Chapter 1: Uh oh
Chronomancy! Seriously! Chronomancy! People weren’t supposed to fuck with time, it was basic knowledge. Penny couldn’t believe that anyone was stupid enough to even try that, but if stupidity was an Olympic event then the Physical kids would take home the gold every single time. Hell, even Kady was getting involved with this insanity. Penny wasn’t going to stand there and argue anymore. If they wanted to try to go back in time to rework probability spells then they could get themselves killed with sensitive magic. He wasn’t going to be any part of it. If he was getting killed at Brakebills then it was going to be actually fighting The Beast, not fucking with magic beyond his skill.
“We could always go back in time,” Eliot had suggested. “Do, like, a Time Turner or something.”
Alice had jumped in before Penny even had the chance to laugh at Eliot’s stupid plan. “That could actually work. There are books on Chronomancy—“
“Horomancy,” Eliot corrected, earning him a glare from Alice. “Continue.”
“Look, the Dean had books about this in his private collection. We just need to go back an hour or so to reset the probability spells. This could work.”
Margo had been the one to finally laugh. “Yeah, that sounds really great. Except only one of us is psychic and he’s a mind reader not a time traveller. But he is a traveller. Actually, Penny, can you travel through time?” she asked, leaning forward with a smirk on her lips.
“No. And do you people not realise how fucking stupid this is?” Why was it he had to be the voice of reason? “Alice, you’re not seriously considering this, right?”
“Penny, it could work. And, besides, it’s not psychic magic. It’s knowledge.”
Scoffing, Margo rolled her eyes and leaned back into the sofa. “It’s time magic. It’s psychic by all accounts.”
“No, it’s knowledge.”
“It doesn’t matter! It’s dumb!
Quentin raised his hand and for just a moment Penny thought Quentin might not be as stupid as he looked. “It’s almost definitely knowledge…”
“You’re only agreeing because you’re fucking her.”
They had argued for a bit over whether it was considered Knowledge or Psychic but ultimately decided it didn’t matter. Penny seemed to be the only one who had a problem with this idea. Or, at least, he was the only one who refused to try it. He couldn’t believe that none of them were smart enough to see that this was a terrible idea.
If no one was going to listen to reason then fuck them. Maybe it wouldn’t even work. Maybe it would just fizzle out and they’d be forced to forget about time travel. That was the best case scenario. Either that or…he didn’t really want to consider the other outcomes. Penny thought about being a snitch. He could run to Dean Fogg and make sure they were stopped. That felt so stupid. But he couldn’t let them get themselves killed, right?
The moral dilemma happening in Penny’s brain was interrupted by a sharp scream cutting through his brain. It was loud, bringing him to his knees with his hands clutching his head. There was another scream and then everything went quiet. The silence was worse, honestly. Gathering his strength back up Penny didn’t hesitate before he took off running across campus, his mind creating all kinds of scenarios as he hurried to the Physical Cottage. What was he going to find when he got there? He couldn’t stop thinking about everything that had happened during those goddamn probability spells. In his mind’s eye he could see mangled, bloody bodies sprawled out around the cottage. He imagined every horror he’d previously witnessed. He should have stopped them, he should have done something!
He thought he was prepared for whatever horrific thing was behind that front door. He was ready for blood, gore, and death. As it turned out, he wasn’t ready, because there was no way he could have prepared himself to see a tiny girl with brown curls choking out a little boy with a tie. Penny froze and blinked. That wasn’t….was it?
Without thinking Penny jumped forward and pulled the little girl away before untying the boy’s tie. The boy took a deep, gasping breath. He coughed and rubbed his throat before looking up at Penny with wide, terrified eyes.
“Hey! I almost had it,” the little girl said indignantly, putting her hands on her hips.
Penny looked at her and looked at the boy on the ground and felt his stomach run cold. He wasn’t sure what had happened here, but he knew that Chronomancy had a lot to do with it. In a state of pure shock, he looked around the room, hoping to god he was wrong. His gaze fell upon a gaunt girl with wild curls and hauntingly familiar green eyes.
“Kady?” Penny asked, blinking several times as though to make sure he was seeing this right. There was no way he was mistaken. He had spent so many nights looking into Kady’s eyes that they were forever burned into his memory. Penny could forget a lot of things, but he could never forget the jade green colour of Kady’s eyes.
She tried to move further away, but was pressed against the wall. “How come you know my name,” she asked with fearful suspicion.
What the hell had they done? Penny looked at the children around him. His friends. “What the fuck did you asshats do?!”
“You sweared!” the girl with curls said, absolutely delighted. “Two times!”
“Right, yeah, I did. So…Margo?” There was no mistaking that loud, shrill voice. He bit the inside of his cheek to try and hold in his laughter as Margo put her hands on her hips. Honestly, this was probably the best outcome to fucking with Chronomancy. It was certainly the most hilarious.
She looked up at him, beaming. “Duh, everyone knows who I am.”
“I don’t know you,” the boy on the ground mumbled. He sat cross legged, free from his tie and working on getting his vest off with unsteady fingers. Was that Eliot? Oh god, he had the chubbiest little cheeks and unruly curls that fell over his eyes. He was doubled over, trying to get his clothes off. While Penny had seen Eliot take his clothes off in the middle of the living room it had never been this adorable before.
