“Something cool” turns out to be Diana’s description of the Art. She takes Penny out of the flat and across the hall, to a similar one that differs mainly by lacking furniture and decoration: the layout is pretty much identical.
“I use this place for practice,” she explains.
Diana heads into the kitchen, emerging a few moments later with a deep plastic tray containing candles of varying colours and states of deformity. She sets them up on the floor in a wide arc, starting from a hot pink at the leftmost point, going through red, orange, yellow, green, turquoise, blue and ending with purple on the right. Next, she readies her rope, taking up a stance that looks like it came from some kind of kung fu movie, with legs spaced apart and her right hand at her opposite shoulder. The rope hangs limply, falling down her back and trailing on the floor.
Suddenly, and without any sort of warning, Diana kicks herself up into the air, twisting herself cat-like and spinning into a mid-air pirouette and pulling the rope into a ring around her. She pulls her arm back, forcefully, but gracefully, as she hovers in the air; the ring moves below her feet, turning first into a figure-eight and then into a sort of trefoil. She lands with bent knees and one hand on the floor; the rope comes to settle around her, encircling her like a wall to the world, the change in its configuration having taken place from one moment to the next without any apparent intermediate state.
One by one, the candles burst into light, in the same order in which they were placed. Diana reacts by kicking her right leg out toward each one in turn, the momentum from each kick carrying her from each candle to the next. She punctuates each motion with a flick of the wrist that sends the rope jumping along the floor, and the flames respond obediently by shifting colour to match the colours of the wax. She hops to her feet, smiling, and gives a sort of flamboyant salute.
“Queer candles,” she says, breathlessly. She flicks her wrist once more, and the candles extinguish immediately.
Remnants of candlelight dance as coloured spots in Penny’s eyes, like her optic nerves are almost as stunned as she is. Wow.
“Your turn,” Diana says to Penny, adopting a slightly sing-song voice. Her smile’s threatening to divide her face in two, though it’s a warm smile, and one of genuine enthusiasm.
Penny looks down at her empty fingers. “Um”, she says, feeling sort of awkward. “I left my fetish back at the meeting.”
Diana’s smile drops into a bewildered sort of frown. “Your ‘fetish’?” she echoes, like the word’s somehow inappropriate. After a moment, her face relaxes in realisation. “Oh, you mean your token.”
Penny shrugs. “Yarn called it a ‘fetish’.”
“Oh, yeah,” Diana says, nodding as though remembering some long forgotten tidbit. “Some people do, don’t they. Hm.” She stands there for a moment, taking a wordless ponder. “How long have you been using it?”
Penny has to think a while before she can answer, counting the days and running mental arithmetic in her head. “A few months, I think. Why?”
Diana nods decisively. “Right,” she says. “Hold out your hand.”
Cautiously, Penny holds her right hand out in front of her, palm facing up. Diana takes it gently with both of hers, splaying the fingers and tracing lines this way and that. It’s not a level of scrutiny Penny’s particularly accustomed to.
“Are you reading my palm or something?” she asks, feeling somehow sceptical despite everything she’s seen.
Diana gives a short and abrupt burst of laughter. “Not really. Well, maybe.”
“Maybe?” It’s more ambiguous an answer than she was expecting.
“Well, I’ve never read anyone’s palm,” Diana explains matter-of-factly, “so I don’t know if what I’m doing is related or not. Ah-ha.” She releases Penny’s hand, abruptly, but also somehow as gently as she took it. “That’s what I thought. You’re still entangled in the pattern.”
Penny spends a moment waiting for more information, realising only belatedly that Diana’s finished speaking. “Um,” she says, with noticeable uncertainty, “so..?”
“So,” Diana explains, “you’re still connected. You just need to give it an excuse to reappear.”
Oh. Right. Somehow, that makes sense.
Penny fixes her eyes on her hand, seeing the strands of reality dimly and following them with her eyes as they trace off into some extra- or intradimensional space. She traces the paths of those strands with her fingertips, reaching behind Diana’s ear and taking the coin from where it wasn’t hiding.
