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what you call love is just urgency

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Penny doesn’t know if the beach where the fight happens has a name, or which Fillorian ocean provides a backdrop to the slaughter. Quentin would have known, but Quentin is dead.

Later, Penny will remember the Beast’s mouth, the unhinged jaw and rows of glistening white teeth. He’ll dream about the pain and the awful wet crunching sounds as the Beast bites off his hands. And then, while Penny collapses, chews.

In the dreams, Penny can never look directly at his own wrists, the grisly ragged ends where his hands should be. He sees the red blood spilling out onto the white sand and the gaping mouth coming again, for his jugular, this time.

Waves break against the shore and he thinks Fuck, this is it, I’m dying even when he’s dreamed it a hundred times and should know that’s not what happens. When the Beast’s breath is hot on his neck, he hears Quentin yelling, “Hey, asshole! Over here!” His voice cracks slightly, but it’s loud enough.

The Beast turns away, and Penny is alone with the salt smell of the sea and the iron tang of his own blood. Both stay with him long after he wakes up.

***

The first time Penny opens his eyes, he’s in the infirmary at Brakebills. His arms are tied down. He tries to flex his fingers. Nothing. The thing that happened to his hands comes back all in a rush and he feels sick, turns his head to retch.

There’s a healer leaning over him, undoing the straps, helping him to a sitting position and holding a basin. Not much comes up. “It’s all right,” she says when he’s finished and collapsed back against the pillows. “Go back to sleep.”

Sleep means slipping back into the awful dream, the one where all their plans have crumbled around them, where everyone he cares about is gone. “Wait,” he says to the healer, but she’s already casting a spell, putting him back under. Penny sleeps.

***

Once Penny is really awake and able to sit up, Fogg comes to visit. He doesn’t say anything, just sits in the visitors’ chair, eyes hidden behind those dark glasses.

Penny figures he should get this over with. “You gonna ask me what happened?”

“I already know.” Fogg runs a hand over his mouth. “Alice told me everything.”

“Alice?” Penny had watched her go down on the sand, bleeding from a slash in her thigh.

“She’s alive.”

Something light flutters in Penny’s chest. “What about Quentin? Margo? Eliot?” Fogg doesn’t answer right away, and Penny scrapes for the name of Quentin’s pretty friend. “Julia?”

“I’m sorry.” Fogg sounds like he means it, at least. “Only you and Alice came home.”

The silence stretches between them again. “The Beast?” Penny finally manages.

“Seems to have lost interest in Brakebills.” Fogg’s mouth is a grim line—it’s not a victory, but at least he’s been able to defend what’s his. “Eliza thinks he’ll be content to remain in Fillory, now that he has unfettered access.”

Penny opens his mouth to ask about Victoria, but realizes he doesn’t want to know. “I think you should leave,” he says instead.

And Fogg does, and Penny is alone again.

***

After Penny is released from the infirmary, Fogg sets him up in a little cottage on the edge of the Brakebills campus. The medics are still working on some kind of cure, or magical prosthetic, or something, and they want him close. But he’s obviously not fit for company. The little caretaker’s house that’s sat empty for years seems like a workable solution. Penny guesses this makes him Hagrid, which is such a Quentin thing to think that Penny should be embarrassed, except he’s not ready to think about Quentin. Not yet.

The healers leave him at the cottage with a load of magical and surprisingly-not-so-magical assistive devices that help him get through the day. There are so many things he can’t do for himself.

He’s been alone less than an hour when Sunderland shows up. “What are you doing here?” he blurts out.

“You’re still my student,” she says in her clipped, no-nonsense voice. Canvas grocery bags weigh down her arms. “Let me in. I’m making you supper.”

He steps aside and lets her in.

From his seat on the couch, he can see her moving around the kitchen. Sunderland understands how to shield her thoughts, most magic users do—well, with one notable exception that Penny isn’t in the mood to think about. But things get through, feelings, impressions. He’d been able to pick up the spark of excitement the first time he came onto her, followed by the wash of shame and anger, and after that, a charged apprehension whenever they worked closely together, like she was waiting for a bomb to go off.

But that’s not why she’s here, now. Sunderland’s pity is thick and cloying. It leaves an aftertaste of guilt.

“You don’t have to do this,” he tells her. “Be here.”