“Oh, you will,” Margo assured him. Well, it was less assuring and more threatening. Even though she was tiny, she was still definitely Margo. “You all will!”
This was, without a doubt, the best moment of Penny’s life. He was saving this memory just in case he ever had to cast a patronus. “Yeah, right. Do any of you know each other?”
A boy, who could’ve only been Quentin, sunk down behind the arm of the sofa, hiding his face and refusing to answer. He didn’t need to answer, not out loud anyway. Whatever pathetic wards he had managed to build up as an adult, and Penny used the term loosely, were completely gone. Penny couldn’t hear any actual words in Quentin’s mind, everything was too jumbled, but the emotions were clear. Quentin was scared. Terrified of all the people he didn’t know and being in a completely foreign place, feeling alone. His brain was alight with abject terror that was starting to give Penny a migraine.
“I don’t know anybody!” came an excited reply from a little girl with straight, ash blonde hair. She sat cross-legged on the floor, digging through a messenger bag Penny knew contained ten pounds of books.
“Alice,” Penny said, pointing at her.
She looked up and gave Penny a gap toothed grin. “Yes! Alice Quinn! Oh, I’m supposed to say, hello, my name is Alice. It’s nice to meet you.”
It was all he could do not to audibly coo at her. “It’s, um...nice to meet you too, Alice.”
“How come you know me but I don’t know you?” Kady demanded, her fingers twitching at her side and her voice catching in her throat. She stared at him, looking like a snake ready to strike.
He needed a lie and he needed one fast. He also needed to keep Eliot from getting completely naked and keep Quentin from having a panic attack and somehow he needed to do all of this at the same time. Okay, first Eliot. He’d be a lot easier to retrain since her was tiny now. “Here, I’ll get your vest, but keep your shirt on,” Penny said as he knelt down, helping Eliot with the buttons. “And I know your name, Kady, because…well, because it was on the sheet. Yeah, the, uh, registration sheet.”
Kady tilted her head, her glare softening into a confused stare. “Sheet? Like what’s on a bed?” she asked, staring at Penny as though he had just announced that a pineapple had told him her name.
“Sheep,” Eliot corrected. “The register sheep said so. ‘Sides, sheep don’t go on a bed. That’d be really silly.” He nodded, absolutely sure of himself. He might’ve looked a lot like a small, chubby version of Eliot, but he sounded completely different. His careful dictation and indistinguishable dialect were both gone and it was almost cute, but also incredibly off-putting. He spoke with a rhoticism and had a weirdly redneck dialect that was very, very un-Eliot.
Penny faked a cough to cover his laugh, hiding his face in the crook of his arm. “Not-not sheep, El,” he managed. “And not like a bed sheet. Like…it’s a piece of paper that your parents fill out. A registration sheet for…for camp!” Yeah, camp, that was good, kids went to camp, right? Well, Penny had never actually gone to camp, but he’d seen movies about it before so he figured he could fake it. At least until he could find the Dean and get this mess sorted out. “Camp-Camp Brakebills. Yeah, that’s it, Camp Brakebills. And I’m your, uh, camp-camp counselor.” This was good, he could work with this. All those movie camp activities would at least keep his stupid friends occupied for a little while.
“Brakebills,” Margo repeated. “Sounds broke. Brakebills. Broke bill,” she said to herself before suddenly looking up, eyes sparkling. “Broke duck! Are there ducks here with smashed bills?!”
Penny had no idea how Margo’s mind and logic worked at all and he wasn’t going to try to explore it. “No, Margo, no. What? No. It’s just Brakebills. There aren’t any broken ducks. Or regular ducks. I think…”
That caused Alice to suddenly look up, her big, blue eyes wide with excitement and her mouth agape. “Brakebills! I knew it! I knew it,” she said excitedly, nearly dropping her bag to the floor.
Alice and Margo might’ve been on-board with Penny’s lie, but Kady didn’t look like she was buying anything he said. She shook her head, tangled curled bouncing. “Camp? That don’t make no sense. My mama never brung me to no camp, camp costs money and we don’t got none. So how’d I get here? Who brung me and who told you my name’s Kady?”
Oh shit. Penny didn’t know anything about Kady’s family. He didn’t know anything about anyone’s family, actually. As far as he could tell, everyone here hatched from an egg as a terrible adult and accidentally wandered into Brakebills. “Nah, nah, it wasn’t your mom. It was, uh—Eliot, don’t unbutton your shirt.”
“These are church clothes,” Eliot complained, but he did stop fiddling with his buttons. “Is this church camp? Is that how come I got church clothes on?”
Church clothes? Church camp? Okay, Penny needed to find a camera and fast. As soon as they were all adults again this was going to be hilarious! “It’s not church camp and what’re church clothes?” Whatever Eliot said, Penny was sure it would be the height of comedy.
Eliot toyed with the collar of his maroon shirt and shrugged. “You know, church clothes. What you wear of so that God knows you dressed up to see him. Doesn’t your mama make you wear fancy church clothes?”
If it wasn’t Eliot then it wouldn’t be quite so funny. But this was the same guy who had once drunkenly written a song entitled ‘There is no God and We All Die Alone’, Penny couldn’t imagine him stepping into a church without bursting into flames. “Right, yeah, fancy-fancy church clothes.” God, he deserved an Oscar for managing a straight face through this.
