Chapter 1: On Alice
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.
Chapter 2: On Bandages
Have some gallant Penny Adiyodi, for your reading pleasure...
He has this memory. It must be from his very early life, before his first death, before immortality, before he’d Traveled away from his home and began his search for others like him. He can’t remember now, how he’d gotten hurt, but he does remember the sting of the cut, the blood welling up on his arm. Dust in the air, a hot day, and then cool hands on him, guiding him to sit. He thinks it’s his mother. He does remember her, remembers the daily rhythm of the life he’d led with his parents as a young man, even if the details fuzz around the edges sometimes. He’s had less time to forget than some of the others, and a guilty conscience, more than genuine sentimentality, forces him to hold onto early memories, to honor the people who loved him once long ago, and have been lost to the mists of time.
But on this day, he’d cut his arm on something, and his mother had guided him into a chair, rinsed away dirt with water, and wound a bandage around the cut. He remembers the pain fading from sharp to dull, a throbbing that grew into a soreness by the next morning, the arm an irritating leaden weight at his side. He’d had work to do, but no heavy lifting, so he’d gone about his day with this persistent reminder of the fragility of his flesh, old enough to want to put on a brave face, to impress those around him with the stoicism of his response to pain.
These days, Penny misses it. Not in the way where he wants to hurt himself, but in the way that pain never turns dull anymore. It’s sharp and then it’s gone, and his body braces itself for the normal pangs and twinges of healing, but gets nothing, just… absence. The only injuries bad enough to take real time to heal are things like limb removal, or shrapnel through the whole body, and those are the kinds of injuries where, mercifully, you tend to lose consciousness due to the pain.
There was once, in the hazy past, a sort of ritual, a comfort, to receiving a small wound and wrapping cloth around it to staunch the flow of blood. The treating of that blood as sacred, a finite resource. By the time Penny had been with El, Q, M, and J for a couple of decades, he’d learned to stop noticing blood. His or his friend’s. It’s there and it needs to be wiped away from skin, washed off of clothes, but his body has an infinite supply, replenished instantaneously, infection and open wounds closing up before anyone could think to cover them up manually.
But sometimes there’s still the need for charade.
He remembers this one job, sometime in the mid-nineteenth century. They’d been working with a couple of magicians from an old magical family in Nepal, on what had started as glorified security work, but had spiraled into trying to prevent a family conflict among the elite that might have had far-reaching consequences for the entire province.
Their hosts, their employers, their allies, during this job, had known they were a group of highly trained magicians, known for solving problems and doing dirty work. They had not known about their immortality, and when at all possible, they liked to keep it that way.
When one of their hosts’ cousins had shown up unannounced with a group of highly trained magicians all his own, a fight had broken out. Nothing, ultimately, that Penny and the others couldn’t have handled with ease, although things were made a bit more difficult by their hostess standing in the doorway, imploring them: don’t kill anyone, please, they’re family after all…
Penny could have told her that if she wanted to be in the business of controlling so much magical power, she also needed to be in the business of killing when it was necessary. But life was precious for normal people, so they did their best to knock out their attackers, prevent them from slipping through their defenses and into the estate they were guarding, all while not accidentally striking any killing blows.
Mistakes were inevitable. At one point, a bolt of energy clipped El on the shoulder. At another, a well-timed telekinetic yank tugged Margo into the air, slamming her back to the ground. Penny tracked these injuries, grimacing as his friends feigned disadvantage for the rest of the fight in order to preserve their cover.
And then, a spray of blood from Kady’s direction. A sharp slicing missile had carved a line down her arm, the blood misting up into the cool air. Kady was only feet away from the building, where their hostess was, against all advice, standing and watching events unfold. Her eyes caught on Kady just as Penny’s eyes caught on her. He watched her lips purse and eyes widen as she saw the injury, the blood staining Kady’s clothing even as Kady stumbled back and sent a force blast at her attacker.
