Finding “girl time” (as it were) is significantly harder for Penny and Michelle than either would like. Finding a space free from parents and peers is decidedly non-trivial to begin with, and this is complicated further by the difficulty of finding venues to even discuss it. Phone’s a no-go — too easy to eavesdrop on one half of the conversation — and Michelle’s parents have developed a bit of a habit of snooping on her text messages. (She’s not even allowed to use her computer without someone watching over her.) There’s note-passing, of course, but that’s impractical in about ninety percent of situations.
So on Friday morning, in a fit of unexpected confidence, Penny decides to act unilaterally.
She rolls out of bed and gets dressed as normal, but with one key difference: instead of the usual boxer shorts, she puts on a pair of knickers from the multi-pack she bought with Michelle. There’s no P.E. today — thank fuck — but she weaves a quick glamour over the garment anyway, one that will discourage people from noticing anything’s amiss. She shoves the skirt, top and bra into the bottom of her backpack, secreted under several layers of books and other school supplies.
Trying to quell the shiver in her arms, Penny heads down the stairs to breakfast, which she eats unhealthily quickly (just about managing to avoid hiccups). Once she’s done, she rushes off to school shortly after in a show of enthusiasm that leaves her mother looking totally bewildered as to who’s replaced her son. (Joke’s on her on that point, really.)
School’s not exactly easier than usual, but it definitely helps to have something to look forward to. Maths is pretty much par for the course, consisting mostly of formulaic problems the class have been learning exactly how to solve for what feels like the past month. After that comes history, which covers the French Revolution in an astonishingly uninteresting fashion; you’d think it would be pretty hard to make execution by guillotine sound this dull. This teacher is clearly a practised master. After a too-short break comes a double session of I.T., which is, as usual, entirely dull to anyone not utterly fascinated by spreadsheets. The afternoon consists of science and religious education, the latter of which is at least vaguely interesting, albeit not particularly applicable to Penny’s everyday life; she spends a significant chunk of that hour pondering the theological implications of magic.
After school, Penny walks with Michelle as far as the park. The sky’s filled with ominous-looking clouds. It looks like it might rain soon, but it’s dry so far, and anyway, a little rain’s not about to derail Penny’s plans.
“Wait here,” she says when they get to their usual loitering spot. Michelle cocks her head curiously, but says nothing as Penny walks off into the privacy of the bushes.
Once she’s a fair way into the trees and having lost sight of the path, Penny carefully hangs her backpack on a branch and starts pulling clothes off her body. She makes sure not to let any of it touch the ground — used condoms and empty beer cans aren’t the most hygienic surface — so it takes her a little longer than usual to disrobe, but about ten minutes later she’s dressed up in her girl clothes. It’s quite the feat considering she’s kept her shoes on the whole time.
Penny takes the coin from her trouser pocket, contemplating the weighty metal in her fingers. She briefly ponders englamouring herself, but she’s kept Michelle waiting long enough, so she slips it into the top of her right sock instead, lamenting the absence of pockets in any of her new clothes. She makes one last check that everything’s secure in her bag before heading back to the path with it slung over her shoulder.
All Michelle says when she sees her is: “Wow.”
Penny blushes. “You, um… you said you wanted to see more of me like this,” she says, nervously.
“True,” her friend says, an awkward smile playing on her features. “I didn’t, like, expect you to do it here, though.” Penny’s heart sinks slowly. This isn’t quite the enthusiastic reaction she was hoping for. “I mean,” Michelle continues in a hushed tone, “we’re still not that far from school.”
Penny nods, feeling both sad and stupid. “Sorry.” She glances around the park: there’s nobody they know around, but there are plenty of places they could come from. Michelle’s right. This is reckless.
Michelle sighs, putting her hand on Penny’s shoulder. “Look,” she says gently, but her breath hitches before she can continue her sentence. “Oh, shit.”
Penny knows it’s a bad idea, but she can’t help but follow her friend’s gaze over her shoulder to see Steven Blake, school hard-man, along with two of his usual gang of troublemakers. He’s coming up along the path right towards them. “Shit” is right. She snaps her head away from the group, praying they don’t see her.