“You still didn’t say me who brung me here,” Kady interrupted. “This isn’t church and I know my mama didn’t so who?” She stopped and side eyed Penny. “You take me? I’ll call the law man.”
“What? No, no, Kady, you’re not kidnapped!” Okay, he needed to fix this and he needed to fix it fast. Kady was scared and that was making Quentin even more afraid than he had been, which Penny hadn’t even thought was possible. “No, your mom didn’t bring you. It was a friend of hers. Uh, what’s her name? She had black hair, uh, brown eyes. You know her.”
For a moment Kady kept her wary gaze, but then she shook her head and her shoulders slumped with one, defeated sigh. “Oh, you mean Coco,” Kady grumbled. “Figures. Coco’d put me just ‘bout anywhere.” She looked down, her tiny fingers wrapping around a loose string on her shirt. Beats sittin’ in her car though. It smells like ol’ man in there.”
Yes! Penny was amazed that his plan had actually worked. Just a few vague details and he had a name and a lie. He was a little worried at how easy it would actually be to kidnap a child. “Yeah, Coco. She had stuff she had to do, ya know. And thought that camp would be a good place for you. It’s free, so…” If Coco left Kady in a car that smelled like ‘old man’ (whatever that meant), Penny didn’t see her as the type to drop dime on childcare.
Kady sighed and rolled her eyes. “Yeah, stuff. She gotta go work with lots of lizards.”
“With the what now?”
“Coco got lots of lizards,” Kady explained. “And I don’t never get to play with ‘em. I like lizards, I’m real good at catchin’ ‘em.”
Jesus Christ, Coco was a lot lizard. No wonder he never knew much about Kady’s family. Whatever kind of family she had was shitty. “Well, maybe we can find some lizards or something later,” he offered weakly, feeling a little bit sick after Kady’s explanation of Coco. They needed to get back to the part where everything was funny. “Here, you can come sit over here with me and Eliot if you want.”
For a moment Kady considered it then shook her head. “I don’t. I wanna stay right over here where I am,” Kady huffed.
Penny tried, for a moment, to see into Kady’s mind. He wanted to make sure that she knew she was safe, but he was having zero luck with it. Sure, most people had wards up to protect themselves, even non magicians had a natural ability to keep their thoughts hidden. But usually, even with natural wards, Penny could see a little bit. Kady’s mind was sealed up tighter than most adults. She had actual wards up in her brain, magical wards that weren’t there by coincidence. Someone had to have taught her that and Penny wondered who, and why, and when. That was something he was definitely going to have to look into. “Right, yeah. Or you can stay over there. Uh, Quentin—“
“Ex-cuse me,” Margo interrupted. She’d been quiet for too long, apparently. It had been a blissful few seconds. “If there aren’t broken ducks then what is a Brakebills?” She had her hands on her hips and her chest puffed out like a little rooster.
“Why would there be…never mind. And I told you, it’s a camp. It’s like—“
“It’s a school,” Alice jumped in, her voice loud and excited as though she didn’t know how to talk without yelling. She had stopped searching through her bag and was holding something tightly in her hand. “Daniel and Stephanie were here,” she told them.
Penny nodded, trying to follow Alice’s explanation but finding himself more than a little confused. “Daniel and Stephanie? Okay, right…who are they?”
“My daddy and my mommy—“ She paused, looking around as though waiting for someone to corrected her. “Can I call them that here?”
“Stephanie and Daniel are your parents?”
Alice nodded and grinned. “Yeah!”
“What else would you call them?”
At that, Alice tilted her head and looked at Penny in utter confusion. “Stephanie and Daniel. Cause that’s their names.” She paused and shrugged her shoulders. “Charlie says I can call them daddy and mommy and Stephanie says that mommy makes her feel old and can I tell you a secret?” she asked, trying her very best to whisper.
What the fuck? Why did she call them by their first names? And what kind of secret could she have? She was, like, a baby! Babies didn’t have secrets! “Uh, sure, Alice. Tell me a secret.”
“I don’t like calling them Stephanie and Daniel,” she told him, cupping her hands around her mouth and sort of whispering in Penny’s general direction.
Well, this had gotten really disturbing, really fast. Penny wanted it to go back to being funny. Funny he could handle. The rest of it, well, that was for a therapist. Hopefully, Penny could get Dean Fogg to fix all of this before they needed a therapist though. “Uh, yeah, call them your mom and dad, that’s a normal thing to call them. You go ahead and call them that here.” To be fair, Alice was weird. In a good way, but she was still weird. And she came from a family of Magicians, so maybe things worked differently in her house? Maybe magically inclined parents liked to be called something else? Still, there was something downright unnerving about hearing a child call their parents by their first names.
Alice’s smile came back and she opened her hands, showing off a small glass horse figurine. Penny was almost positive it was the same one she had made on the first day of class. “My daddy and mommy were here but not-not for camp. They came here for school when they were grownups but before they had Charlie and he was their Charlie.”
“Charlie?” Penny absently pulled Eliot’s hands down, stopping him from trying to undress himself again.
“My big brother!” Alice squealed. “You probably met him because he was here!”
Penny had never met Alice’s brother and wasn’t even aware that she had one until this moment. “He was?”
