“Wait, back up: you let her go confront this guy on her own?”
Penny, through miles of fog and ash, begins to recognise the voice as Angie’s.
“I didn’t let her do anything,” another voice protests. Diana? “I didn’t know she’d do it so soon! Last I knew, she was passed out on the settee getting advice from some kind of extraterrestrial ‘friend’. Then she just fucking left! How is any of this my fault?”
“Yeah, well, you’re not the one she just fucking attacked,” Angie growls. “I’m not really in the mood for semantics. At least not until my nose stops bleeding, fuck.”
Penny’s awareness gradually creeps outward from her brain to her limbs. She’s horizontal, with her arms uncomfortably pulled over her head, tied at the wrists to what feel like metal bars. Her left arm aches particularly bad, but she seems to have sensation all the way through it and she can just about wiggle her fingers; the break must have been fixed, somehow. Her legs are bound together, tied at the ankles with a cord that really doesn’t want to give. She groans.
“She’s coming to,” Angie notes. There’s the sound of someone standing and walking away. “I’ll be in the living room,” ze says, more distant this time, and Penny hears the door swing shut.
Penny’s eyes open wearily, half-automatically, and for a moment she’s scared she’s still under Yarn’s spell. She looks around — voluntarily, she notes with relief — and takes stock of her surroundings. Captivity, despite its apparently infinite variations, is starting to get old.
She’s lying face-up on a slightly hard mattress, in a room she doesn’t recognise. Craning her neck, she sees that the mattress is resting upon a metal bed frame, old, but sturdy-looking. The ceiling is a sort of off-white colour with paint chipping away all over the place, as are the walls, while the floor is made from unvarnished wood that looks surprisingly well cared for.
To Penny’s right, Diana is sitting in a plain wooden chair, next to an empty and equally plain chair that is entirely different in all other respects. She’s in boy-mode, wearing uncannily pristine jeans and a dark t-shirt bearing the logo of a band Penny’s vaguely heard of. Her eyes are slightly red, like she’s been crying.
Penny feels the pangs of guilt. She groans, not yet feeling up to verbal communication.
“Hey,” Diana says, staring down at her feet. Her voice is far softer than Penny expected. “Sorry we had to tie you up. Couldn’t be sure we got all the Department crap out of your head. How’re you feeling?”
”…shit,” is about all Penny can manage to say. After a moment, she can add: “Fuck, I’m sorry.” She’s aware this probably isn’t the answer expected of her right now, but it seems important to say nonetheless.
“Not your fault,” Diana says. The words themselves are decisive, but her voice still quavers. “You were being controlled. He’d probably been laying the groundwork for a while. I should’ve noticed something, but…” She sighs. “I’ve never seen them take it this far before. I know they like their mind games, but…”
Diana’s words trail off. A few seconds later, she stands up and begins to untie Penny’s arms, releasing the left arm first and pausing significantly before continuing with the right. “Fuck,” she says, almost to herself. “This is a disaster. We’re gonna have to move Angie to a new place and everything.”
“Shit,” Penny agrees, croakily. “Sorry,” she repeats, even as the pain in her left arm amplifies to a dull scream. She blinks tears away as best she can, and slowly pulls herself upright. She bends down to look at the rope binding her feet and tugs on it a few times, at first experimentally, but gradually more seriously. It doesn’t give at all.
“Yeah,” Diana says apologetically. “You’re gonna need your coin for that.”
Penny sighs to herself, swallowing meaningfully before pulling her coin out of nowhere. It’s a more tiring manoeuvre than usual, the token still feeling kind of distant from her. She gets to work on the rope, moving the coin through her fingers deliberately as she attempts to untangle whatever’s been done to the pattern; whatever it is, it looks to have been done with more haste than care. She barely registers Diana leaving the room.
A few minutes later, Penny’s untied and Diana returns with a familiar-looking rucksack slung over her shoulder. “We need to get moving,” she says, “but we’ll need a distraction. In case they’re watching the building. Can you..?” She sounds like she doesn’t want to finish the question, but it’s clear enough.
Penny thinks for a moment, glancing at the coin in her fingers. “I think so…” she murmurs, wishing she could sound more confident.
Diana nods silently, busy shovelling things into her bag with little grace. Penny watches this for a minute, letting the gears of her mind turn freely in the hope of generating some sort of plan. After a fair amount of pondering, she decides to act, pushing herself off the bed with weary arms and striding to the door. She heads through the living room and out of the flat, ignoring Angie out of embarrassment as ze does likewise out of fear.
Penny finds the stairwell, this time heading up the stairs, towards the roof; she reaches the top having deepened both her exhaustion and her resolve. She pushes the rooftop door open with all of her feeble momentum, revealing a pitiful-looking roof garden filled with dying plants and the smell of damp soil, lit only by moonlight. It reminds her of Garl’s grotto.
She starts to dance. She turns in circles as her hand guides her coin up and down, sending off sparks like tiny fireworks into the night. She feels eyes upon her, tracing the sight-lines back to their various hiding spots. She counts: one, two, three… no, five pairs of eyes come to her: two in a building opposite; one at street-level peering through concrete like tracing paper; two somewhere indistinct, but close. It seems like a lot of people to watch a single building, but then again, she’s not really got much experience to compare it to.