Penny spared a brief moment to look around, noting Q and Margo efficiently dealing with the last few attackers still standing. He thought about just what a pain it would be to explain Kady’s miraculous healing to their employers, and made a decision, calling to El as he sprinted across the street towards his wife. “Take my guy, Kady’s hurt.”
El gave him an odd look, communicating as much as he could in the space of an instant, but his eyes flickered over to Kady, reassuring himself that she was on her feet, and then he headed for Penny’s erstwhile combatant, leaving Penny free.
“Are you okay?” Penny called loudly to Kady as she approached, helping her to pin down the man who had cut her.
Kady gave him a look even more confused than El’s had been, but when Penny widened his eyes and tilted his head just a fraction towards their witness, Kady held out her arm to him, understanding.
Penny ripped at the sleeve of his shirt, a long strip of cloth coming away with neat edges as he used magic to make the tear a clean one. He looked at the blood staining Kady’s skin, splattered across the front of her torso, and at the unblemished spot underneath, where the cut had already healed.
And then time seemed to slow down around them. Penny helped Kady to take a seat, wiped away the blood using magic, tied the cloth around her, making it snug but not too tight. In his centuries of life, he’d seen people injured and killed, people who couldn’t shake it off the way he and his friends could. He’d bandaged people up before, or at least transported them to somewhere safe where they could find rest and aid. But he’d never once, in all their years together, tended to Kady’s wounds. There’d never been a need.
“My hero,” she said, and though sarcasm often edged out sincerity in her voice, he could hear some measure of real gratitude in the words. Her skin was smooth against the pads of his fingers as he allowed his hands to linger, cloth tied off, stain of red against the grey fabric.
“Does it hurt much?” he asked, and he wasn’t sure why, since they were too far away, and speaking too quietly, for their hostess to hear.
“Oh, dreadfully,” Kady said. “I shall be bedridden for days.”
“Then I’ll be forced to keep you company.”
He brushed his fingers over his makeshift bandage once more, then brought Kady’s hand up to his lips, pressing a kiss to her wrist.
The aftermath of the job was as messy and irritating as it usually was, but Penny allowed the others to deal with the worst of it. When they were in private, Penny removed the bandage from Kady’s arm, and then, the feeling of tenderness still filling him up inside, helped her to undress, to wash away the blood of battle. She didn’t need the help, but he needed to give it, and she knew that.
It’s then that he remembers that ancient occasion, divorced from specific time or place, when his mother had tended to a small wound for him. He laments, with a strength that surprises him, that his family will never require this kind of care. Perhaps it’s okay if sometimes he gives it to them anyway.
Chapter 3: On Corruption
To get the full story, read:
1) The Explanation of Eliot - Chapter 3
2) The Explanation of Eliot - Chapter 4
3) The Creation of Quentin - Chapter 1
4) This chapter here!
Apparently I like to make people go on a scavenger hunt to read my fic. I'm sure this is a viable strategy!
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
[A continuation from “On Covert Operations” and “On Desperation”, chapters three and four of The Explanation of Eliot, and “On Astrolabes”, chapter one of The Creation of Quentin.]
Penny tries not to blame himself. He’d felt the pull towards the astrolabe too, but he’d never thought it would get this bad. It was a hunk of metal, after all, as El kept calling it. Saturated in magic over hundreds of years, yes, but fundamentally just an inanimate object, unless acted upon by those with malintent.
But now they’re here, inside the large, fashionable apartment they’d rented for the job, all five of them crowded around in one of the bedrooms, and malintent has arrived uninvited.
On the floor, Q and Jules are both staring, spellbound (literally), at the damn astrolabe. They haven’t responded to anything anyone’s said in the last half hour, except for when Margaret, seeing the issue, had tried to grab the astrolabe and pull it out from between them. They’d both snapped their eyes over to her, and grabbed it back, ferocity and greed and fury on their faces, such an extreme response that Margaret actually let it happen, stumbling a step back and standing next to Penny, looking up at him with consternation in her eyes.
“Q,” El says, for what must be the fiftieth time. “Stop this. Stop.”
