This chapter carries specific content warnings that may spoil elements of the story. Click to reveal: Transphobia from authority figures, interrogation, mind control.
Penny wakes up with her hands cuffed to an uncomfortable metal chair. The room she finds herself in is small, maybe a couple of metres across both ways, with a chipped wooden table in the centre of the space. The door, a heavy, steel-reinforced thing with a broad handle, is across from her, behind another metal chair that’s presumably identical to the one she’s sitting on. It’s occupied by Roberts, the younger Investigator. His superior, Bennet, is leaning against the wall by the door with arms crossed.
Roberts places a series of objects onto the table in careful, almost theatrical motions. First, he lays down a small black stone attached to a torn shoelace. Penny immediately recognises it as her cover glamour; she thought she’d lost that at the Umbratist meeting. Next, he places Yarn’s listening device, the strange plastic box he gave her the last time they met. Finally, he puts a small copper coin on the table, tails up. Not that he could have placed it any other way: it’s Penny’s coin.
Roberts gives the bug a meaningful tap. “This is interesting, isn’t it?” he says, with a slight smirk. “This is Departmental equipment.”
“That’s not mine!” Penny protests.
“No,” Bennet agrees, straightening up from his prior leaning position. “It’s not. But it came through your hands into the possession of a known agent of Factio Umbrata.” He takes his pen from his inside pocket. “That’s a serious matter, as I’m sure you’re aware.”
“Where did you get these items?” Roberts asks. Penny hesitates a little, and he adds: “We’re asking as nicely as we can. But we don’t have to ask.”
”…You’ve got no right to keep me here,” she replies. “You’re not the police.”
Bennet takes a pair of spectacles from his pocket and places them carefully on his face. He twirls his pen. “We’re not keeping you here.”
“You came here under your own power, and cuffed yourself to that chair,” Roberts adds.
Well, shit. She doesn’t remember it, but she’s got no way to be sure it isn’t true. Is this how the Department operates?
“Where did you get the items?” Roberts repeats.
There’s a long silence before Penny answers.
“I got them from Yarn,” she says, not seeing much point in lying. This doesn’t seem to be what either of the Investigators expected her to say.
“Who is ‘Yarn’?” Bennet asks, the question carrying a slight growl. He waves — almost brandishes — his pen, not using it but leaving the threat heavily implies.
“I don’t know his real name,” Penny admits. She feels her heart sink, slowly, with a mixture of despair and resignation.
“You never asked his name?” Roberts says, leaning forward on the rickety table. His tone is so sardonic that it’s almost a sneer.
”…he wouldn’t tell me,” she admits, feeling sure she sounds utterly pathetic. “He said it was tradition. He doesn’t know my name either, he calls me… Penny…” She trails off. Now that she’s saying it aloud, each word sounds more unbelievable than the last.
“Penny is your name,” Roberts reminds her.
Bennet clarifies quickly, but calmly: “As is Daniel.”
Bennet’s words come across as a cruel statement of fact, as though he simply doesn’t want to let Penny’s identity rest unchallenged. It stings to hear, but he’s probably right: more people call her that than anything else, after all. Now’s probably not the best time to philosophise on the nature of names, though. Now is mainly the time to feel utterly stupid.
“Tell us about ‘Yarn’,” Bennet says. His face is neutral, but do his words carry a trace of amusement?
Penny begins, “I don’t—“, but Bennet spins his pen, snagging the fibres of her tongue and her mind. “White male, in his twenties,” she says mindlessly, “long hair, blonde, green eyes… his fetish is a piece of red wool string.” As she speaks, Bennet conducts her like a symphony orchestra, pen dancing through his fingers and tracing shapes in the air. Neither man is taking any notes: presumably there’s a recording device somewhere.
“How did you meet this individual?” Roberts asks, almost disinterestedly.
“I was on the beach. It was night, and I was trying to perform a ritual. I wanted to learn magic…” She tries not to say the next thing but she’s powerless before these men: “…so that I could become a girl.”
Roberts smirks. Bennet’s expression remains stern, but he doesn’t have to show amusement for Penny to know how ridiculous she looks right now. Or how ridiculous she is in general.
“Yarn stopped me,” she continues, none of the heady cocktail of emotions showing in her voice. It feels like the puppet-strings are the only thing holding her head together. “He threw a firework into the circle. It blinded me. He said what I was doing was dangerous, but that he could teach me, so that I could get what I wanted. All I had to do was work for him.”
“What did he want you to do?” Bennet asks. In tone, he’s as stern as ever, but his eyes, fixed on her lips, betray a certain eager anticipation. His fingers continue to dance with the pen, and his lips seem to keep moving even when he’s done speaking.
“Infiltrate Factio Umbrata,” Penny says, as though it were the most normal thing in the world.
Bennet freezes instantly. Roberts shifts back, half-standing up from the table. They exchange a sort of “oh shit” look: it’d be almost comical to any outside observer, but as it is, Penny is not amused in the slightest. Bennet opens the door and Roberts leaves in a hurry, right before Bennet does something that makes Penny black out once again.