Satisfied she’s found all of those watching, Penny gets to work weaving her illusion. She rolls her coin around her wrists in a figure-eight pattern, spinning on her heels to catch fibres from each of the ten eyes upon her. It’s fiddly work — she’s never done this at this range, and not with this level of specificity either — but she was trained by the best, and after a few attempts she’s pretty confident she’s got them all. She snaps her fingers, and eight eyes cloud over with a dissemblance of inactivity, leaving only two that are very close indeed. Two watchful eyes… that are somehow within the illusion.
From one of the corners of the rooftop garden, Rakesh starts to clap sardonically. For fuck’s sake. Really?
“You’re really rather interesting, I’ll give you that. Escaping the Department and coming to warn your friends certainly shows a strong sense of morality, even if it is pointed in the wrong direction. And there’s only one other person I’ve seen who could work glamours like that…”
Penny’s in no mood to be gloated at by some kid right now; she dashes forward and readies an attack with her coin, twisting gossamer weave together into a magical weapon that she launches at a point near Rakesh’s feet. The warning shot underscores her fury well, and Rakesh breaks his usual cool demeanour for a moment as he hops over the blast.
Rakesh grimaces and thrusts his left hand forward, yo-yo arcing just in front of Penny’s chest. She feels the wind knocked out of her, staggering two steps backward before regaining her balance and throwing a punch Rakesh just about manages to sidestep. She sends waves of pain towards his head as quickly as she can generate them, her coin running hot in her fingers. She’s finished pulling her punches with this brat.
Rakesh ducks, rolling his yo-yo along the muddy ground and sending off sparks that lick like flames at Penny’s arms. She growls, dropping to a crouch and grabbing a clod of dirt, throwing it right into the boy’s eyes. He cries out, staggering back as he wipes his face with his free hand.
“Hey!” he exclaims, for once acting his age. “That’s not fair!”
The sudden shift in tone causes Penny to falter. He’s just a kid, after all. Why is she going in so hard on him?
“It’s… it’s how Yarn taught me to fight,” she says. But even as she says it, she really wonders if it’s really a valid excuse.
Rakesh finishes wiping his eyes, blinking at Penny in a manner she’s not sure how to read. He’s either confused, or he’s still trying to get some specks of dirt out of his eye. “‘Yarn’?”
Penny rolls her coin back into her palm, deliberately relaxing her posture in an attempt to seem less threatening, less like a weapon. She certainly feels like one. “My tea— my, um, former teacher. He works for the Department.”
“What sort of a name is ‘Yarn’?” Rakesh asks. His voice is still uncertain, but laden with scornful doubt.
Penny swallows. “It’s… it’s the fetish he uses. A piece of wool string.” After a moment, she adds: “It’s red,” though she’s not sure that really counts as pertinent information.
Rakesh gapes, taking half a step back. Perhaps it was pertinent, after all. “You don’t mean… Jonathan, do you?” he asks with disbelief. He pauses a moment. “You’ve been getting training from my brother?!”
Penny finds her jaw going slack, mimicking Rakesh’s expression. “Your… brother?” she echoes in disbelief. She knew Yarn had some kind of relationship to this kid, but could it really be so mundane?
Rakesh glances off to the side, looking vaguely offended. “Half-brother,” he admits. “We share a father.”
Penny feels the rage in her belly start to boil up once again. She looks at Rakesh — at the blood he shares with her former master — even as he’s failing to meet her gaze. Her vision fades at the edges, and her breathing gets shallow. Blood starts to boil in her ears, and everything goes red.
“Your brother,” she hisses through gritted teeth, “wanted to use me like a puppet.” She feels saliva in her mouth and spits it out like she would a foreign object. “A fucking puppet!”
The young boy’s eyes snap up to meet Penny’s, forming an expression of severe indignation. It does little to quell the fire in her heart.
“My brother is a good person!” he protests vehemently. “How dare you!” He jerks his left hand upward, his yo-yo obediently rolling up the string to his fingers. He brandishes it menacingly.
“It’s what he does,” Penny insists, half-shifting back into a combat pose herself. “It’s what they all do! They mess with people’s minds; they use people!”
Rakesh growls with a desperate rage. “Liar!” he cries, lunging towards Penny with tears in his eyes and the yo-yo in his clenched fist. She steps to the side reflexively, just avoiding his blow, and he skids on the moist ground, almost losing his balance completely.
“Look at me!” Penny demands. “Look! Look at my pattern!” She stabs at her chest with the fingers of her left hand, as if that were at all an appropriate gesture. “Look at what your brother did to me! How can you defend him?”
Rakesh blinks, moisture dripping down his cheeks. “Liar,” he repeats, sounding less and less convinced. “He wouldn’t… he wouldn’t do that.” He turns to leave, walking back to the doorway to the staircase as a beaten and broken boy.
Penny lets him go.