“You’re my student.” She repeats, transferring a chicken cutlet from frying pan to plate without looking up.

“So were the rest of them.” Penny is itching for a fight, would rather have rage than compassion. “Margo. Eliot. What good did all those lessons do?”

“Not much, I’m afraid.” Sunderland’s voice is brittle. She snaps off the stove burner with a flick of her wrist. “It’s ready.”

“What’s the point of any of this if the minute we get out into the real world, we get killed?” His voice is rising now. “From where I'm standing, that’s on you. And Fogg, and the rest of them, slinging all this bullshit theory and calling it a curriculum.”

Sunderland looks at him now, purses her lips. “Penny, don’t do this.”

There’s tenderness in her voice, but no real understanding. Penny’s got the knife in, so he twists it. “Maybe if you were a better teacher, they wouldn’t be dead.”

Sunderland gives him one last hurt look, gathers up her things, and goes. It’s nice to know he hasn’t lost all his skills from his life before Brakebills—he’s still exceptionally good at pushing people away.

***

Penny has been on his own for nearly a month when Alice shows up. He almost doesn’t recognize her, no makeup, contacts instead of glasses, hair pulled back in a tight ponytail. There’s no cutesy Peter Pan collar dress, just leggings and a gray sweater that looks like it’s seen both better days and moths.

Penny pushes the thought of moths away. “Where have you been?”

“Brakebills South.” Alice rolls up her sleeves.

“Why the hell would you go there?” All his memories of that place are bound up with cold and misery.

“I needed to talk to Mayakovsky. Can I see, please?”

Penny knows she means his arms, so he hesitates for a moment. But she’s so businesslike about it. This feels impersonal, safe. He holds them out to her, a grisly parody of a child asking for a hug.

Alice examines the scar tissues, his forearms, what’s left of his wrists. She pinches and prods, working her fingers around bone and tendon so hard that he yelps in unexpected pain.

“Sorry.” Her voice is clinical, but her touch lightens.

Somehow, that makes it worse. Penny doesn’t think he can take gentleness from her. He thinks of a dozen terrible things he could say that would make her leave forever, but most of them involve Quentin. What he does say is, “What did you need Mayakovsky for? I would think you’d be happy to have that bastard in your rearview.”

Alice looks into his eyes, and even though her mental shields are high as ever, her grief slides between his ribs like an icicle. At Brakebills South and after he’d picked up enough of Quentin’s static to know what went down. It wasn’t just cold, not for everyone.

None of this shows on Alice’s face, not in a way most people would notice. She’s already back to her slightly-distant bedside manner, like a healer with a job to do. “He showed me how to make you new hands.”

***

Alice’s first time with Penny wasn’t as good as her first time with Quentin, but she’s not ready to think about that yet. It was better than her first, and usually only, time with anyone else, so there’s that. After his sly little well, I can think of one thing, she more or less launched herself at him.

It wasn’t a particularly good kiss, too much momentum, teeth mashing into lips, her eyes screwed shut against the impact. Penny made a little surprised noise and she froze, certain she’d messed it up already. But he didn’t pull back, just brought his hands up to hold her face, tilting her head and deepening the kiss. The pressure of his fingertips against her cheekbones told her everything she needed to know. He was decisive, but not forceful. Strong without being rough.

Alice was ready to stop talking, stop thinking, but Penny pulled back and asked, “Are you sure you want to?”

“I am.” She’d only had a few mouthfuls of the triple sec; her head is clear. This isn’t about her forgetting anymore, now it’s about giving her cheating bastard boyfriend a taste of his own medicine. And what better way to administer it than through Penny, who Quentin has always envied and despised in equal parts?

“All right.” Penny brushes his thumb across her lips. “What do you like?”

Alice hasn’t been asked that question many times before. She blushes, and her answers are awkward and stilted, but Penny listens, and the heat in his brown eyes is enough to erase everything for a while.

Later, when his hand is between her legs, she keeps her eyes open. The novelty of this is all consuming, his face so close to her face, this person that she knows, or thinks she knows, in a context that is so totally alien to both of them. Except maybe it’s not that strange for Penny. This is comfortable territory for him, she realizes, sex without commitment. Later, she’ll wonder if this was about more than just Penny one-upping Quentin. She’ll be embarrassed that she was so blind, so centered on her own problems that she didn’t realize Penny was trying to drown out noise of his own.