Why didn’t she do the glamour? Fuck. Fuck, fuck, fuck.
“Hey, who’s this, then?” Steven’s voice calls from somewhere that’s far too close for comfort, the proximity of his voice creating an unpleasant sense of intimate intrusion. “The dyke’s got a girlfriend!”
Penny looks Michelle in the face: she’s frozen stock-still, breathing heavily. The hand on Penny’s shoulder has become a death-grip. She grits her teeth, the coin in her sock so close and so far. One of Steven’s cronies steps around the two girls, coming into Penny’s view. She’s not particularly glad to see his expression show a glimmer of recognition.
“Look, Steve!” he says. “It’s Danny Reed!”
“What?” Steven’s voice booms, moments before he appears by his friend’s side. He starts to chuckle. “What the fuck is this? BOGOF queers?” The other boys laugh with him obediently, as Michelle’s hand starts to flex.
Michelle moves before the boys can react, lashing out in undisciplined anger toward the nearest of Steven’s minions. “Leave her alone, you dick!” she yells, as the boy reels back.
“What the fuck do you think you’re doing?” Steven growls, grabbing her arm and twisting it in a way it doesn’t look like it wants to go. Michelle screams in pain, and Penny sees red.
Ducking to the ground, Penny grabs the coin from her sock between the first pair of fingers that reach it. The boy behind her lunges — she shouldn’t be able to see that, but she can — and she rolls to the right, landing out of the way but on her back. She rolls the coin over the palm of her hand and tugs on the world to bring herself to her feet before firing off a volley of ripples in the world-pattern that leaves her attacker reeling and disoriented, doubled over and dry-heaving silently.
Next, she turns her attention to Steven, whose hand is still pulling on Michelle’s arm. She focuses on the pattern of inchoate bruising on the arm, the stress on the joints, and throws her coin spinning into the air. She catches it a moment later and the injuries copy themselves onto Steven’s arm, amplified threefold: he screams in agony as he’s forced to release his grip. Penny takes the opportunity to dive forward and grab Michelle’s arm — the uninjured one — and together they run into the trees.
Once they’re a fair distance away, Penny gets to work weaving a see-me-not glamour on their path, ignoring the hoarse feeling that lingers in her throat from the sudden exertion. It’s a little more fiddly than she’s used to, partly because she’s trying to hide two people instead of one, partly because she’s trying to hide from people who know what to look for and partly just from being shaken up, but she just about manages to knit herself and Michelle into the foliage well enough, at least for the short term, by the time their pursuers get to them.
“Where’d they go?” Steven demands, rubbing his arm protectively. The two minions shrug, though they don’t seem as confused as Penny expected them to be. Despite her breathlessness, Penny can’t help but wonder what they think has happened. After a couple of minutes of pointless searching, the boys leave, and she feels the adrenaline start to fade. Michelle doesn’t look that calm, though.
“Wh— what just happened?” she demands breathlessly.
Penny inhales deeply, fighting through the remnants of adrenaline high to steel herself for the lie she’s going to have to tell.
“We… got into a fight?” she attempts. It doesn’t sound remotely convincing.
“You didn’t touch them,” Michelle insists, “but they got hurt. And they should’ve seen us here. What did you do?”
Penny’s got a sinking feeling that compounds the guilt of her attempted deception. “What do you mean?” she asks, trying to sound convincingly baffled despite her still-chaotic emotional state.
“I don’t know what I mean,” Michelle exclaims, unexpectedly loudly. She takes a breath, presumably to steady herself, and continues at a more reasonable volume. “I’m just saying what I saw. You were playing with that coin,” she nods her head at the coin in Penny’s hand, as though there were any other she could have meant, “and stuff happened.”
“I… I don’t know what you mean,” Penny protests, the words sounding limp and feeble on her lips. “It’s just a good luck charm.”
Michelle looks her dead in the eye, expression flat. “If you can’t tell me, then don’t. But don’t lie.”
With that, she walks off, leaving Penny all alone.