“He was! He was here and he left me my favourite toy! He must’ve brought me here, he’s not old enough for school yet. But see!” Alice held the horse up to the sunshine filtering in through the window, beaming as the clear glass turned yellow in the golden light. She looked around as though expecting everyone to be impressed. Instead almost everyone was giving her a confused look. “He—I like horses, so he makes me little ones because big ones, um…are too big?” She lowered the horse back down, turning it over in her hands and watching it. “Any-anyways, Brakebills is a school. It’s safe. My big brother wouldn’t let me go any place that wasn’t safe! And that’s a true fact!”
Her last comment seemed to be directed to the only person in the room who didn’t look confused. Quentin had peeked out from behind the sofa and was watching Alice curiously. Well, his eyes were mostly focused on the horse and the anxiety in his brain was starting to soften under his curiosity.
Margo scoffed and rolled her eyes. “That’s nothing. I got a horse and he’s twenty feet tall and two hundred pounds and not made of glass!” Margo didn’t seem to understand horses or weight distribution and it was frankly amazing how confident she sounded.
Furrowing her brow, Alice looked up and stared at Margo for a moment. “No you don’t,” she bluntly stated, shaking her head. “The tallest horse in the whole wide world is nineteen hands tall and that’s also how you measure horses. I don’t know how many feet that is. But it’s smaller than a foot. Like how because gloves are smaller than shoes.”
“I have the biggest horse in the world and he’s twenty feet tall and that’s how we measure horses in LA. You wouldn’t know. This isn’t LA.” At least she had managed to say one thing that was true.
“What colour is it?” Eliot asked. He crawled into Penny’s lap, despite definitely being too big and too old to be doing that.
Margo whipped around, her hair flying back around her. “What?”
“Your horse that you were just talking about. What colour is it?” he asked quietly, looking at Penny instead of Margo.
For a moment Margo actually had to pause, clearly trying to remember what colours horses came in. “He’s…white, obviously,” she finally decided. “He’s just like the horse in Cinderella. Actually, he’s the same horse from Cinderella because my horse can only be a horse for princesses or a queen.” She smiled, looking very smug in her lie and Penny had to fake another cough.
“Oh. That’s neat I guess.” Eliot nodded, forgetting about horses as he became entranced by the tattoos on Penny’s arms. His tiny fingers traced over the black and white snake that trailed up Penny’s bicep. “Do you draw these on by yourself? It’s real pretty. You should show the girl who likes lizards even though a lizard’s not a snake and a snake’s not a lizard. Snake ain’t got no legs.” He seemed much more comfortable talking to Penny about tattoos than he had been asking about Margo’s fake horse.
It wasn’t a laugh that almost escaped Penny this time but rather an ‘aww’ sound. He was glad that he managed to stay silent because any sound of affection would be worse than snickering. Okay, maybe the rest of them could be turned back into adults and they could keep Eliot like this. He was easier to handle. Although, there was something abjectly horrifying about hearing Eliot say the word ‘ain’t’ and Penny was going to have to get him to not do that.
“They’re there forever, stupid,” Margo declared, rolling her eyes. Alice was still trying to explain how to measure horses, but Margo was moving on. “A guy took a needle and he shoved it in…uh, whatever that guy’s name is. Hey! What’s your name?”
Shit, he’d gotten so distracted trying to calm down Kady and Quentin and keep Eliot clothed that he’d completely forgotten about telling them who he was. Actually, it hadn’t even occurred to him to go over introductions. Everything was chaos anyway, what did names matter? “Right, sorry. I’m, uh, Penny.” He had always hated introducing himself, he always felt stupid and his words fell flat.
“Penny, Penny, Penny, Penny! If I say it four times I won’t forget it,” Margo said.
Penny could just barely hear Quentin whispering ‘Penny’ four times. Okay, maybe they could keep Quentin small too. Even though his mind was an open door, he was less annoying this way. He was quiet and hadn’t yet discovered Taylor Swift. Hell, maybe he could get Quentin the therapy he obviously needed. Maybe he could get all of them therapy. And new parents.
“Ho-lee shit. I don’t know what was in that brownie but I’m pretty sure I’m not in my cottage anymore.”
“You sweared!” Margo shrieked, just as giddy as before.
Oh no. Oh no, no, no, no. Penny so didn’t have time for this and he definitely didn’t need stoned Todd stumbling around. Actually, maybe this was exactly what he needed! He picked up Eliot, realising immediately that the boy wasn’t going to let go of Penny’s neck anytime soon, and stood up. “Todd,” he said quietly, moving away from the other kids, “I need you to stay calm for two seconds and listen to me, okay?”
Todd had made it halfway down the stairs and was leaning against the railing, terrified eyes scanning over the group of children in the common area. He opened his mouth to speak but all that came out was a very confused squeaking sound.
At least he wasn’t talking. Or yelling. Or causing a scene and panicking everyone. “Good. Good Todd. I need you to do me a favour.” He had to make this work. He had to somehow get Todd to focus long enough to go get the Dean so that they could fix this. Jesus Christ, why did it have to be Todd?
Pursing his lips, Todd looked down at the child in Penny’s arms, back to Penny, back at the other kids, and then back to Penny again. “Penny? You-you are Penny, right?”
“Yeah, I’m still Penny.”
“Oh good. I thought I was in someone else’s house again. Hey, where’d you find all these kids?” He gasped, covering his mouth with his hand. “Oh my god, Penny, did you rob a nursery? The kid kind, not the plant kind?”
If there was a God out there then He really had a sick sense of humour sending Todd to help. “I didn’t rob a—they’re supposed to be here, Todd!”
