Thunder and Herbs
The written words of Jenny Hackett
Practical Witchcraft for Outcast Teens
Chapter 21: Dressing Down
“All in all, I think getting your cover blown in two meetings must be some sort of record,” Yarn says. It’s a phrase with all the apparent structure of a joke, but carrying none of the humour. “Getting rescued by a known terrorist is just the cherry on the cake.”
“She’s not a terrorist,” Penny protests. Feebly, she adds: “She’s my friend.”
“That doesn’t exactly help your case,” he replies calmly. He drops a bag onto the floor: a dark grey rucksack. It lands with a soft thud.
“Clothes,” he says.
That’s all the explanation Penny’s going to get, and all she needs: she hurriedly grabs the rucksack and pulls the zip pen, revealing a pair of dark blue jeans and a grey t-shirt bearing some sort of trendy Japanese design.
She looks around, mostly instinctively. “There’s nowhere to change.”
Yarn closes the door, leaving himself inside the room. “You can change here. I’m not quite ready to let you out of my sight yet.”
Penny undresses herself nervously, with frequent glances towards her mentor’s persistent gaze, stopping when she reaches her underwear. She tries not to notice Yarn’s obvious disgust at the bra and knickers she’s wearing. She takes the bra off but keeps the knickers on: as dirty as they must be by now, there are some levels of indignity she’s not ready to experience.
She takes the jeans out of the bag first, pulling them onto her legs one at a time in an awkward half-hopping motion. Putting on the t-shirt is a mercifully simpler process. Once she’s dressed, she puts her now-removed girly clothes into the rucksack and zips it shut, hoisting it onto her right shoulder. Yarn shakes his head sternly.
“Give it to me,” he says. “I doubt you want to explain the contents to your parents, do you?”
Penny hands the bag over, reluctantly, not quite managing to suppress the quiver in her arm. Yarn takes it with his left hand and does something with the string in his right; the bag seems to fade from existence, sending Penny’s heart down to new depths.
Yarn leads her out of the room and through several labyrinthine corridors. The Department — assuming that’s where she is — is a drab place with identical offices spread along grey-walled corridors decorated only by the occasional informational poster. Penny catches herself wondering who their interior designer is.
After a few minutes of winding passages, all alike, they come to a large atrium with a spiral staircase at the side. The natural light coming from the skylights hits Penny like an anvil, leaving her blinking away the spots in her eyes. It’s too bright for evening; she must’ve been here overnight. Her anxiety steps up a gear: what are her parents going to say?
Yarn steps onto the spiral staircase and Penny follows; they head down three flights before reaching the ground floor. The atrium seems to serve as a sort of lobby to the building: there are plants in pots and chairs to sit in, and the spruce wood panelling on the walls synthesises modern and antique in an achingly stylish manner.
It’s a hell of a contrast to the corridors further in.
There’s a dingy staircase at the back of the atrium, concrete walls and dust, bearing a sign with white letters on a dark green background: “Car Park”. Yarn heads down the stairs at a quickened pace, his footsteps echoing harshly in the space. Penny takes the stairs slowly and with more uncertainty, still not quite trusting her feet to carry her.
Together, they walk through several floors of multi-story car park, eventually, arriving at what Penny assumes is Yarn’s car. He unlocks it with one of those clicker-things and gestures for Penny to get into the passenger seat. She does so, sinking into the upholstery as he takes the driver’s seat. It’s a nice car, and it smells fairly new.
After what feels like eternity, Yarn speaks.
“I am… disappointed.” He says this with something combining a sigh and a snarl, and it does nothing to relieve the tension built by his complete silence up to this point. “Do you have any idea,” he says, “how much planning has been wasted by your actions? How many people could die because of this?”
He hits the seat with his left hand. The knuckles of his right hand, still entwined with the red string, are white with the tension. Penny gulps, heart rate shooting well past triple digits.
“What happened?” Yarn asks, flatly.
Penny takes a deep breath before she responds, but it does little to calm her. “I… I don’t know.”
“Not good enough,” he replies. He starts to twist the string—
“Wait!” Penny blurts out. “There’s… there’s this boy. Um…” She tries not to think about the shaking in her voice and hands.
