There was no way to prepare for something like this. There was simply nothing she could do, nothing she could write down, no refinements she could make, that would help her to be more ready for what the morning would bring.
Alice hated that very much, of course.
Her life, in the last year, had taken several unexpected turns, bumping up against each other and cascading down like a waterfall, leaving a new person at the bottom of the crashing waves. A better person, a person Alice liked more than she’d liked the old version of herself, but one she didn’t know particularly well yet.
And this newest change, the one happening tomorrow, was the most terrifying of all. Because dying, learning of her immortality, meeting her new family, getting kidnapped, etcetera, those things had come out of nowhere, had ripped her to pieces with no warning. She’d had no time to be terrified.
The worst part of it all was the anticipation. Tomorrow, they were rending a hole in the universe, and stepping through to Somewhere Else. And if they’d all done their jobs correctly, if the research and the trial and error and the meticulous calculations were correct, they would be finding Penny Adiyodi on the other side of the chaos.
And she knew it was coming. Could feel it getting ever closer, with every second that slipped by. And she’d already done everything she could do to prepare for it.
Tonight, in the grips of the waiting, she wanted to be with her favorite people. But at the same time, she didn’t know how to behave around them.
Kady was in a state, hardly able to speak, barely acknowledging Alice’s existence, which—well, she wouldn’t pretend it didn’t hurt, but she understood. Eliot was hardly in better shape: he and Quentin had hidden themselves away in their own private universe, like they so often did in times of stress. That left her with only Margo and Julia for company on this night of heart-pounding anticipation. Margo was pretending she wasn’t worried, and Julia was… well, Julia seemed to actually not be worried, which was just so typical of her, to treat this like anything else, with optimism but also the pragmatism to know that if they failed, they could always try again.
The magic was sound, their theories well-supported. But one thing nobody had been able to tell her with any sort of certainty was what it would be like. To meet him, the man she’d seen in pictures and in dreams, the one she’d heard stories about, at first wistful remembrances of one long gone, and then stories coated in excitement so strong it was almost dread, with the new awareness that Penny might get to tell Alice some of these stories in his own words, one day.
“He’ll love you,” Julia had said, and Quentin had agreed, and Kady—Kady hadn’t disagreed, which was something. But what did that even mean? Penny had been gone for five decades. What did any of them really know about who he would be when they found him? How he’d react to getting yanked back into the world he’d lost? Kady had been on the verge of starting something new with Alice when the revelation of Penny’s continued existence had put everything on pause. What if Penny had done the same? Found someone else, someone he loved? What if he was angry at their arrival, affronted that they dare disrupt the peace he’d built for himself?
Or what if he was overjoyed to see Kady, what if he pulled her to him, kissed her, and she forgot the existence of a person named Alice Quinn entirely? Was she stupid, for still holding out hope that the connection she felt with Kady might mean anything, in the face of Penny’s return?
“Stop panicking,” Margo ordered, and it helped because listening to Margo usually proved to be the best idea at any given time. “He’s an asshole but a total softy. Like Kady but with a dick. You’ll get along swimmingly.”
Kady wasn’t an asshole. At least, not in Alice’s limited experience of knowing her. She was gentle and patient and understanding, and this was yet another thing Alice couldn’t plan for, couldn’t prepare to face, the thought that maybe she’d been falling in love with a version of Kady Adiyodi that wouldn’t even exist anymore after tomorrow, that maybe the person Kady would become with Penny back at her side wasn’t one Alice would even recognize.
A year ago, she hadn’t known any of them existed, and in moments of swirling uncertainty like this one, she almost wished she could go back to a time when things were simpler. Not good, in fact, quite objectively bad, but at least simple. Knowable. Quantifiable and easy to plan for.
On this night at the start of the rest of forever, Alice found herself sitting on the couch in El and Quentin’s Scotland cottage. This house was ground zero for all their preparations, the place they all collapsed in bed at the end of each grueling day of planning. It had come to feel like home to her in a way that nowhere else had, and it helped to have the familiar warmth of friends beside her in her time of crisis, even if those friends were being far too cheerful for her taste at the moment.
“What do I say to him?” she asked, and Julia and Margo were both quiet for a long time, long enough that she wondered if they’d answer her at all.
“You’ll know,” Julia said. “You’ll know what to say when it’s time to say it.” Then she shrugged, patting Alice on the knee and shifting into a more cajoling tone of voice. “I mean, the first thing you say to him is run, Penny, run, we’ve got a portal open but it’s unstable as shit. Follow me if you want to live.”
“He’s never seen that movie,” Alice said, nonsensically.
“Adding it to the list,” Julia said, making a mental note with a tap of her finger to her temple. “The point is, Alice, this is a rescue mission. Let’s focus on that part of it before we start worrying about the fallout.”
“If you’re worried about Kady,” Margo said, which was kind of cruel of her considering that was quite obviously what Alice was most worried about, “you don’t need to be. He’s watched me and Jules both fuck his wife plenty of times. He’s not going to run screaming at the thought of another pretty girl in the mix.”
“You are so unhelpful,” Julia informed Margo so that Alice didn’t have to. But she tilted her head towards Alice, conspiratorial. “But she’s also kind of right.”
“It’s too weird,” Alice said, burying her face in her hands.
“I would have thought you’d have gotten used to that by now,” Margo said.
But she hadn’t, and she never would. This was only one adventure, and she knew there’d be others. She’d spend the rest of what was shaping up to be an extremely, unreasonably long life experiencing new things over and over, never able to fully prepare for every contingency, never knowing for sure what the next stretch of her life would contain. Alice was still getting used to that, to not hating it, to finding the joy in it.
Alice would meet Penny tomorrow, barring unforeseen catastrophe. It was going to happen, and then what happened next would happen, and it was unknowable, and that was okay. In the chaos of his return, Alice was sure that she’d be the last thing on his mind. It would take him weeks, months, years, maybe, to even bother to notice her at all.
And by then she’d have had a chance to study him, to know who he was now, and how it might be between them, how they both might fit into this family. If nothing else, after tomorrow, she’d have new givens with which to prepare.