Furrowing his brow Todd hesitated and stared at the children again as though wondering if they had been there the whole time he had been in school. “Why?”
Penny took a deep breath, trying to keep himself calm. He wasn’t going to scream. He wasn’t going to start yelling in front of a bunch of kids. “Todd. If you look then you might recognise this particular child.” He positioned Eliot on his hip, motioning toward him with his free hand. Eliot instantly hid his face against Penny’s side.
“Uh, yeah, I don’t know any kids. Wait, it’s not mine, is it? Penny, I’m too young to be a daddy. Well, that kind of daddy anyway. And she told me she was on the pill!”
“No, it’s not yours and, also, gross. Don’t ever, and I mean ever, call yourself daddy anywhere where I might hear it. Got it?” he warned, pointing at Todd during every inflection. Oh god, he was starting to get his soft yet stern babysitting voice back.
Todd shrugged as though he hadn’t just said the single most disgusting thing in the entire world.
“And especially don’t say it in front of Eliot!”
Again, Todd shrugged and started to make his way down the rest of the stairs when he stopped. He paused mid-step and turned back to look at Penny, his brow furrowing in confused understanding. “Wait a second.” He tapped his chin with his index finger, staring up at the ceiling for a moment as he collected his thoughts. It seemed like Todd was actually starting to catch onto what was happening. “That’s…you said…you named your kid Eliot?” But that would have been just too easy and, apparently, Penny couldn’t have an easy life.
It was a struggle to remain calm and collected and not just strangle Todd. Penny took a deep breath, counted to ten, and tried to keep his frustration from leaking out in the form of screaming and/or violence. “No. Todd. This isn’t my kid. I don’t have any kids. This is Eliot. Eliot Waugh.” Maybe if he just explained it slowly then Todd would understand. Just like if he was talking to a child.
“No…no…I know Eliot. He’s a lot, ya know, taller.”
“Look, I don’t know what happened,” Penny told him, moving closer to the stairs and keeping his voice down. He only hoped that explaining this in front of Eliot wouldn’t upset him or make him think something was wrong. He needed to figure out how to explain this to a child without a child understanding it. “Have you ever read about Chronomancy?”
Todd walked the rest of the way down the stairs, scratching his head. “I mean, sorta. Like, I haven’t studied it cause, you know, that’s not my discipline or anything. Actually, I don’t know if that’s anyone’s discipline. It’s super rare. Is it even legal? I mean, time mag—“
Penny quickly pulled Todd away, stepping into the dining room and just out of view of the commons. “Shh! Don’t say anything about…you know…M-A-G-I-C.” He was really banking on the theory that Eliot wasn’t that great at spelling. He felt Eliot tense up and was pretty sure his hypothesis had just been proven false. “Point is, you’re actually right. For once. Chronomancy is no one’s discipline. At least not in this group of…whatever they are. Listen, they decided to mess around with it and it definitely didn’t go right. You can tell because Eliot is four!”
“I’m five,” Eliot mumbled, his voice muffled by Penny’s vest. “Did it say four on my sheep? Maybe Mama wrote it wrong but I know how many I am.”
Seriously? He was so small that Penny was guessing four at the oldest. “Right, you’re right. You’re five. He’s five.”
“Yeah, Penny, I got that. He told me.”
Eliot shook his head and peeked up at Penny. “I didn’t,” he said in a terrified whisper. “I told you. He’s a stranger and I’m not supposed to talk to strangers.”
Penny gave Eliot a small pat on the back, a bit unsure as to why Todd was a stranger but Eliot had instantly been fine with Penny grabbing him up. Maybe it had something to do with Penny saving him from Margo. “That’s…that’s good. We don’t talk to strangers. But Todd isn’t a stranger.” He paused. “Actually, yeah, no, don’t talk to Todd. You were right. Anyway, Todd! I need you to go and get the Dean. Tell him a…tell him a S-P-E-L-L went W-R-O-N-G in the cottage and we need him here now. Understand?”
If Todd did understand he didn’t look like it. In fact, it looked like he was still trying to work out what Penny had been spelling. “Dude, I can’t go see the Dean! I’m high as shit. If I go see him now he’ll know I’m high and then he’ll…you know…get mad and stuff,” he explained, pointing to his red, hazy eyes.
“Todd, the Dean has to deal with the insanity that happens here on a daily basis. The dude is definitely blitzed twenty-four-seven. You’d have to be to work here.”
That…actually seemed to work. Todd grinned and gave Penny a wide smile. “Oh man, that explains so much about him. Like how sometimes when you’re talking to him he just walks away in the middle of a conversation. Man! That guy must be lit!” He more or less sang the word lit.
“Yeah, right, that’s totally not just something he does to you. Anyway, go, find him, and bring him here.”
Todd nodded and Penny only hoped that meant he actually understood what was happening. “Right. I’ll get him and you…don’t get any more kids, okay?”
Penny wasn’t going to explain to Todd again that, like most children in the world, these were accidents. No one else was going to turn into a kid and, with any luck, the dean could reverse everything so they could all move on with their lives. Or, and what Penny suspected was more likely to happen, Todd would get distracted by a squirrel and Penny would be forced to raise The Physical Kids as his own. And he couldn’t do that; he had a midterm coming up.
“Is something wrong?” Eliot asked.