“Um. He’s been following me around,” she says. “I think he’s with the Lucerists? M-maybe that’s what…” She takes another deep, shuddering breath, ignoring the tears running down her cheeks. “Maybe that’s what they picked up in their scan?”
“Right.” He doesn’t sound convinced. “No.”
Monosyllables are not a good sign; Penny knows this from experience.
“N-no?” she asks, cautiously.
“It is far more likely that your association with a known enemy of both sides is what they detected.” He says this in clipped tones, like every single word is an effort.
“I barely know her!” Penny protests, stammer momentarily replaced with excessive volume.
Yarn glares at her. “She is all over your pattern.”
What? That’s not possible. They’ve met what, twice? Unless…
Realisation dawns, and with it, the first bit of calm and clarity that Penny’s felt for a while. “Fuck,” she says softly. “I think she might have set me up.”
Yarn’s expression turns thoughtful, and he relaxes visibly, though not completely. “It’s possible,” he admits. “Why do you say that?”
“Um,” Penny begins. “She… she taught me something. Something to change my body.”
Yarn nods. “Change it how?”
“Um.” The next word is almost a whisper: “…hormones?”
“Hormones,” he repeats, incredulity in his voice. It’s nearly silent, but it’s also so loud Penny could just die. He opens and closes his mouth a few times, as though he’s literally chewing over the next thing to say. “I see.”
Penny reminds herself to breathe as she wipes her eyes on the edge of the t-shirt she’s wearing. After some time, Yarn speaks again.
“Yes,” he says. “That could explain it.” He takes a deep breath. “When did she teach you this?”
Penny sniffs the remnant of a tear, the salt slightly irritating her nose. “After she rescued me from the Umbratists.”
Yarn’s silent for another small age. “That would explain your pattern. But the timeline doesn’t add up for the meeting: that can’t have been what they detected.” He sighs, like his breath is somehow only grudgingly given. “Tell me about the boy.”
“He was following me around,” she replies, shakily. “He didn’t like that I was meeting with the Umbratists, said I needed to pick a side.” Yarn nods, and she continues: “He said his father was someone important.”
Her mentor freezes. “What… what was his name?” he asks. His words low and careful, but no less intimidating.
“Um,” Penny replies, hesitantly. “Rakesh something?”
Suddenly, Yarn slams his hand hard against the steering wheel. Penny imagines she can see a dent.
“Fuck!” he shouts. “For fuck’s sake.” He glances at Penny like he’s just noticed her presence. “So it isn’t your fault,” he says, though the harshness in his voice doesn’t match the words. “At least, not entirely.”
“Y-you know him?” Penny asks, still shaken up from her teacher’s outburst.
He takes so long to respond that she almost wonders if he even heard the question. When the answer does come, it’s short and simple.
“Yes.” Yarn takes a deep breath and sighs loudly, staring into the distance. “Right. We… we need to do some damage control.” He glances at Penny again. “And you need another assignment. We were lucky you were rescued by the vigilante: we’ve been badly in need of intel on her for some time.”
Penny starts to nod, but hesitates. It’s one thing to spy on strangers, but keeping tabs on a friend feels like betrayal. But then, is she a friend? Sure, she helped Penny out of a bind, but besides that they’ve spoken a grand total of twice, which isn’t exactly the foundation for a close relationship. And it does seem like a person running around and beating people up dressed as Wonder Woman is the kind of person the Department should keep an eye on. But still…
“You’re hesitant,” Yarn says. “That’s understandable: I’m asking a lot of you.” He says this neutrally, as though it had no bearing on what she ought to do. “You should take some time to think about it.” With that, he starts the car and drives out of the car park, onto a road that Penny recognises as being on the far side of town from home.
The two sit in silence as Yarn navigates the roads of the city centre, taking Penny homeward. Which reminds her…
“Shit!” she half-shouts. “My parents!”
Yarn nods without looking, his eyes focused on the road. He seems to be a pretty careful driver, though Penny’s not got a lot of reference points for that.
“It can be taken care of,” he says. “They needn’t have noticed you were gone at all; we can let them believe—“
“No!” Penny says, hurriedly interrupting him from what he’s doubtless going to say next. She might not always get along with her parents, but the idea of messing with their heads seems… off, somehow.
But is it really that different to how she was lying to Michelle? (She dismisses this thought as quickly as it comes.)
