiles. “What did you learn?”
Penny recounts the events of the other night, occasionally referring to the notes she made on Sunday night, now rather crumpled from having spent several days hidden in the bottom of her school bag. She tells him about the people infiltrating the Department, and about the various courses of action considered by the Umbratists, answering Yarn’s occasional questions about this and that. He seems especially interested in the guy who was talking about killing people. Which is to be expected, she supposes.
“What can you tell me about him?” he asks her.
“Um,” Penny begins, stalling to allow herself the time to use her memory. “Green hair, nose ring… he was one of the younger people there, by the looks of it.” She pauses, trying to see what else she can remember. “Oh! One of the others called him ‘Ed’.”
Yarn gives a serious nod at this last bit of information. Maybe he knows who it is, or maybe he’s just nodding to make it clear he’s understood. Either way, he doesn’t seem to think she needs to know.
“Very good,” he says. He straightens his posture a little. “Right. We’d better get on with today’s lesson.”
“Today’s lesson” turns out to be precisely what Penny’s been waiting for: transformation. She brims with excitement, finding it a little hard to actually sit still and listen to Yarn’s explanation. Her goal’s finally within sight, maybe even within reach, and she can’t help but smile.
“Now,” Yarn begins, “there’s a reason I taught you about glamours first. Several, in fact.” He’s doing his usual pace-along-the-mirrored-wall thing, fiddling with the string in his hand. “Firstly, if you’re going to modify your body, it’s good to have a way of trying things out before committing to them. But secondly, and more importantly, glamours are actually a key tool in transformation.”
He clears his throat, coming to a stop. “Now, keep in mind what I said before: changing something requires you to understand how it works as-is.” He holds up his left hand and spreads out his extended fingers. “So we’re going to start with something simple.”
Yarn loops the string around his right thumb and snakes it through his other fingers, pulling slowly but firmly at the weave of reality around his left hand. Penny watches as the threads of his fingers mat themselves together, time and space warping around them causing his fingernails to grow, far faster than normal. Blood drips from the cuticle and down the length of his fingers, past his wrist and almost down to the elbow. He finishes by jerking the string suddenly, causing the cuts to clot up in an instant. He puts the string in his pocket and brings out a handkerchief, gently mopping up the blood. A few beads of sweat run slowly down his face. He doesn’t seem to notice.
The whole process was uncanny in the worst way; Penny swallows to keep down the bile.
After taking a moment to steady himself, Yarn speaks. “Do you…” He trails off, apparently the exertion getting the better of him. He tries again: “Do you see how it works?” He takes a few deep breaths, growing calmer with each one. Having relaxed a little, he continues: “I used a glamour to confuse the cells in my fingertip responsible for building the nails.”
He shows his reddened fingers; the nails have grown maybe half a centimetre as a result of his work. He uses the less bloody parts of his handkerchief to mop up sweat.
“There’s a fine line between appearance and reality,” he explains. “On a microscopic level, there’s not much difference at all. Something to do with… quantum mechanics.” It’s rare for him to sound so uncertain, but there’s a heavy sense of weariness in his voice, suggesting that maybe he’s not got the energy to project his usual confidence. “Give me a moment…” He walks over to the side of the room, sitting in one of a handful of plastic chairs. He takes a pair of nail clippers from one of his trouser pockets and proceeds to trim the nails back to their original length, wincing slightly as he does so. “Now, you try.”
Penny’s not at all sure that she wants to try, but at the same time, she’s not about to back out now. She holds out her hand like Yarn did, peering at the weave around her fingers. She traces the paths they take through space and time, through countless dimensions and the spaces between, seeing how the nails are extruded from under the skin. All she has to do is nudge in just the right way…
She reaches into her pocket, taking her lucky coin between her thumb and index finger. She draws it out of the pocket, spinning it with a flick of the wrist and rolling it along the back of her hand, catching the threads of her fingers. Sudden pain shoots up her left arm, starting at the backs of her fingertips and running up to her elbow. Everything goes white.
The next thing she knows, she’s lying with her left side on the floor, cradling her left hand in her right. She’s got a splitting headache, and when her vision clears she sees a thick red liquid seeping out from the edges of her fingernails. Is that… blood?
“Ohh,” she moans wearily, rolling onto her back before she sits up. She makes sure not to put weight on her injured hand. “How long was I out?”
“Only a few seconds,” Yarn says, passing her a cardboard cup full of hot brown liquid. Penny takes it with her good hand and sniffs it experimentally; she’s glad to discover it’s tea rather than coffee. There’s no way he could have fetched tea in a few seconds, she realises, but perhaps this is one of those “white” lies people tell.
“Drink up,” he says. “You’ll want to recover a bit of strength before you try to stand up.”
Penny sips at the tea — it’s passable, but Garl’s is much better, of course — and gingerly fishes her phone out of her pocket. Her good hand’s still occupied with tea, so she’s trying not to put too much pressure on her sore fingertips. She checks the screen to learn she’s been out for something like ten minutes.
“Fuck, my head hurts.”
Yarn nods sympathetically. “Your first time’s usually the worst,” he says. He takes his string and threads it around his wrist, pulling it up his hand and through the gaps between his fingers. Penny feels the pain fade. It’s still there, but now it’s a lot easier to ignore.
“Why didn’t you do that before?” she asks, more out of curiosity than accusation. She’s not quite with it enough for an accusation, after all.
“Pain is your body’s way of stopping you from going too far,” he replies, casually.
Penny drinks another mouthful of tea before shakily standing up, her legs almost as wobbly as her insides. Yarn hurriedly grabs the plastic chair and places it next to her; she sits gratefully. She finishes her tea in another couple of gulps and puts the cup down on the floor.
“You probably shouldn’t try that again today,” Yarn says, handing her the nail clippers.
Penny nods, though she didn’t really need to be told that. She takes the clippers and puts them to her left thumbnail, which is about two millimetres longer than she remembers; though, she’s not sure if that’s success or just bad memory. She squeezes the lever of the clippers, but the pain level in her hand shoots up before she can put enough pressure to cut the nail; she inhales sharply, swearing under her breath.
“How did you make the pain go away?” she asks, mostly to occupy her mind as the pain recedes.
“Paracetamol,” he replies.
Penny thinks she can detect the trace of a smirk on his face. She laughs, weakly.
“I’m serious,” he says, for once adopting a rather amiable tone. “I learned how to do it by taking paracetamol and watching what it did to my body and brain. One of the best ways to learn how to do something with the Art is to find out how it’s done without it.”
Penny nods. It sort of makes sense, though she’s not sure if it’s good news for her, or bad. On the one hand, it means that she can learn how to make herself female from the ways non-magical people do it: hormones and surgeries and so on. But on the other hand, it sort of suggests she won’t be able to do much better. That means no uterus, no children — she’s not exactly dreaming of the homemaker life but it sucks that it’s not an option — and worst of all, no way to fix her voice. The effects of testosterone on that part of her are pretty much irreversible, at least so far as those books in the library said. She’d maybe hoped the Art could offer a way around that.
Then again, she’s got the glamours.
Penny grits her teeth. Her nails still need trimming.