***

“Why are you doing this?” Penny’s elbows rest on the kitchen table, which is covered in books and papers. There’s a narrow alleyway cleared between him and Alice, sitting opposite.

“It’s up to us.” Alice finishes securing a crystal to a ribbon wrapped around his forearm. “No one else is going to take down the Beast if we don't.”

For the first time since Alice’s arrival, Penny’s anger spikes. “So you want me to follow you back to Fillory and take him on? What makes you think I’m on board with that?”

Her voice is as cool as her pale white fingers against his scarred skin. “You don’t want to kill him?”

Penny opens his mouth to argue and shuts it, because she’s right. There’s nothing else for him, now. He can sit in this cottage until Fogg runs out of guilt and evicts him. Or he can go kill the monster they set out to kill. Even if he dies trying, it’s better than getting booted back to the magicless world to rot in a suit and a made-up desk job.

Alice has kept working the entire time he’s been caught up in this little epiphany, and now his arms are weighed down with a New Age gift shop’s worth of crystals and prisms. She hadn’t really been asking a question.

“So, uh, what do these do?” Penny gives his right arm a shake, setting his new ornaments swinging.

“They focus light,” Alice says. “We’re playing to my strengths. Now hold still and don't talk until I tell you to.”

Penny complies, and Alice launches into a spell, a Latin incantation that’s too fast for him to translate and gestures so rapid that her hands blur in front of him. He holds perfectly still, barely breathing, even when the place his hands used to be starts to itch and burn. Just when it’s about to be unbearable, he sees a flash of something at the end of his arms, shadowy shapes that might be hands. They move on their own and watching them makes Penny’s stomach churn. He blinks and they’re gone, and he feels oddly relieved.

“That’s all I can do for today, but it’s a good start.” Alice’s face has taken on a touch of gray, and wisps of her hair have escaped the ponytail to stick to the sheen of sweat on her face. Gingerly, she pushes herself up from the table.

Penny doesn’t tell her she looks like hell, but he does get up out of his chair. “Are you hungry? There’s food in the fridge.”

***

Rebuilding a pair of hands isn’t something you can do in a day, apparently. There are delays for research and gathering new materials. Some of the things Alice tries simply don’t work. She never seems to get upset or frustrated, just sweeps up the debris and retreats back into her notes for a few days. Penny offers to help, and he’s a little relieved when she refuses the offer, kindly but firmly. This stuff is way above his level.

Alice is the best possible roommate he could have right now, and possibly the only one he could tolerate. With both of them in the cottage, they go through his month’s worth of freezer meals in half that time. The supply replenishes magically, overnight, but when Alice pulls out what feels like the hundredth tray of very bland lasagna, he can feel his stomach turn over.

“Not that crap again.”

Alice raises an eyebrow at him but says nothing.

“Can you cook?” he asks. “At all?”

A smile flickers across her face and disappears like a frightened animal. “Not even a little bit. Not even with magic.”

“C’mon.” He jerks his head toward the small but well-stocked pantry. “I’ll help.”

Once, Penny was actually pretty good at feeding himself. Restaurants were good places to work for a little while when he needed cash his pre-Brakebills wandering days. Knowing how to cook gave him access to the kitchen, which was preferable to interacting with the pubic, so he’d spent some time honing those skills.

Alice, on the other hand, was really not joking. “Whoa, please be careful with that,” Penny begs when she’s wielding a knife against a carrot. “It’s not like we have a bunch of fingers to spare around here.”

She gives him a look of such comical shock, her jaw actually dropping, that he has to laugh. And somehow once he starts laughing, he can’t stop, and Alice is laughing, too, her face transforming.

They eventually have to stop, out of breath. There’s a beat of silence, then they step toward each other, synchronized as a pair of dancers. She lifts slightly on her toes, he bends his head, and their lips are pressed together, parted, warm and wet and hungry. The kiss goes on for longer than expected, and Penny laments his inability to put his hands on Alice’s waist and pull her closer. She’s not putting her hands on him either. He opens his eyes just slightly and sees the knife dangling carelessly from her fingers. Very carefully, he reaches out his arm to nudge her wrist away, toward the cutting board.