He’s crouched on the floor too, next to Q. He’s not touching him, and Penny knows why: he’d tried, at first, to grab him, to shake him, to kiss him square on the mouth, but Q’s body remained limp. Clearly conscious, but completely unresponsive to the touch of his lover. Penny had watched the fact of this carve a deep, internal wound through the center of El’s being. It reminds them all, too much, of Q when he’s in the midst of a melancholic fugue state, curled in on himself and unresponsive to all efforts to rouse him. This is… different, more extreme even than what Q’s brain can do to him all on its own, but the similarities add an additional layer of horror to the atmosphere.
Margaret had tried slapping Jules across the face. No effect. She’d reached across to try Q as well, but El had snarled at her and blocked her passage, and no more had been said about it.
“Q, I need you to speak to me. Please.”
“Stop,” Margo says, snapping at El even as her eyes flicker between Jules and Q, mounting horror breaking apart her usual authoritative attitude. “Stop talking to him, it’s useless.”
“Do you have another suggestion?” Penny snaps back at her, a fission of defensiveness on El’s behalf lighting up his chest. Just looking at El hurts, more than looking at the frozen, hypnotized faces of his friends. “He’s doing the best he can.”
It lasts that way for three hours. The good news, at first, is that Q and Jules don’t appear to be doing anything with the astrolabe. It clearly has them under its thrall, but they’ve made no motion to cast magic or lift it up, take it elsewhere, use it for its intended purpose or for magic still more terrible. In the wrong hands, say, the hands of expert magicians older than the dangerous object they hold between them, this instrument could suck every bit of magic out of the very air of the city, leaving a husk in its place.
Penny shifts slightly, moving so he’s equidistant from El and Margaret. If something starts to happen, he could grab the two of them and Travel away… but he abandons the thought even as he has it. They’d never forgive him. They’d dismember him for a betrayal of that magnitude. They’d curse his name, rend him to literal pieces, and then they’d fight through the rubble of the city to return to Q and Jules, they’d join them in their corrupted quest or allow themselves to be ripped apart in the aftermath.
Penny will have no choice but to let this happen. Penny will have to stay and join them, because what else does he have? Where else could he go?
He drops to his knees on Q’s other side. “Tell us what you want to do,” he says, keeping his voice gentle like he does whenever Q is lost deep in the fog of his own mind. “Just tell us, and we’ll help you.”
“Pen,” Margaret says, sharp, but she doesn’t say more than that, still standing like an indecisive statue near Jules’ shoulder. It doesn’t matter, anyway. Q doesn’t respond to Penny any more than he’d responded to El. Eventually Penny stands back up, his hands cold where they’d touched Q and Q hadn’t softened at the feel of a familiar hand, hadn’t turned to him with a smile or a playful glare. It hurts so much. He wants to share the pain with El, but El can’t seem to look at anything other than Q’s frozen face.
How much longer can they all stand to be here, in stasis, when no spell, no interference they’ve been able to discover, can break their trance? Attempting to move the astrolabe provokes violence. Attempting to move Q and Jules provokes nothing at all; they merely push back at anyone attempting to drag them away, using magic to hold their would-be helpers at bay.
“We could kill them,” Margaret suggests, because she has to suggest it. But none of them can really stomach the thought of such a thing, especially when so far, creepy, unending staring notwithstanding, they haven’t exactly done any harm as of yet.
But finally, as the London smog fades to night outside the window, something happens. Q shifts, twitches, and then Jules does as well. The other three all flinch in concert, El crowding in closer beside Q, calling his name again, while Margaret and Penny both take an instinctive, prudent step backwards.
Jules lifts a hand towards the astrolabe, brushing her fingers along the rounded edge. Q mirrors her, and then they lift it between them, heads tilting in eerie unison. Their other hands raise like they’re about to cast something.
Penny moves, knocking the astrolabe out of their hands in an instant, before anyone else can move, before he can question the insanity of the action. He steps between them as they both dive for the astrolabe, ignoring his presence entirely, but he speaks anyway, because he doesn’t know what else to do.
