Two hours into her sleepless night, Penny hears the sound of small rocks hitting her bedroom window. She sits up and opens the window, managing to receive a high-speed stone to the wrist as she does so.
Ouch. Who actually does that?
Peering out into the blackness of night, she observes the small garden below. It’s not much of a garden, consisting only of a few hedges and a bit of grass, the occasional weed threatening to poke out of various corners. To be fair, neither of her parents has the time to manage it.
A familiar figure stands in the centre of the lawn, clad in boyish street clothes but carrying a familiar length of rope. It takes Penny’s eyes a moment to focus enough to tell who it is, but by then she’s already realised who it is.
“Diana?!” she exclaims, as much in a shout as a whisper.
Diana responds wordlessly, gesturing toward the ground with some sense of urgency. It takes Penny a moment to realise she’s asking her to come down.
“My parents are in!” she hisses in response. Diana just keeps gesturing, even more vigorously, and points at her rope.
After a moment, Penny gets it: Oh, right. Magic.
Penny reaches out into nowhere and pulls out her special coin, spinning it on the tip of her thumb. She looks at the air outside her window, at the threads tracing solitary paths through the ether, and gets to work winding them together, thickening the air into a strange gaseous sludge.
When she’s done, she pulls herself out of the window with as much care as she can manage. It takes her a moment to work up the courage to let go, but when she does, she drifts down to the ground like a clod of earth sinking slowly in a pool of water. The sensation of the air moving past her skin is unpleasantly alien, and by the time she reaches the ground she feels like she wants to vomit. She’s not going to try that trick again in a hurry.
“I kind of expected you to take the stairs,” Diana says flatly. Penny feels a blush spread from her cheeks to her ears, the mild embarrassment that comes from being reminded of the obvious.
“Oh,” she says. “Yeah. I guess I could’ve done that.” She shivers slightly: it’s actually a little cold out here, especially in her pyjamas. “Why’re you here? Actually, how’d you know where I live?”
Diana taps her rope, smirk not even slightly supressed. “You really need to get better at masking your traces.”
Penny’s heard that one before. She sighs, shaking her head at herself. “Right.”
“When you dropped off the map it kind of made me worry,” Diana continues, more gently than before. Presumably noticing Penny’s expression of confusion, she adds: “I’m kind of hooked into the flow of the local area. Superhero stuff, you know?” She turns her head quizzically. “You… look like you’ve had a really bad day.”
Penny screws her eyes shut, putting her fingers to her temples and sinuses in some vain and desperate attempt to stave off reality. “More like two days,” she half-groans, half-mutters. “It’s… complicated.” Reluctantly, she opens her eyes to see a knowing expression playing on Diana’s features.
“Want to talk about it?”
Penny doesn’t particularly want to talk about it, as it happens. Getting further involved with the Department’s next target seems like a really bad idea, especially if she’s meant to be part of the investigation. And that’s even before adding on all the other shit she’s been through today. She shivers silently.
“I was trying to get hold of you,” Diana says, after a moment. “You weren’t answering your phone. I was worried.”
Penny sighs. “The Umbratists had my phone,” she points out. “I only just got it back.”
“You… got it back?” Diana asks, confused.
“Yeah, from the Department,” she says, with another heavy sigh. “They had some questions.”
Diana nods. “Yeah. They’re like that.”
It’s hard to know what to respond to that, so there’s just silence and calm, save for the shiver in Penny’s arms.
Penny raises her coin and twists it through the air, matting the fibres of her pyjamas together into something a little more insulating. Her skin gives out warm relief. Diana raises her eyebrows at this, but seems to think better of actually saying anything.
“So,” Penny begins, trying to think of something to say. “Why is the Department after you?”
“Oh,” Diana says, with a tone of dreadful realisation. “Oh, shit. Is that why they wanted to talk to you?”
Penny shrugs, allowing Diana to infer what she will. It’s not the whole truth, but it’s enough for now.
“Sorry,” Diana says, after a moment. It mostly serves to fill silence.
Wind blasts through the garden, causing Penny to shiver again despite her supernatural insulation.
Diana speaks again. “Um. Should we go inside?”
“My parents are in,” Penny replies, matter-of-factly. “They might still be up.”
Diana nods thoughtfully. After a moment, she raises her rope above her head purposefully. She twists and bends, letting it extend through the air in a sort of trefoil shape. Penny feels the fibres of her pyjamas — both physical and metaphysical — tighten and thicken around her, improving her original bodge job at insulation. The process stretches out over several seconds, resulting in a sleepwear set that feels rather more like a warm duffle coat.
“Thanks.” Penny says. Clearly, Diana’s better at this than her.
“No problem.” She gives a broad, cat-like smile. “What’re friends for?”
Penny pauses, pondering the words. “Are we friends?” She’s genuinely unsure at this point. It’s Diana’s fault she got the third degree from the Department, after all: her clever technique made Penny’s pattern all… something.
Diana frowns. “Should we not be friends?”
“I…” Penny begins, uncertain of almost everything. “That’s… not really what I meant.”
There’s a pause, and Penny shifts side to side on her feet. Should she…?
“Well,” Diana declares, breaking the tension of the moment rather decisively. “If it’s up to me, I think you’re a friend.”
Penny nods weakly, and swallows nervously. “There’s something you need to know.”
