This chapter carries specific content warnings that may spoil elements of the story. Click to reveal: Mind control, serious bodily injury.
Penny gets to the dance studio well in advance of the appointed time. It’s little surprise, really: she’s spent half of the past week running on too little sleep, and what sleep she has seen has come along with rather unpleasant dreams. Penny’s dreams are usually not great — her subconscious still seems to insist on her being a boy, for starters — but recently, they’ve taken on a darker tone, filled with disturbing images of cruel Victorian schoolmasters and unquiet desperation.
It’s Garl’s fault, she’s sure; not that it matters right now. It’s definitely not an ideal situation, but it’s also not really one that can be helped, so complaining about it won’t do much good. Still, she’ll be glad once this is all behind her.
Penny’s been waiting at the studio for about twenty minutes when Yarn arrives. She hears his footsteps as he ascends the staircase, each step ratcheting up her anxiety until, by the time the door starts to open, she’s about to leap out of her skin. There’s a moment, between the opening of the door and his noticing her presence, when time seems to stick in place.
“You’re early,” he says, surprise jumping into his voice and face. The contrast with his usual calmness would be almost comical under other circumstances.
“Yes,” Penny replies. She notices, belatedly, that her nails are digging into her palms, and makes a conscious effort to relax. “I, um,” she croaks, swallowing in an attempt to moisten her mouth. “I had something I wanted to say.”
“Oh?” her teacher asks, fingers already in their characteristic state of twitching at string. “What is it?”
Yarn’s tone is a little flatter than usual, if that’s even possible. There’s something vaguely off about the way he’s shifted from surprise to neutrality so quickly.
Penny takes a shuddering breath. “I won’t do it,” she says, simply. It almost sounds bold, but the effect is somewhat ruined by the muttered “sorry” that follows it out of her mouth. Way to stand up for yourself, she thinks.
Yarn straightens his posture, twisting the string in his hand over and under and over and under itself. The motions are somewhat hypnotic, capturing Penny’s attention despite herself.
“Ah,” he says. “That’s disappointing.” He smiles, slightly, taking the whole thing worryingly well. “Is there anything I can do to change your mind?”
Penny shakes her head. “I… I don’t want to spy on my friends,” she says. “I won’t do it.”
Yarn nods, apology showing clearly on his face. “It’s completely understandable. It’s a lot to ask of you.” His fingers continue twitching, weaving, the thread moving into and out of knots in ways that defy all reason. It’s a trefoil, then a figure-eight, then a hangman’s noose, a puppet’s string, a figure of a man, melting in and out of shapes with smooth and sickening slickness that is at once strange and sublimely soothing.
Penny remembers to breathe. “I, um,” she says, half-mumbling. “I understand if that means our deal is off.” She takes another shuddering breath, placing one hand on the coin in her pocket, more for comfort than anything else. It feels heavier, somehow; she finds it a little hard to make her fingers grip the hard, cold metal.
“Off?” Yarn replies, sounding surprised. “Why would it be off? Our deal is still valid if you want it to be.” Fibrous reality twists around his fingers.
Of course. Penny sighs, relieved: she should’ve realised he’d see reason. After all, he’s practically a policeman.
“Would you still like to continue our lessons?” he asks. “I can find more suitable work for you, I’m sure.”
Penny nods. “I’d like that,” she says, finding herself smiling slightly.
Yarn smiles back at her. “So that’s a yes?”
“Yes,” she replies, and his smile goes cold.
Yarn tugs on the red string, and Penny’s world goes sideways as she’s pulled apart at the seams. Moments, minutes or millennia later, she finds herself on the floor with one hell of a headache. Through fog and haze, she makes out her master’s feet; she tries to cry out, but the very act makes her feel sick.
Time skips like a broken CD again, and Penny finds herself pulled to her feet, facing her teacher-assailant. He places his hands on her shoulders, gently turning her around, making arcane knots in her joints as she moves. It’s like a knitting needle, bluntly and distantly painful, threading through sinew and muscle as she remains idle and compliant.
Yarn’s voice comes to her as though it were carried through thick glue. “I’m sorry it’s come to this,” he says. “I really am. But a deal’s a deal, after all.” He continues his work, manipulating her legs and her feet, weaving a harness of nothingness around her every part. It’s a slow, intimate process, taking the better part of an hour, and Penny finds herself conscious for every second of it, even as she’s distant from it all.
Yarn snaps his fingers, and the fog lifts. Breath once again finds oxygen, and Penny pulls the coin from her pocket. She rolls it along her knuckles to her little finger, feeling nothing. Rage floods into her, and she turns around quickly to face her master.
“What the fuck did you do to me?” she demands, brandishing her token like a knife.
Yarn repeats his smile, making it look almost alien to his face. “Absolutely nothing,” he says. “Now, run along home. I’m sure you have school tomorrow.”
And so she does.