“This thing calls magic into it,” he says. “All magic. All of it. That means us. Listen, we don’t know how we work, why we’re all still here. If you do this, you could kill all of us.”
At first they don’t listen, but then Penny steps between Q and the astrolabe, where he’d been reaching for it again, and he gets down on his knees, grabbing Q by the shoulders even as El reaches, pitifully, for one of his hands. “Q, if you do this, you’ll kill me. You’ll kill El. Do you want to do that? Do you want us to die?”
Q blinks at him, and for a moment Penny thinks it’s not going to work. And why would it? They’ve all been begging them for any sort of response for hours now. Why would…
“It will make us stronger,” Q says, and it sounds so much like his ordinary voice that Penny almost flinches, hearing it from the stone-faced, unfeeling man in front of him.
El lets out a ragged sob. “Q, please look at me?” he says.
Q does. “It’s okay,” he tells El, still blank-faced. “It will make us stronger.”
“I don’t want to be stronger,” El tells him, earnest. “You don’t want that either.”
“It will teach us so much,” Jules adds. “We need to know.”
“But what if you’re wrong?” Margaret adds in, sinking to her knees finally, too, so that all five of them are crawling around the floor together, begging one another to listen. “What if it makes you stronger, and kills the three of us?”
Q… frowns. A flicker of something, of distaste, before his expression goes blank again. He turns to Penny. “Perhaps, to be cautious, you should leave before we begin.”
“Not going to happen,” Penny responds immediately, although his heart is pounding very hard in his chest. “If you’re doing this, you’ll have to deal with the consequences.”
It’s working now, Penny can see that. Not the plan to convince Q and Jules to stop, but the plan, constructed in the barest flicker of glances between himself and Margaret: to distract them, make them doubt, long enough for Margaret to do what she does next. Still looking at Jules, imploring, she snatches the astrolabe up with a quick hand and tosses it across the room to Penny, who Travels out of the room, out of the city, out of the country. Away. He doesn’t even have a chance to look at them all one last time, in case they burn each other to the ground in a frenzy of possessed fury before he can return. All he can do is his best, and then he’ll go home to a family that is hopefully whole once more.
Destroying the thing is laughably easy once it’s out of the grasp of those who wanted to keep it around. Later, he’ll learn the rest of the story, the way Q and Jules had both blazed to furious life, had lashed out at El and Margaret and screamed and begged, and then…
Stopped. Once the astrolabe was gone, destroyed, they’d both fallen in heaps on the ground, caught in the arms of their partners. They’d woken up out of whatever trance it had put them in, disoriented and missing memories, unable to fully grasp what had happened.
In the aftermath, it turns out that a couple of tense hours waiting for something to happen is just about the scariest thing that’s ever happened to Penny Adiyodi. He realizes that he’s become used to the idea that he and his dearest family members are all immune to lasting harm, that nothing that hurts them will ever be permanent. But there are things worse than death, and as he crawls into a magically enlarged bed with El, Q, M and J, all of them needing the closeness, he vows to never forget that again.
Okay, so this is the end of this little story-within-the-snippets for now. I made things confusing for myself. :)
Chapter 4: On Drama
Penny simply does not have the patience for drama. Many of the others feed off of it, in ways both good and bad. He’d had a steep learning curve, when he’d first joined the family, as he’d watched Margo and El getting into explosive, shouty arguments with each other over every little thing, or seen Q devolve into stony silence for days on end after an off-hand, benign-seeming yet clearly pointed comment from Julia. It had worried him, made him wonder about the sustainability of their group.
But, of course, they’d all been doing it for centuries. Feeding off of one another, fighting so as to find the catharsis of crashing back together. Variety being the spice of life, and all that.
El and Q love each other so ardently it’s like staring into the sun to watch them sometimes, but they can both also be incredibly bitchy, entitled, prickly, and rude, especially to each other. Margo and Julia fight because they both love bossing people around almost as much as they love one another. Julia’s a know-it-all. Margo’s too aggressive. Eliot’s a snob. Quentin forgets to say thank you. And they all turn their noses up at each other over these things sometimes, when the mood strikes. When the charge in the atmosphere demands conflict.