Penny briefly glanced to make sure everyone was still in the commons, counting heads and making sure no one was exploded or anything. It looked to him like, for the moment, everyone was safe so he ducked into the kitchen to grab a couple of snacks before one of the kids found a laced brownie. “Huh? Oh, no, nothing’s wrong. Here, you can get down and help me carry shi—stuff.”
That suggestion only made Eliot hold on tighter to Penny’s vest. “You said you needed a-a dean? I don’t know what one of those is but you also kept saying letters and when people say letters I usually have to take a nap. Is it time for a nap?”
“Right, right, the Dean. No, nothing’s wrong. He’s just my, uh, my boss, you know? Cause this is my job. Working at camp…” he explained pathetically, digging through the cabinets for something that wasn’t alcoholic. Half the chocolate in the stupid cottage had alcohol in it! This wasn’t a place for kids at all! “And, uh, yeah, I was telling my co-worker—because Todd is my co-worker, he’s another…camp counselor—that he needed to be quiet when he got back because, uh, it night be nap time when he gets back. Maybe not for you, but maybe some of the other—“
“Oh good,” Eliot said, letting out a dramatic sigh of relief. “I was getting scared that there wasn’t gonna be any naps here and I’m sleepy. I’ve had a very tough day, Penny.”
“Tough day? Yeah, tell me about it.” Maybe there was a god after all! Penny had never heard better news than this and he thought he might weep with joy. “Don’t worry about that. We’ll make sure you get a nap, Eliot. Oh, cool, granola bars…right, uh, right where they’re supposed to be. And-“ he opened the fridge, grabbed a jug, and smelled it—“orange juice with nothing weird in it. I’m actually surprised. Um, right, anyway, we’ll have some snacks and some juice and you’ll be all good to take a nap,” Penny immediately started internally panicking. The Dean had better find a way to undo whatever they had done; he didn’t have any pyjamas for these kids.
Chapter 2: Fires and Tribulations
Fires and Tribulations
For a full five seconds Penny had a plan. He was going to get these kids full of snacks, get them down for a nap, and the hopefully get the Dean to make everything normal again. Of course, that plan was immediately thwarted when he had to drop everything he was holding (Eliot included) and extinguish a small fire that was starting to spread up the curtains and wouldn’t be small for much longer.
“I didn’t mean to! I didn’t mean to!”
Alice was franticly apologising, Quentin’s brain was screaming, Eliot was upset that no one was holding him, and Margo thought this whole situation was absolutely hilarious. The only person who was even remotely helpful was Kady, who was quietly staying out of the way while Penny beat the flames back. This definitely wasn’t the first time the Physical Cottage had been on fire, but usually it was pretty easy to put out since they could openly use magic. Penny still wasn’t trying to incite panic or answer a million questions, which meant he had to put out a fire the old fashioned way: by throwing orange juice on it. The fire sizzled and hissed as the juice snuffed it out, leaving only a curling trail of smoke.
Panting, Penny sat the now empty carton of juice on the ground. “Anybody hurt?” he asked as he turned around to check over the kids.
Everyone shook their heads. Well, almost everyone. Quentin didn’t move, but he probably hadn’t moved in the past fifteen minute so he wasn’t anywhere near the fire. And Kady. Kady was ignoring Penny and had turned her attention to Alice, eyes narrowed in suspicion as she silently sized the other girl up.
“It was an accident,” Alice repeated for the hundredth time since the fire had started. “I was trying to do what Charlie does and it didn’t—I didn’t do it like Charlie did and I’ve never made fire before!”
Oh no. Oh god no. It was then that Penny noticed one of Alice’s school books was open on the floor and, while he wasn’t sure how it had happened, he realised what had happened. The first thing he needed to do was explain to Alice why she couldn’t play with magic. Yeah, with her coming from a whole family of Magicians he could see that conversation going really well!
Margo was still laughing, though it had dissolved into more of a chuckle at this point. “Aly is a pirate-maniac!”
“Alice! And I’m not a pirate!” She looked near tears, rubbing at her eyes with her knuckles and sniffling. She was doing her best not to cry and that seemed to make things worse.
Rolling her eyes, Margo took a step closer to Alice. “Yeah you are. Pirates like fire and they burn things down all the time. Towns, other ships, Alex’s Library. That’s what they do, duh. How do you think they get all that gold?” She paused and crossed her arms. “How’d you do that anyhow? You got some matches or something?”
“Okay, okay. Margo, no one here is a pirate. Now, Alice, let’s you and me go to the kitchen for a minute and make sure you aren’t hurt.”, Penny needed to take care of this before it got more out of hand than it already was and before Alice told anyone how she had set the curtains on fire. He gathered up Alice’s books and threw them her bag over his shoulder. He held out his hand to her. “C’mon, you’re not in trouble.”
“I’m not?”—She’s not?!” Margo and Alice asked in unison, each of them in a different state of disbelief.
Penny shook his head and pulled Alice up off the ground, giving her hand a reassuring squeeze. “You said it was an accident. About ten thousand times. And you’ve only got to say it four times for me to remember it.” He smiled, trying to be reassuring but he was almost certain that it looked more like a grimace. “I just wanna make sure you’re not hurt or anything.”
Alice sniffled again but managed a small nod. “I think the fire might’ve got at my fingers a little bit,” she quietly told him.