Penny spins on her heels, walking out of the door as fast as her legs will move without running, and heads down the stairs to the street. She walks along the various side streets that lead to her home, hastily passing the billboards and posters that she once internally mocked, through the street where she first slipped into Garl’s reality and onto the road where she lives. At no point does she have any real control of her movements: she finds herself pulled along like a marionette doll.
Penny’s uncanny automation lasts right up to the point she’s gone through her own front door, at which point she finds herself free again with such abruptness that she almost falls over. Once she’s managed to regain her bearings, she hurries upstairs to her bedroom with a panicked and delirious haste, slamming the door behind her almost unpleasantly unconsciously.
Breathe, Penny! Just fucking breathe. It takes her about ten minutes of deliberately calm inhaling and exhaling before she feels able to move again. The tunnel of her vision opens out, and she starts to hear a voice in the corner of her perception.
“Daniel! Is everything all right?”
It’s her mum, calling from the other side of the door. The familiarity is almost welcome enough to outweigh the unwelcomeness of the name she’s using. Penny searches the recesses of her mind for an appropriate response.
“Everything’s fine, mum,” she says eventually, sounding rather hollow. She repeats herself in the vain hope that it’ll help: “Everything’s fine.”
There’s a pause. “Well, dinner’s in an hour, okay?” comes the response, and Penny finds herself inordinately thankful for her mother’s casual neglect.
The rest of the evening passes in a blur. Food, toothbrush and bed all happen in some order, though it’s only Penny’s educated guess as to what that order exactly is. She doesn’t even try out any glamours, which is pretty rare these days, and she’s barely got the energy to do anything but get herself into bed in one piece. Her eyes close the moment her head touches the pillow, leading to a sleep that brings neither dream nor rest.
Inevitably, dawn breaks. The next day begins with Penny going through the motions of a normal school day. Her arms dress her quickly and dispassionately, taking only a brief pause to allow her eyes to locate her school tie. Her legs carry her down to breakfast, which her mouth and stomach consume at a steady pace, before continuing on to carry her body to school. Her mind remains in a hard silence.
As she arrives at school, Penny spots Michelle loitering just beyond the gate. She turns her neck toward her friend as though through treacle; she musters her panic to call out as loudly as she can, but finds herself without even a mumble. Michelle’s eyes stay fixed on the ground.
The day proceeds at a snail’s pace. Seconds of reality stretch into minutes for the mind that scrape by as hours for the soul, as Penny watches out from behind her eyes like they’re the bars of a cage. Perhaps this is how time passes in the gaps between worlds, sticking and dragging like a poorly-greased engine. It isn’t particularly pleasant.
Eventually, and with great relief, the school day ends. Penny’s body takes her up from her seat and out of the school, through the gate and onto the street. But she doesn’t turn homeward: instead, she takes a path through side streets and alleys, towards a place just outside of the centre of town. Penny watches, heart sinking as the scenery becomes ever more familiar, her hand waving to part the links in a fence and her feet carrying her into a dilapidated block of flats. She climbs the stairs slowly, deliberately, awkwardly.
She walks up to a door on the third floor — number 33 — and knocks several times. After a moment of clicking and clunking noises, the door swings open.
“You’re earl— oh. It’s you.” Angie looks disappointed, disheveled and more than a little annoyed.
Penny tries in vain to display an apologetic expression even as her arm moves violently, tugged by a string she feels threaded through her very being. Air blasts across the threshold of the door, knocking Angie off-balance: ze falls backwards into a sort of half-crouch with hir right hand groping around behind hir back. Ze pulls a thin black rod out of the air, weaving it through the gaps left in the pattern in an uncanny knot. Hir eyes widen — Penny presumes in some sort of realisation of what’s happening here — and ze lets out a stream of half-formed, half-growled profanity.
Penny finds herself dashing forwards as Angie stands up, her left hand clenched into a fist. Angie tries to dodge, but Penny’s too fast: her fist slams into hir nose with a sickening crack. Blood starts to run from Angie’s nostrils, pooling just above hir upper lip in an unflattering manner. Ze grimaces.
There’s a flash, like a sudden aurora from all directions. Penny screams inwardly as she feels the bones of her left arm snap, the pain leaping up her nervous system like flame across an oil slick. “You’ll regret that!” she hears herself growl, even before the vision’s returned to her eyes.
Penny’s legs go out from under her; she hits the floor of the living room hard and quick with a ringing in her ears and tears in her eyes. She feels a rope around one of her ankles and hears a familiar voice.
“Fuck. What happened?”
It’s Diana. She doesn’t sound pleased by the scene she’s just discovered, though she sounds more shocked than anything else. Penny’s leg struggles against its bonds, but Diana does something with her rope and the leg obediently goes numb. Penny finds herself almost praying in desperation, but she’s not sure to whom. Her usual saviour’s currently busy being her captor.
Once again, Penny’s mind slips away from consciousness. This time, it’s kind of welcome.