Penny… doesn’t fight unless he means it. He doesn’t dig his heels in during a disagreement, doesn’t let anyone push him around but also doesn’t bother snapping back when things start to escalate. Margo hates that about him, a little bit. Or she did at the beginning, when her attempts to rile him up had been about power, asserting dominance, showcasing her leadership in the best way she knew how. Nowadays, when Margo’s status as Penny’s boss is firmly established, she still tries to make him angry, but it’s mostly just for fun.
That’s not to say that Penny is a calm or cheerful person all of the time. He’s been called a grump, and knows he deserves it. But somehow, even through his more dour moments, he finds himself a natural peacekeeper for the more volatile personalities surrounding him. When he raises his voice, he gets results. He’s learned when arguments need to come to a full boil, and when the simmer of potential rage can be cooled down before it gets to that point.
It’s what makes it easy for him to slip in and out of the relationships surrounding him, supplementing and never supplanting. Interpersonal drama rolls off of him with hardly any effort. In all the years he’s been freely sharing a bed with the rest of his family, he’s never once caused an argument.
El likes it when Penny takes Q to bed, pins him down and makes him scream. He likes watching, he likes participating, and never once has even the smallest flicker of jealousy or fear come between them when they’ve shared Q.
Q loves watching Penny with El, sometimes a battle for control, other times a sweet surrender, a gentleness whose flavor is different than what El and Q normally share together, infinite combinations enhancing one another in a feedback loop.
Margo likes teaching Penny how to touch Julia, sitting back like royalty on her throne, instructing him where best to touch, how hard to push, until Julia is unraveling around Penny’s fingers or against his tongue. Margo sits back and watches, panting and flushed, and then allows Penny the gift of slipping inside of her, a sated Julia cooing her approval at the embrace.
It works because Penny loves them all, and they all love him, and he doesn’t have any desire to own them or be owned by them. He can be an intrinsic, central part of the family without romance tethering him to a particular relationship. He saunters in, he saunters out, they either want him there or they don’t, and he cannot imagine why he’d let himself get upset over any of it.
But drama, it turns out, might just be a necessary ingredient of falling massively, terrifyingly in love with another person. He’d thought himself well free of it, able to enjoy the closeness of affection and the sexual company of people who really fucking knew what they were doing, without any of the melodramatic aspects accompanying the joy.
But then Kady. God, Kady. He’d give up touching any of the others to be with her for the rest of however long he’s lucky enough to live. She’d never ask him to stop sharing a bed with El and Q, but for the first time in his many years with them, he knows he’d say yes if asked that question.
And worse, El knows it. El picks it up right away, the besotted way he runs in circles, caught between the intensity of a new crush and the desire to give Kady her space to adjust to the impossible. And there is drama built in to this, to El’s knowing that Penny would give up a piece of their relationship for Kady, if she asked. It’s enough to sow discord, enough to prove once and for all that Penny is not immune to the drama after all.
They work it out, of course. Growth always comes with an accompanying loss. He’s proud to have El and Q both stand up with him when he marries Kady, and he knows he hasn’t kissed either of them for the last time, knows he’ll enjoy their bodies and their bed again. But he also knows it will never be what it once was.
And there’s drama, too, of the real sort, the serious kind, returning to a life after decades away from it, kissing his wife and missing the woman he left behind in Fillory to return to her. Welcoming Alice into his arms, not as a sometimes visitor but as an equal part of what he and Kady share. Knowing the joy of something new, but still feeling the phantom ache of what can never be again.
The others don’t fight as much as they used to, Penny notices. Fewer petty squabbles, less arguing for pleasure. Conflict sparks hot and deadly between them when it sparks at all, but most of the time they’re gentle with one another, just like they’re gentle with him as he comes back to them at long last. He returns to his loved ones and no longer fits the space he’d left. He comes back and finds a way to tie himself into something new. It’s dramatic, yes, but well worth it all the same.