“Okay,” she says quietly, staring at the coin in her hand. “Now, that was cool.”
Diana pouts theatrically. “So my gay candles don’t even rate, but a simple coin trick blows your socks off?” She shrugs. “You have weird standards.”
“You’re not exactly the arbiter of neutrality yourself,” Penny points out, trying to give as good as she’s getting in this exchange.
“Oh, come on,” Diana exclaims. “Like it’s weird to want to be a superhero.”
It’s a fair point, she has to admit.
Diana twirls her rope around her arm and tosses her head back, letting her hair cascade elegantly down her back. The effect’s somewhat scuppered by the massive grin on her face.
“So,” she says, with barely contained glee. “Are you going to show me what you can do?”
Penny smiles weakly and nods, holding her coin loosely between three fingers of her outstretched right hand. She flicks it with her thumb, causing it to take flight, catching it in her left palm and rolling it around her wrist in defiance of all the usual laws of gravity. Examining Diana’s pattern as close as she can, she weaves an intricate glamour around herself, tagging suggestions onto the particles that make up her external form so as to radically change the perceptions of any observer. The whole process takes almost ten minutes, and by the time she’s done with it, her brow’s slick with sweat. Diana watches the whole process carefully, her attention not wavering for even a moment.
Penny, wearing Diana’s face, smiles. With Diana’s voice, she says: “How’s this?”
Diana — the real one — gapes. “Ho-ly shit,” she says, dragging the words out a little further than they reasonably go. “That’s a hell of a party trick.”
“Thanks.” Penny replies, feeling herself blush behind her own illusion. She tugs a carefully-chosen thread, and the glamour collapses effortlessly; she’d set it up sort of like a highwayman’s hitch, easily removable at a moment’s notice.
“So I guess you don’t have much trouble passing,” Diana says. It’s not as envious an utterance as the words might imply.
Penny shrugs. “I can hide whatever I want,” she explains, “but I still know it’s there. It’s not quite the same.”
Diana nods, thoughtfully. “There’s… something I should show you,” she says, straightening her posture meaningfully. “Watch carefully.”
Uncoiling the rope from her arm, Diana adopts the same ready stance as before. She flexes her muscles ever so slightly in preparation, tension rippling across her form like waves on the open sea. She runs her left hand along the length of the rope, gripping the far end and touching it to points on her face and torso like some arcane, seven-pointed variant of the sign of the cross. Then, she leaps into action, dancing around in a circle as she lashes the rope outward alternately to the left and right.
Penny watches the dance, transfixed, as knots form in the reality-weave around Diana’s chest, stimulating cells out of dormancy and into action. A four-ringed structure is faintly detectable, three hexagons and a pentagon in formation: Penny recognises the structure from one of the medical textbooks she read with Michelle. It’s the shape of a steroid hormone.
Penny blinks. “Where’d you learn that?” she asks, once Diana’s caught her breath.
“Angie taught me,” Diana replies. “Ze’s pretty hardcore witchy. Hir whole family is.”
Penny thinks on this for a moment. “If her—“
“Hir,” Diana corrects. “Hir pronouns are ze and hir.”
Penny stares blankly. That’s a new one on her.
Diana sighs. “It’s a gender-neutral pronoun. Angie’s non-binary. You say stuff like, ‘ze is cool’, ‘I like hir’, ‘hir eyes are blue’, ‘that’s hirs’. Yeah?”
Penny attempts to process this information, wondering idly what Garl would make of all this. It’d probably take it in stride, she thinks, so she decides to try to do the same. “So, um…” she begins carefully, “if… hir family’s all into the Art, why’s ze living here?”
“Because…” Diana begins, with a pained and hesitant tone, “the rest of hir family’s in indefinite detention. For violation of Lucerist statutes.”
There’s a pause, like a tension’s been created in the room that neither girl wants to break. Penny’s the one to speak first.
“Aren’t there, like, foster homes or something?”
Diana shakes her head. “Not for witches. Child welfare’s not a priority for the Forces of Light.” That last phrase comes laden with heavy sarcasm; business-like, Diana re-coils her rope. “Oh, well. Ay-cab, you know?”