“Watch where you’re waving that thing,” he murmurs against her mouth, and this sets them both off in another fit of giggles.

They get control of themselves eventually, enough to pull apart and finish the stir-fry. It’s the best thing Penny’s tasted in weeks. By the time the dishes are done, it’s late. Alice has so far insisted on sleeping on the pull-out couch, but tonight she follows Penny into the cottage’s only bedroom. He doesn’t stop her, and he sleeps that night without dreaming.

***

Sex is something to do while they’re between steps of the hand-restoring process, waiting for the moon to come into the right position or just giving Alice a chance to rest. When they talk about it, it’s less what does this all mean and more I want you to do that thing with your tongue again, and Penny is perfectly happy with that arrangement.

He forces himself not to think about how he would touch Alice if he still had hands. According to her, he will again someday, but he doesn’t quite let himself believe it. When that day comes, he can dwell on how he’ll tangle his fingers in her hair, brush his knuckles across her cheek, work his fingertips into her mouth.

In the meantime, he mostly puts his lips where he would have put his hands. She is brusque but patient, removing her own clothes and his where once he would have enjoyed undressing her. Unwrapping her, like a present.

Usually her underwear is practical, all whites and blacks and tans. The first time he sees her in lingerie, powder blue satin edged in white lace, it takes him by surprise. “Mmm. I like those.”

Alice blushes and reaches for her waist. “My laundry hasn’t come back yet.”

“Leave them on. Please.” He can’t put his hand over hers, but he can press his forearm to her elbow, which conveys the same meaning. “I want to look at you.” He leans in to whisper in her ear. “And then I want to take them off with my teeth.”

Alice shivers. “All right.”

None of that goes the way he planned it. It’s a process that, surprisingly, leaves them both laughing. He presses his face into her stomach, muffling himself in her warm skin, but she’s shaking too, even as she parts her legs for him.

What they have might not be love. But for the moment, it’s survival.

***

“How are we going to do it?” Penny asks Alice one day at the kitchen table. He still doesn’t have hands, but she seems enthusiastic about their progress. She’s smiling excitedly as she tidies up stacks of notes.

“How are we getting your hands back?” Alice shakes a sheaf of papers at him playfully. “Do you want the long answer or the short one?”

“No, I trust you with that part.” He leans back in his chair. “I can get us back to Fillory. But how do we take down the Beast?”

Alice’s hands still and her smile dims. “If you’re going to fight a monster, you have to be a little monstrous yourself.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Nothing, yet.” She goes back to her notes.  “We’ll make a plan. Let’s get your hands first, and then we’ll do it together.”

Even though returning to a country now ruled by the Beast is the most terrifying thing Penny can think of, he’s a little flattered the way Alice talks about wanting to strategize with him. Like he’s got something to offer, like he’s anywhere near on her level.

They make dinner together and eat it sitting on the couch, since the table’s too cluttered to bother clearing off. They go to bed and Alice pulls him to her with an urgency that seems to surprise them both. Penny doesn’t resist. It’s nice to feel like someone needs him, in more ways than one.

***

Penny lets his own contentment lull him a little bit. He still has occasional nightmares, but overall he’s sleeping better. When the sound of muffled sobbing pulls him from a hazy dream, he almost doesn’t recognize it.

It’s Alice, curled on her side, crying like her heart is breaking, face buried in a pillow like she still doesn’t want to wake him.

“Hey.” Penny gently wraps himself around her, cradling her body against his as she shakes. “Let me take some of this.”

“No,” Alice insists, wetly. “You have enough of your own.”

Enough grief, enough guilt. “Please. Maybe it will help. If someone else sees.” 

Alice hesitates just a moment longer. She lets him past the first layer of her defenses easily. It’s still intentional, but it happens. He knows she’s shy, but even the most timid girls have needs and wants and fantasies. Once she lets him in, just a little, he can access all of that. He can get inside, in more ways than one.

So they’ve done that. But now she lets another layer drop, and another, and the weight of at the very center of her crashes into him, crushing, drowning. There are many waters, streams of self-recrimination and shame, but the thing that surrounds him at Alice’s center is mostly Quentin. An ocean of memories, salted with tears.