Penny exits the garden with Diana at her tail, leading her to a bus shelter some ten minute’s walk away from home. Penny’s not exactly feeling paranoid about all this, but something feels a little off, maybe even dangerous, about having this discussion too close to home. It’s spotting a little: Penny feels the odd raindrop seep under her supernaturally warm pyjamas. As they walk, Penny weaves a glamour on herself, making it look like she’s wearing somewhat more outdoorsy clothes, just in case of prying eyes. By the time they’ve reached the bus stop, it looks to any external observer like she’s wearing a rather elegant duffel coat and boots.
“So,” Diana says, perching on the edge of one of the uncomfortable metal seats, “what did you want to tell me?”
Penny looks over her shoulder — a futile gesture, she knows — before she speaks. She’s still not completely sure this is a good idea, but she’s pretty sure she’ll feel like shit if she doesn’t say something. Eventually, she forces the words out.
“The Department wants me to spy on you.”
Diana nods as though she understands, though her expression’s a bit too confused for it to be entirely sincere.
“Why?” she asks eventually.
“They’re the ones that made me go to that… that meeting,” Penny says, voice quivering. “They said you were a terrorist. Dangerous.”
Diana nods again. She breathes deeply before responding.
People seem to be saying that a lot recently.
“Wait,” she adds. “Back up. Why you? Why are they getting you to do all this?”
“My mentor — Yarn — he works for them,” Penny replies. “For the Department, I mean.” She swallows nervously, wondering what Diana’s going to say next.
“Your ‘mentor’,” she says flatly, “works for the DEC? Jesus.” She sighs: it’s a little theatrical and overblown, but it’s still not something that fills Penny with confidence. “Right,” she continues, all business. “How long have you known?”
Penny thinks. “Um. A bit less than a month, maybe?” It feels like a lot longer.
Diana whistles. “Wow,” she says. “That’s a hell of a month.”
Penny supposes it is: what with becoming a spy, getting caught out, coming out to Michelle, getting arrested, and that incident in the park, it’s been… busy, to say the least. Did all of that really happen in a month? She groans with the realisation.
“What am I going to do?” she asks nobody in particular.
“Honestly?” Diana says, a touch of anger in her voice. “I’d quit. You’re way too young to be a spy.”
“You’re the same age as me,” Penny points out, “and you’re a superhero.”
Diana laughs, a little bitterly. “You’ve got me there.” She exhales gradually as the laughter dies away. “Maybe I shouldn’t be doing it. Pretty sure that’s what Angie thinks. But, you know, at least I actually believe in it, right?”
Penny nods, feeling empty and lost. It makes sense, but…
”…but I need him to keep teaching me,” she mutters, nearly inaudibly.
Apparently that was loud enough for Diana to hear, though.
“Teaching you what?” she asks, confused expression on her face and incredulity in her tone. “What could possibly be so important for him to teach you?”
Penny says nothing, though she can feel her face betray her emotions.
“Oh,” Diana says, after a moment. “Oh. Right.” She stands up, wordlessly holding her arms out: it takes Penny a moment to realise she’s offering a hug.
Penny moves in and Diana’s arms wrap themselves around her tightly. She’s warm enough from the enchantment on her pyjamas, but she’s shivering anyway. She starts to cry silently. “Why aren’t you angry with me?” she asks. The question goes unanswered.
“He’s done a real number on you, huh,” Diana says, softly. “Come on, I’ll take you to our place.” She rubs Penny’s arm warmly. “You shouldn’t be alone right now.” Before releasing her grip, she gives Penny one final squeeze.
“My— my parents,” Penny says, thoughts momentarily rejecting grammar. Diana seems to understand anyway.
“We’ll make sure you’re back before the morning, I promise.” She takes Penny’s hand gently, leading her away.
Penny’s not sure how long the journey to Diana and Angie’s place takes — she’s in a daze for most of it — but before too long, she’s sat on one of the tatty sofas in that semi-decrepit building, clutching a mug of tea for dear life. Diana gave her the pick of the tea cupboard, so she’s gone for Earl Gray, complete with a slice of lemon. She inhales the scent deeply, letting it into her nostrils and down into her heart.
“Smells just like Garl’s,” she notes to herself. Diana gives her a quizzical look: apparently she’s spoken aloud without intending to, again. “Um. Just a friend.”
Diana sits down next to her with her own mug. The two girls drink their respective drinks in silence for a few minutes; Diana’s cup smells faintly floral. Penny sighs, and Diana puts an arm around her. It’s sort of comforting.
“What’s up?” she asks, causing Penny to sigh again.
“I… I really fucked things up,” Penny says. Diana nods silently, and she continues: “I really upset Michelle with this. I…”
Diana strokes Penny’s arm gently, but meaningfully. Penny gulps another mouthful of tea, attempting to steel herself for the next set of words.
“I put her in danger with this.”
Diana’s hand stops caressing. “What do you mean, ‘with this’?” she asks, puzzled. “With what?”
Penny sighs once more, tears forming in the corner of her eyes. “I mean,” she says, shaking, “with who I am.”
Diana squeezes her, firmly and suddenly. “You can’t think that way,” she declares. “You are who you are. You can’t help that. She chose to be your friend, didn’t she?”
Penny shrugs. She feels her cheeks grow moist. “That was before.” Tears drip into the half-full mug in her hands as she begins to cry in earnest. She drinks another mouthful of the liquid: it’s slightly salty now, but still good. She swills it around in her hand, staring at the surface of the murky liquid and at the sad-looking slice of lemon floating in it. She breathes.
Right now, Penny has no idea what she should do. But she thinks she knows who might.
“I need to talk to someone,” she says, sitting up. “Can I… can I have a look in your tea cupboard?”
Diana frowns suddenly. “Um. What?”