Penny doesn’t, but she nods anyway: it seems polite. “Sorry,” she says, though she’s not sure why.
This feels like the right time to bring their magic session to an end, so Penny helps Diana pack up her candles before heading back through to the other flat. Angie’s still here, reading a book by the light of a fixture that, on closer inspection, is lacking any bulb.
“We’re not exactly on the National Grid here,” Diana explains, apparently guessing Penny’s question.
Angie puts hir book down next to hir on the sofa, using a scrap of paper — perhaps a till receipt — as a makeshift bookmark. Ze looks up at Diana with a wry expression underscored by resignation.
“Sun’s over the yardarm,” ze says. “You’d better get back.”
Diana nods, placing her rope on the coffee table next to her mask.
“Right,” she says, displaying a sense of exhaustion at odds with her usual bubbliness. “I’ll go change in the bedroom. Penny, you okay waiting here?”
Penny nods, and Diana walks through one of two doors that lie beyond the ring of sofas, leaving Penny alone with Angie. Penny finds this a little awkward, and by the look of it, Angie feels similarly: ze sighs, shaking hir head, and goes back to reading hir book. Penny ponders sitting, but by the time she does so it’s only a few seconds before Diana reappears.
“Right,” she says decisively. She’s in full boy-mode now, with torn jeans and a baggy hoodie serving to mask the shape of her chest. A tattered rucksack hangs from her shoulders: Penny recognises it from the club. “Let’s go.” She gives Angie a lingering hug before grabbing her rope and leading Penny out of the flat and down the stairs.
“You don’t live here?” Penny asks her, halfway between the first and ground floors.
“I still have a family who’d miss me,” she replies. “Unfortunately for me.”
The two girls proceed in silence to the ground floor and out of the back exit. Diana does her trick with the fence, and they reach the street a few moments later.
“Can you make your way home from here?” Diana asks.
Penny glances up and down the street: it’s mostly stark-looking high-rise residential blocks, peppered with the occasional kebab shop or newsagent. She feels a little lost. “Er…”
“Right,” Diana says; she’s clearly better at reading thoughts than Penny is at expressing them. “You see that side street?” She indicates a one-way road between two of the high-rises. “Walk along that way and you’ll eventually get to the high street. I can’t come with you, but it’s safe enough around here. The ugliness is just architecture.”
With that, she turns on her heels and strides down the street. Penny watches her go with a confused sort of admiration.
It takes Penny about forty-five minutes to get home. It starts to rain around minute twenty, and by the time she gets home she’s soaked to the bone. The sun’s about to set — at least, it would be if it were visible through the clouds — and she’s pretty sure she’s missed dinner. Her keys are still in the custody of the Umbratist thugs, so she rings the doorbell: probably safer than trying to magic the lock. Her mother’s the one to answer the door.
“Where’ve you been?” she demands. “I’ve been worried sick!” Then, after a moment: “Where are your keys?”
“Um, I…” Penny begins, uncertainly: she probably should’ve come up with a lie before she got here. “I got mugged. They got my phone, too.”
Penny’s mum adopts an expression somehow combining concern and suspicion. “What’d they want your keys for? Did you tell them where we live?”
Penny shakes her head. “I think they just wanted everything,” she improvises, attempting to sound upset. It’s not so hard: it’s been a hell of a day.
Penny’s mum holds out her arms, and Penny endures a hug. “You need to be more careful,” Mum chastises gently. The embrace ends soon enough, and the two disengage somewhat awkwardly. “You should talk to the police. Maybe they’ll be able to find these hooligans.”
“No!” Penny says, hurriedly. She calms herself before adding: “I, um, already reported it.” It’s kind of half-true — or maybe a quarter — seeing as how she’s going to have to explain this to Yarn. The DEC are kind of like the police, right? Her mum gives a sceptical sort of look, but either she’s convinced enough for now or unwilling to press further.
“I’ll heat up dinner,” she says, and heads toward the kitchen.
After dinner, Penny goes straight to her room.