The thing is, Quentin had no wards. He had no defenses, so Penny knew every damn thing that went through his idiot head. Penny saw it all, how hopelessly and completely Quentin worshipped Alice. She was everything to him.

At the time, Penny got Quentin’s side of it. No need to ask what he saw in her, all that intellect and determination and power neatly wrapped in a girl-next-door-meets-sexy-librarian package. But Penny assumed Alice’s choice to be with Quentin was some impulsive mistake, an unfortunate result of repression and low self-esteem.

But now he’s in Alice’s head, and he knows. He sees Quentin the way she saw him—loyal and true, brave in spite of himself, always wanting to bring out the best in everyone. Penny sees Alice’s memories of Quentin, the times he stood up for her even when she didn’t ask. He sees when Quentin stopped her from burning herself out over Charlie, even though he must have known she would hate him for it. He sees simpler, happier things too, the times he made her laugh or brought her cups of coffee with the exact right amount of sugar.

That had been Quentin’s best thing. He was all in on the people he cared about.

A voice, quaking with fear but still loud and strong, echoes through Penny’s memory. Hey, asshole! Over here! The moment Quentin distracted the Beast, gave himself up so that Penny could have a chance at getting away.

There’s a pulse of interest in his direction, and he realizes it’s coming from Alice. She’s no psychic, but he’s gone too deep, there’s too much of him in her and vice versa. Embarrassed, he withdraws from her mind so fast he leaves tracks.

In bed he stays curled around her body, her mind now far away, wards up again. They stay like that for a long time. “I’m sorry,” Penny says at last.

“It’s okay,” Alice says. “I already knew.”

Penny knows she didn’t, but instead of arguing, he holds her closer.

*** 

They’re still together every night, but Alice spends more time on research during the day. Penny takes over the cooking to give her more time to work, claiming he’s finally gotten the hang of all the kitchen gadgets that were put here so he could manage on his own.

It’s efficient, but there isn’t as much laughing.

Just a few days later, Alice announces that she’s done with her preparations. “The circumstances are going to be right tomorrow night,” she tells him. “The whole process will take about six hours.”

It feels like too much time and not enough. “What do you need me to do?”

“Sleep,” Alice says, like it’s the simplest thing in the world. “I’m going to put you under. Magically, of course. It’s easier that way.”

Penny doesn’t argue.

When the time comes, he stretches out on the pull-out couch. Neither of them even suggested the bedroom. Alice tells him to relax, but there’s something nervous in her voice as she starts the incantation. It puts him on edge, and suddenly he’s a child again, fighting against the heaviness of his own eyelids, desperately trying to push back the enveloping darkness. But sleep spells are simple, and before long he loses the fight.

The dream is different this time. Penny is outside his own body, watching the scene on the beach like a movie. He sees himself fall bleeding to the sand, weak and screaming. The Beast looks smaller, viewed like this, a twisted little man and not a monster. Maybe things will be different, this time.

“Hey, asshole!” A familiar voice yells. “Over here!”

The Beast turns toward the sound, and so does the part of Penny that’s watching this all play out. But he can’t get his eyes to focus, the edges of the dream have gone soft and blurry. He can still smell blood and salt, but the screams are fading into nothing.

***

He wakes up to something cool on his forehead. He’s transported back to childhood again, stuck in bed with the flu. But then he opens his eyes and it’s not his mother leaning over him, it’s Alice.

“Hey.” She adjusts the damp washcloth. “You’re okay. A little bit of a fever, but it’s broken already.”

He can’t tell if she’s happy or not, and he struggles to make his dry mouth ask the right question. “Did it work?”

“It worked.” She’s still not smiling. “But you should rest a little more, now. I’ll go get you something to drink.” She disappears from his line of vision, footsteps shuffling toward the kitchen.

Penny’s arms feel unnaturally heavy. Leaving them by his side, he wiggles his fingers. Something happens, but it feels wrong. He flexes, makes his hands into fists. This doesn’t feel like any of the phantom twinges he’s had in the past, and for some reason, that makes him even more uneasy.

Alice isn’t back yet. He can’t hear her moving around the kitchen anymore. He almost calls to her, then stops himself. She’ll come back when she’s ready.

The fog lifts slowly from his brain. At last, Penny gathers the strength and the courage to lift his arms up. When he brings his new hands up to his face, he sees that they each have a sixth finger.