Some time later, Penny wakes up in the same predicament as before. She doesn’t know how long she’s been out, but Bennet and Roberts have both had a change of clothes. The table is clear, presumably having been cleared while she was unconscious. Her arms are stiff, and she flexes her fingers in a half-hearted attempt to get some blood moving. Her head is killing.
“There’s somebody who wants to see you,” Bennet says. The atmosphere is tense, like neither of Penny’s captors is particularly happy about what’s happening. “Shall I show him in?”
Penny can only assume he’s talking about Yarn. She’s really not sure how to feel right now, other than tired.
“Will you let me go?” she asks quietly, as though speaking too loudly would break something fragile. Of course, home’s not so appealing at the moment, given the likely reaction of her parents to, well, all of this, but at least it’s better than being here. Probably.
“We’re going to need assurances,” Bennet emphasises. “You’re in serious trouble, you ought to realise.”
Penny bobs her head, though perhaps more with exhaustion than with assent. Either way, her captors seem to be satisfied.
Bennet speaks in a rather rehearsed tone. “Daniel Reed, also known as ‘Penny’ Reed,” — he says her girl name with the barest hint of disgust — “We are formally cautioning you. Any further violations of statute on your part will result in the removal of your abilities. We reserve the right to ask you in for further questioning at a later date. Do you understand and consent?”
She nods once more. Roberts takes a sheet of paper from his breast pocket, unfolds it and places it on the table in front of her. He holds out a pen, and Penny’s surprised to find her hands unbound. She flexes her fingers and rubs her palms together.
“You need to sign,” Roberts says, a little impatiently.
The paper looks like some kind of contract, albeit in some sort of symbolic language that itches behind Penny’s eyes. Actually, the symbols are less like letters and more like diagrams, directing the flow of threads in the reality-weave. She takes the pen in her still-stiff fingers and puts it to the paper, hesitating. Which name should she be using?
Roberts sighs. “Just sign,” he says, exasperation barely contained.
She signs the document: “D. Reed.” It’s as good a name as any, at least for this purpose. Roberts takes his pen back and puts it into one of his pockets.
“Stay here,” Bennet says, and the two men walk out of the room once again. They lock the door behind them, making his instruction somewhat redundant.
Penny waits, at patiently as she can manage. After some indeterminable period of time, she starts to wonder if Yarn is actually coming.
Alone, conscious and unbound for the first time in however long, she gets up from the chair, so unsteady on her feet that she nearly face-plants the table. Ouch. Her second attempt is more careful, and more successful, like she’s starting to remember what legs are. Once she’s sure she’s not about to collapse, she takes the opportunity to walk around the room she finds herself in. What little of it there is, at least.
Contrary to what she’s come to expect from TV cop dramas, all four walls are solid brick (or perhaps concrete) with no two-way glass in sight. The wall behind her seat is decorated with a sorry-looking cork board, the few pins in it still bearing torn scraps of paper as though it’d been cleared in a hurry. The other walls are completely undecorated.
The light in the room is a harsh fluorescent strip on the ceiling that serves only to make Penny’s head feel even worse. She’d turn it off if there were any obvious way to do so, but the switch is presumably outside the room.
Penny looks around the room for her belongings, but they’re nowhere to be found. She reaches behind her ear to pluck her coin from the ether — just like Diana showed her — but that’s gone too. She closes her eyes, trying to see the pattern, but the harsh light of the room permeates her eyelids, making it almost impossible to focus. No, strike that: completely impossible.
Fuck. Right. Stand back, take stock. Observe, Orient, Decide, Act.
Observations come first: she’s in a room. She’s not sure where (or even when, for that matter), but that much is certain. She can’t access the Art, but she’s not sure why. Also, now that she’s thinking about it, she really needs a trip to the loo and a solid meal. Probably in that order.
Orientation: she’s a prisoner. They wouldn’t leave her here alone if there was some way she could get away. Therefore, they must know she can’t use the Art right now. Presumably, it’s their doing. But how?
Penny closes her eyes again, but she can’t think. That damned light is just— wait. Could that be it?
Decision: she needs to be able to use the Art to get out. Therefore, she has to stop whatever’s blocking it.
Action: she grabs one of the hard metal chairs and lifts it over her head (it’s heavier than it looks!) before—
The door opens behind her. A voice comes from the other side.
“Once again, it seems I’m saving you from yourself.”
Penny turns, lowering the chair, maintaining her grip on it as though it were any sort of practical weapon.
Standing in the doorway is a man in his late twenties with long, blonde hair tied up in a bun, wearing glasses and a dark blue suit with no tie. His left hand is in his pocket, while his right hand is around shoulder-level, playing with a familiar piece of wool string…
Yarn smiles. But there’s no humour in that smile, just thinly-veiled contempt. He glances up and down at Penny, at the way she’s dressed. The way she’s dressed in unambiguously girly clothes.