This chapter carries specific content warnings that may spoil elements of the story. Click to reveal: Misgendering from authority figures, mind control.
Despite the encouragement from Diana, it's still several days into the next week before Penny feels up to experimenting with glamours again. Maybe it's the residual guilt over what happened with Michelle that runs through her heart like a steady electric current, or maybe it's just anxiety over the six dozen ways she's convinced it could all go wrong. Whatever the case, it's already Thursday afternoon by the time she decides to bite the bullet.
Penny stands, shaking, in front of her bathroom mirror. She arrived home about ten minutes ago — well before the time her parents are due to return from work — and most of that time has been spent here, staring at her reflection and trying not to hyperventilate. She's already taken the school uniform off, leaving a rather unceremonious pile on the bathroom floor; this leaves nothing between her eyes and the reflected image of her bare flesh.
The two-tailed coin lies dormant in her right palm. It feels poised, ready to pounce.
Why is this shit so difficult? The thought resonates through her so loudly that she's not convinced she didn't say it out loud. She knows exactly what to do: Diana showed her how, and even if she hadn't, Penny's learned enough about the broader principles to make a reasonably educated guess. What is it about this particular act that's so fraught with emotion?
Penny grits her teeth and raises the coin in her fingers. She twists the small piece of metal on its axis, but the moment she starts to move in earnest, her fingers betray her and it slips from her grip. It clatters to a halt in the sink. She sighs, frustrated with herself, and picks it up again.
All in all, it takes four attempts before she can complete the pattern of movements, and her brow is slick with cold sweat by the end of it. Threads go past loops they're meant to go through, knots form in awkward (and, in at least one case, unpleasant) locations, and entire networks are ruined by over-tightening. It makes no sense, of course: these things are just supposed to work. And yet.
Eventually, she manages to construct the familiar four-ringed pattern that Diana showed her, her success coming with a wave of emotion that washes over her like unexpected heavy rain. She's not sure if it's the hormones, the relief, or some combination of the two that's hit her so hard, but tears and sweat mix on her cheeks. Her fingers scream in silent and steady agony, the prolonged exertion having taken a heavy toll. How could Diana do this so effortlessly? All Penny can conclude is that she must've had a lot of practice.
Once she's recovered her wits, Penny checks the time. It's 4:30. This means the process has taken about twenty minutes: far longer than it felt, but still leaving plenty of time before her parents get home. She takes a deep breath and collects her discarded school uniform from its temporary home on the floor — it's not that she cares about this kind of neatness, just that her parents do — before heading into the bedroom to put on her girly clothes.
About ten minutes later, she's dressed. It takes her another five to weave a warning glamour onto the front door (in case her parents get home early) and three more to put a backup glamour at the ready, one that can be triggered at a moment's notice if all else fails. Finally, she sits herself down in front of the living room TV, tuning it to something sufficiently mindless.
It feels like there's something missing from the experience. She spends a few seconds wondering what it could be.
Well, sweets, of course: what better accompaniment to a lazy afternoon than junk food? Pushing aside all thoughts to the contrary, Penny gets up, turns off the TV and dashes upstairs to grab some money. She rushes out of the front door shortly after, causing her alarm spell to shout painfully inside her head. It takes her a few minutes to work out how to reset it.
It's a quick walk to the corner shop, but it feels like an age. Thankfully, there aren't many people about, though the act of being a girl publicly remains frightening and exhilarating in equal measure. She gets to the shop in about five minutes, spends another two or three picking out and paying for a bag of cheap chocolates and is about to leave, when— wait. What's that?
There's a sort of kink in the pattern, like paper folded over. The crease follows one of the aisles of the small shop, stretching between newspapers and cleaning products in a way that's mildly unsettling to look at. The geometry of the space is just, well, wrong. Still, there's little she can do to investigate it beneath the shop-owner's increasingly suspicious eye, so she departs with her change in hand. (There are no pockets in this skirt, after all.)
Penny gets back home quickly, slipping through the front door without incident. She relaxes gratefully into the sofa, snacking on her chocolate as she watches the mindless miscellany of mid-afternoon television.
After about half an hour, there's a knock at the door.
Standing up, Penny glances at the clock on one of the assorted boxes beneath the television. It's 5:15, still far too early for her parents to get home; and anyway, they wouldn't knock, right? She heads to the door, peeking through the window to see two men standing ominously on the doorstep.
The older man's somewhere in his forties, with short dark hair that's greying a little at the temples. He's wearing a cheap-looking dark blue suit along with the sort of glasses that really deserve to be called spectacles. The younger man's wearing a nicer suit and the ghost of a goatee that matches his medium-blonde hair. Around both men, the pattern carries the tell-tale trace of the Art.
