For the first several weeks, it’s just impossible to meet her. Penny will feel bad about it later, but he can’t take in any new stimuli when his entire body, mind, soul is shivering in the exposed light, trying to adjust to a reality he’d given up on returning to. He holes himself up with his family in one of his favorite places, a small house in Alaska, of all places, that he’d only just acquired and made comfortable when he’d—when he’d gotten himself trapped somewhere else. He’d meant to share years of his life with Kady in this house, and bumping into reminders of the passage of time is disorienting and enraging in those early days. He hates the odd hesitancy in Julia’s voice when she explains the internet to him, the way Margo looks at Q for guidance when trying to summarize important political events of recent decades. They all act like he’s been dead and has now returned, but that’s not Penny’s experience of it at all.
He’s been somewhere else. And for all that they have to fill him in on, he has just as much to say in return. And he does, and they listen, and they crowd him and they refuse to let him out of their sight, and El can hardly speak around him, choked up and terrified that it’s all a dream, and fuck if Penny doesn’t get what that feels like…
Alice is… Alice is one new factor too many. He does meet her in Fillory, of course. She’s there with Kady and all the others during the rescue mission, and she’s hardly a blip on his radar as she rushes towards him, explaining the situation in a rapid, pitchy voice like she’s memorized a set of instructions and she’s afraid of forgetting any of it before she manages to lay it out for Penny. In those days, Penny is forced not only to adjust to Earth, but to the loss of the miserable home he’d made for himself somewhere else. Even knowing where Fillory is now, in the cosmic sense, even knowing they can come back to it whenever they want, it’s sort of heartbreaking to say goodbye to Fen. To… to the castle he’d refused to live in, to the home he’d built there, hunkered down and waiting for something to change, seeking out the odd variety of magics available in the realm for some hint at a way home.
During all of that, he does pick up on the fact that Alice has been sleeping with his wife, but it seems like a relatively unimportant detail on top of everything else. Kady has eyes only for Penny, so Penny is forced to pick up on this little factoid by watching Alice flounder for purpose. She wants to meet him, wants to know him and be his family, and he can tell how happy she is that he’s okay, even though her mental wards are airtight. And someday, he’ll know her, but not… not yet.
She’s there, though. She’s… around. Unobtrusive but obvious in the way she impacts his family. Jules does language lessons with her in the morning. Q includes her in nightly meditations, and Penny does everything he can to steer clear of the unique flavor of new thoughts in a familiar ritual. El asks her to help him with the dishes after dinner, and he can hear them laughing together over the running water in the sink.
And Kady… well, Kady’s breaking poor Alice Quinn’s heart, isn’t she? Kady tells him everything, of course. Turns out, he was wrong: they hadn’t slept together. Well, they had just the once, and then later they’d slept together, in the same bed, and things were certainly going to happen, and then Alice had made her shocking discovery about Penny’s continued existence, and everything had ground to an immediate halt between them. Penny reassures Kady that he’s not upset that she tried to move on, and he’s really not, just like Kady’s not upset about the comfort he took in some of the people he met in Fillory.
And it’s not as if Penny and Kady have ever pretended that exclusivity was the bedrock of their love for one another. Penny tries to broach this topic with Kady but she clamps down on it and throws herself at him, unwilling or unprepared to think about being anywhere other than with him, in his arms, at all times. And fuck, he can’t pretend he’s not grateful for that.
He’ll have to talk to Alice, though. He’ll have to meet her, welcome her to the family just as she seeks to welcome him with her furtive glances and tentative smiles. She wants to know him so badly. It radiates from her constantly. And Penny wants to know her too. He comes to realize, slowly, after the immediate shock of his return starts to wear off, after he starts to think about the rest of forever, a future newly laid out in front of him, that Alice is… a goalpost. She’s an objective, a marker on the road, a sign of his own progress when it comes to his return to the land of the living.
When he feels ready, he’ll go to her. He’ll feel the edges of her click in with the edges of himself, he’ll understand what she brings to the group, how she changes the flavor, how she helps and how she hurts, in all the myriad complexities of family life. He’s excited to get there. When Kady or El or any of the others lets him slip into their minds during quiet moments, letting their protective layers fall away, he can already see how Alice has changed them. They’re still the people Penny remembers, but they’re newly emerging from a saturation of grief so intense that he’s humbled in the face of it. And that grief… it’s washed away by his return, yes, but the healing process had already begun before they’d managed to get him back. It had begun when they’d all been forced to step up and take on something new, when they’d dreamed of Alice Quinn and known their lives couldn’t yet be over.
The first time he talks to Alice, one-on-one, he startles her like a skittish deer in the dining room, where she’s pouring over some notes from Julia’s lessons on some basic native languages of the region. He approaches, sits down across from her, and studies her face, the glint of the overhead light off of her glasses, the way her lips tighten into a straight line and her fists curl on the table as she processes his abrupt arrival.
“So,” he says, when he knows he has her attention. “A few months back, I had a pretty strange dream.”
She blinks at him, and he sees comprehension flicker over her face, but she doesn’t respond.
“I must say, a person who manages to harm Brakebills property while blowing herself up, is a person I want to know. They haven’t charged you for the destroyed grimoire, have they? Because I’d take any excuse to mess with the tyrants who run that place.”
Alice grins at him, the expression far too effusive for the feeble joke, and she sets her notes aside, and starts to tell him her story. Her first death, her initiation into the world they now share.
Penny listens, smiles, and pretends not to notice the five inquisitive people hovering in the next room, listening to every word.