“Yeah, that’s why there aren’t any more pirates. They all set themselves on fire eventually. They burned their fingers clean off and then after that-and after that they weren’t good with matches so they had accidents and burned up!” Margo announced to the room, though it didn’t seem like anyone was really listening to what she had to say.
“Well, I don’t think we’ll have to amputate anything.” He was trying to be light-hearted and keep everyone calm, but it was clear that Alice didn’t get his joke and Quentin had let out a terrified gasp before ducking back behind the sofa. “I think you’ll be fine. I’m great with a Band-Aid.” He led her into the kitchen and lifted her up so she could sit on the counter top. It made it a lot easier to talk to her when she was at eye level with him. “Okay, first things first, let me see your hand.”
“Um…” Alice worried at her lower lip and stared down at her hand. “Penny, I told a-a not-the-truth.” she admitted and reached up to rub her eyes again. “I just didn’t wanna be there anymore cause I messed up and Margo called me a pirate and that isn’t even what pirates do and-and there are still pirates they didn’t all burn up!” She was speaking very quickly, her words getting jumbled up as tears started pooling in her eyes. Her breathing became rapid, panicked, and her chest rose and fell quickly with each short breath.
Oh, that made a lot of sense, actually. If Penny had fucked something up then he wouldn’t want to be around Margo either, no matter what age she was. “Hey, hey, it’s fine. Calm down, Alice. Breathe, okay? Breathe for me, breathe. Deep breath in. Good, good. Deep breath out. Good. It’s okay.” Penny had seen Alice react exactly like this before, whenever she messed up a spell that was important to her. Apparently her perfectionism was something that had plagued her for her entire life and did that magical community not have any kind of therapy? “You’re not in trouble, alright?” He wanted to make sure that she understood that part; maybe it would ease some of her anxiety. Though, he suspected, her panic was most likely centred around messing up and not who might be mad at her.
Though still upset, Alice had started breathing mostly normally again. She was hiccupping a little and rubbing the heel of her hard roughly against her eyes and cheeks. “Charlie can make—he makes me this glitter snow sometimes? So it—it snows glitter on my head. It’s an illusion, that’s the kind of magic it is. That means it’s not real but you can see it. But then the fire wasn’t glitter or an illusion. It was real and I stopped doing the things with my hands but it was still there.”
Penny nodded, unsure if her should reassuringly rub her back or not touch her at all. While she was calming down he decided to just keep his distance, not wanting to upset her all over again. This wasn’t the first time he’d dealt with a kid having a panic attack on him. It wasn’t the second time or the tenth either. There had been a time when these types of situations occurred on the daily. Although, they usually didn’t involve magic fires.
“And then I couldn’t make it stop and Margo was laughing at me and I don’t know. I want Charlie,” she said, another sob escaping her.
He couldn’t get Charlie, in part because Penny only had a vague idea who that was. Maybe he could ask the Dean to contact Charlie for Alice if they couldn’t immediately fix it. “Well, he’s…at his own camp. I’m sure you’ll see him soon,” Penny promised. “And…sparkles are hard. Sometimes they’re fire. I mean, everyone fucks up—messes up. And sometimes mistakes make fire. But, the fire is out, Margo has probably already found something new to yell about, and nobody is hurt. So…we don’t have any reason to cry anymore.”
Alice wiped her nose on her sleeve and Penny quickly handed her a napkin instead. She rubbed her face with the napkin, taking a few calming breaths. “I don’t like crying. My nose gets all stuffy and my throat gets scratchy. Penny? Is there anything to drink?”
“Uh, I’ll check.” Since the orange juice had been used as a fire extinguisher he was going to have to find something else. Penny searched through the fridge, pushing aside a couple of half empty bottles of wine and coffee creamer. He managed to find an unopened bottle of coke and some pineapple juice. There was no way he was giving these kids soda and getting them all hyperactive, so he went with the pineapple juice. He gave Alice a glass and set the carton aside so he could give it to the others as a snack. “That help?”
Alice took slow sips and made an adorable, refreshed ‘ah’ noise. “Yes, much better, thank you. I-I think I feel okay now. I won’t start anymore fires, Penny,” she promised.
Good, now all he needed to do was explain to her why she couldn’t use magic at a magic school. Right, that should be simple enough. “Good, that’s good. Uh, look, Alice, maybe we shouldn’t use any magic right now. Or…talk about it…about do anything that has to do with magic.” Great, yeah, this was going so well. Damn it, he needed the Dean.
Instead of looking confused Alice looked horrified, like she might start crying again. “No, no, Penny, I promise, promise, promise I won’t make fire any more. I know I don’t know a lot of the things to do magic, but I’ll do it better.”
“It’s not about that. You’re going to be an amazing Magician,” he promised her, putting a hand on her shoulder.
Penny nodded, managing a small smile. “Yeah, you’re gonna be the best Magician Brakebills has ever seen.”
She stared up at him, blues eyes widening with excitement and a small smile tugging at her lips. Hey, he’d gotten her to stop crying and even managed a smile. He was rocking this babysitting thing. “Will I be as good as Charlie?”
Giggling, Alice shook her head. “That’s silly, Penny! No one is better than Charlie! He’s the best and he’s gonna always be the best forever!”