They've seen Penny through the window: no running now. She takes the coin from its safe place in her sock and holds it at the ready, opening the door slowly and unsteadily with her other hand.
The older man is the first to speak. "We're from the Department of Enforcement and Compliance. We're investigating a violation of statute 10, section 3: use of the Art to endanger a non-user."
Penny's completely stunned: they've blinded her with bureaucracy. "Um… okay?" she says, hand still on the door handle.
"I'm Investigator Bennet," the older man continues, "and this is Deputy Investigator Roberts. May we come in?"
Penny nods reflexively before she can stop herself, and the two men follow her to the living room. She's about to sit down, but stops when she sees that neither of her unexpected guests is following suit.
"Can you tell us your whereabouts at four o'clock on the seventeenth of last month?" Roberts asks, his voice far less interesting than his dress sense.
"I… don't remember?" she admits. She's telling the truth: that was something like two weeks ago.
Bennet nods, and Roberts takes a set of dice out of his pocket. He rolls them around in his hand, over his palm and wrist. They stick slightly in the pattern, their paths inexorably dictated by the bare threads of reality. Penny recognises this: it's a scan.
Bennet asks this time. "Can you tell us where you were at four o'clock on the seventeenth of this month?"
Penny goes to shake her head, intending to protest that she still can't remember, but she finds her lips and tongue ignoring her. "I was in the park near my school," she says, her memory suddenly flooded with information that she's unable to conceal.
The older man nods impassively. "Were you alone?"
"My friend Michelle O'Clare was with me," she answers robotically, the words bypassing all of her decision-making faculties. "And Steven Blake turned up, with two others from our school."
Bennet writes all of this down in a notebook he produces from his pocket. Roberts continues to stare at the dice in his hand, doing something that looks like arcane mental arithmetic. One die comes to rest upon another, and Penny feels a thread tugging unpleasantly at something inside her brain.
"What happened?" Bennet asks, flatly.
"I went into the bushes to dress as a girl," she says, feeling humiliated by her own compelled confession. "Then Steven showed up. I didn't have a glamour on, so he knew who I was." The two men both nod, and she continues: "They made fun of us, and Michelle attacked them. They fought back. They were hurting her, so I made them hurt." Her voice remains flat throughout, but it's getting a hint of an edge to it nonetheless.
Bennet keeps taking notes, and Roberts keeps rolling the dice around. Penny feels another unpleasant tug, feeling almost nauseated by the repeated strain on her psyche.
"How?" The question isn't gentle.
Penny tries to grit her teeth, tries to block her thoughts, to swallow her tongue or clench her fists, anything to keep from remembering and admitting what she did. None of it works.
"I threw waves at one of them," she recounts, emotionlessly, "and then I took the hurt from Michelle and gave it to Steven."
Bennet finishes writing and snaps his notebook shut. He puts it back in his pocket, keeping the pen in his hand, poised as if ready to write on the air itself. He nods.
Roberts tosses a die up into the air, rolling the remainder around in his hand. He frowns, providing the first hint of emotion Penny's seen from either of them.
"His— her… his name is muddy, vague," he says. "I'm not sure I can bind him, I've… I've not seen this before."
Bennet nods, and spins the pen in his hand, clicking it twice before letting it slide along his ring finger. He keeps playing with it, stopping occasionally to make a quick writing motion in the air. Penny can almost see the symbols linger. This looks bad. She starts to roll her coin along her fingers, but Roberts grabs her arm, having apparently given up the dice as a bad job.
"Ah," Bennet says. "He's been trying to change it, but he hasn't finished the process." He glances at Roberts and says firmly: "Physical contact's not in the protocol."
Roberts relinquishes his grip, slightly sheepishly.
Bennet fixes his gaze at Penny once again. "Daniel Reed, you are hereby charged with violations of statute. You will come peacefully."
It's neither a question nor an instruction, she realises, as her muscles move unbidden beneath her. It's a statement of fact. She follows Roberts out of her home, with Bennet bringing up the rear. It's a strange sensation, being puppeted along like this; she doesn't like it very much.
The blonde Deputy Investigator leads Penny to a dark blue car that's a little beaten-up, a forgettable four-door sedan with no major identifying marks beyond the number plates. It's got some kind of glamour on it, maybe several, but she can't tell what any of them can do through the marionette strings in her mind. Roberts gets into the driver seat. Penny gets into the back, followed by Bennet, who plucks the coin from her hand. She'd actually forgotten it was there. He waves his pen through the air in front of her face.
"Nothing personal," he explains. She's too busy losing consciousness to wonder what he means.