“Um,” she starts, trying to think. “Why don’t we tell them… tell them I was attacked. And I had to go to the hospital and— and make a police report.” She clears her throat, speaking more confidently. “And you’re the detective.”
Yarn sighs, but nods. “Okay, fine.” He turns the car into a familiar road: they’re nearly home. “We’ll do that.”
The remainder of the journey is spent in silence, and soon they pull up outside of Penny’s home.
Before getting out of the car, Yarn takes his string and starts weaving glamours on himself. He makes his hair short and dark, decorating his jaw with the traces of five o’clock shadow. He gives himself wrinkles at the edges of his eyes, adding maybe ten years to his apparent age. He makes his clothes look more drab, changing their colour from a classy dark blue to a Marks and Spencer grey. He does this disinterestedly, almost carelessly, like he’s so practised at this particular guise that it’s dull and routine.
“I need to look the part,” he says, by way of explanation.
Penny gets out of the car first, her mentor following close behind. They stand for a minute at Penny’s front door, exchanging wordless looks as Penny steels herself for a hell of a lie. Once she’s calm enough, she nods, and Yarn raises his hand to the door, rapping on it firmly with his knuckles in the manner of Official Business.
A minute or so of waiting later, Penny’s dad answers the door. He gives her a look, one that says “Where the bloody hell have you been?” with far more vehemence than he could ever hope to say. Blood rushes around Penny’s head in anticipation of the riot act, but before he can even begin, Yarn makes his introduction.
“Good evening, sir,” he says, effecting a voice slightly toward working class of his usual measured tone. “My name’s Detective Inspector Jones. I’m with the police.”
Penny’s not sure that last sentence was entirely required, given the context, but there’s no use in questioning it right now.
Yarn continues, gesturing at Penny. “Can I confirm that this is your son?”
Penny’s father looks stunned, but after a moment he nods slowly. Penny suspects he’s mainly shocked at the idea of his “son”, of all people, being some kind of criminal.
“Daniel’s not in trouble, is he?” he asks eventually. His tone is weirdly flat, like he’s not at all clear on how he ought to be acting.
Yarn shakes his head. “No, not at all. At least, not with us; he was attacked, I’m afraid. He spent the night in the hospital and he’s just finished giving us his statement and a description of the attackers.”
Penny’s father’s face turns from confusion to concern. It’s an unfamiliar look on him, and before it has a chance to linger, it’s almost violently suppressed.
“Don’t worry, Dad,” Penny says, mostly earnestly. “I’m fine. They just wanted to keep me for observation.” It’s not a particularly convincing story, but she’s hoping a police presence will trip her father’s Authority Override switch.
Yarn clears his throat. “If there’s nothing else?” he prompts. “I mean, I’ve got to get back to the station soon.”
This seems to snap her dad out of whatever state he’s in. “No, of course, that’s fine,” he says. “Thanks for bringing him home.” He takes Yarn’s hand and gives it a firm shake. Her mentor nods, gives a perfunctory smile and heads back to the car.
Once her mentor’s driven away, Penny and her dad head inside and into the dining room. Her mum’s in there, waiting on one of the dining chairs. She looks up.
“Daniel!” she exclaims. Apparently, today’s going to be filled with that name. “We were worried sick!”
“I’m sorry,” Penny responds, feeling genuinely apologetic even though she’s not entirely sure what for.
“He’s been in the hospital, apparently,” her dad explains. Somehow he’s managed to say that without any apparent sympathy.
Worry and grief strike Penny’s mother’s face. In contrast to her father, this expression lingers a while. Penny’s not sure how to deal with it: in many ways, her dad’s repression is easier to cope with than her mother’s emotion.
“I know I should’ve called,” Penny says. “I… I guess I was in shock, or something.”
It seems this is a good enough excuse to stop her parents from shouting, but maybe not good enough to stop them from wanting to. As such, the rest of the evening carries a sombre tension. Penny’s parents insist that she stays downstairs for the majority of the evening, rather than hide in her room, and as a result she spends several hours concocting lies on the fly about what exactly happened to her. Inwardly, she mourns the loss of her girly clothes: after all, it seems unlikely that Yarn would return them.
When it’s finally late enough for bed, she goes with some relief.