Wow, she really loved her older brother. It was actually cute but he wondered why she had never mentioned Charlie to him as an adult. They were friends…sort of. Well, she was one of the only Physical Kids that he could stand. “Well, you’re gonna great too. The thing is…” He paused, trying to invent some kind of believable lie. “See, we don’t know…if everyone here is a Magician. You know some people have magic but having magic doesn’t make them Magicians, right?”
Alice furrowed her brow in confusing, trying to follow along with Penny’s story. “No…doesn’t everyone have magic nowadays?”
“Uh, no. No, not everyone in the world has magic.” Nowadays? How did history work for her?
“Then how do they do things?”
This was actually harder than he thought it would be. What the fuck did her parents teach her? How had no one told her that magic wasn’t a universal gift? “They just….do shit without magic. And, uh, see, at Camp Brakebills we’re, uh, we’re…we have to see what kind of magic everyone can do.” Yeah, yeah that was good. “And most of your friends in there don’t know the magic is real. So, we gotta keep it a secret until we can test them. Then you can all learn magic together. Understand?” This seemed like a good enough lie and he hoped that, since she was only four, Alice wouldn’t question it too much.
It looked like Alice was trying to understand. She looked back down, pursing her lips and narrowing her eyes in concentration. “They’re my friends?”
That wasn’t the part he expected her to get stuck on. “Huh? I mean, yeah, you guys are all friends. I mean, you like everyone in there, right?”
She thought about this for a few seconds, looking as though she was replaying the events of the day in her head and trying to pinpoint the moment where they became friends. “Yeah, they’re nice. Maybe even Margo is nice to someone sometimes. Are you sure they’re my friends?”
“Yeah, you’re all friends. And once you all relax and start playing together I bet you’ll even be best friends.” Hopefully this wouldn’t last that long though. “And since you’re all friends you don’t wanna make them sad. If you can do magic and they can’t then they might be sad. So, you’ve gotta wait to try out spells and shit until we know everyone can do magic.”
Alice’s head snapped up and she quickly nodded. “I don’t want my friends to be sad! I’ve-I never had friends before and-and I don’t want to make these ones sad or start anymore fires!”
Penny paused and took a deep breath to calm himself down. Before Brakebills Alice really hadn’t had anyone other than her big brother, had she? God, she needed to be somewhere with other kids, far away from parents who made her call them by their first names. Penny gave her a reassuring pat on the back. “Just don’t talk about magic for a little while and you’ll be okay. Your friends won’t be sad and soon enough you’ll all be doing magic together.” Yup, they’d be doing stupid and terrible magic that turned them all into babies.
“Can I talk about horses?”
“Horses aren’t magical, Alice.”
“Oh yes they are. Just not Magician magical.”
The girl really liked horses and Penny suspected he was going to have to hear all about them. “You can talk about horses all you want. I’m sure Quentin would love to hear about them.” What was Quentin going to do? Tell her to be quiet? Shit, Quentin was probably the only one who was able to sit there and listen. Picking Alice up off the counter Penny swung her down and put her back on the floor. “Alright, kiddo, let’s go get everyone some snacks. And remember, no magic.”
“No magic. I promise. I double promise cause that more than a promise it’s like two promises in one promise! I won’t even make my play horse run around because that’s magic and I promised no magic!” She started heading back to the commons before pausing and looking back. “Penny?”
“Are we friends?”
Grabbing up the carton of juice he smiled and ruffled Alice’s hair. “Yeah, we’re friends.”
Alice have him a gap-tooth grin and hugged Penny’s leg before trotting back to the common area. She settled back on the floor, playing with her little glass horse. Penny had no doubts that Dean Fogg would find a way to get everyone back to normal, but maybe in the meantime they could enjoy themselves. Okay, so, obviously Alice hadn’t had the most normal life in the world and, yeah, maybe Brakebills wasn’t the most normal place in the world. But, Penny could try to make it normal. He could make it normal and fun and let Alice have friends. Even if that was only for a few hours. Hell, maybe they all needed to just be kids for a while.
Deep breath, he could make this work for a little while. “Alright, alright, I’ve got juice and snacks,” he announced, walking into the room. “Come on, everyone on the rug, in a circle. Let’s go, everybody. You too, Quentin.”
Eliot was the first to hurry over and plop down on the rug, eagerly waiting for his snack and probably most looking forward to getting a nap. Still clinging to her horse, Alice went over and sat beside him, giving him a small smile that went unnoticed. Although she was hesitant and very clearly confused Kady wandered over and sat down as far away from Eliot and Alice as she could get while still being on the rug. She hugged her knees to her chest, watching Penny as though she expected him to explode. Quentin was still behind the sofa and tried to hide even more when Penny asked him to come to the circle. And then there was Margo.
Penny motioned his arm towards the circle. “Hey, Margo, let’s go. We’re having snacks, you gotta join us over here.”
Margo was sitting slouched in one of the overstuffed chairs, her arms crossed and her mouth poised into a pout. “Are they good snacks?” she asked, rolling her eyes and defiantly wiggling down into her chair. “Hey, Aly, did you burn all your fingers off?”
“My name’s Alice and I still have all ten of my fingers, see?” She held up her hands, wiggling her fingers to assure Margo that they were all there.
Penny sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose. He knew what Margo wanted, she wanted the affection that Alice had gotten. She wasn’t the first kid he’d met who was desperate for a, seeking both negative and positive, and she wasn’t the loudest either. There had been a lot of kids in his foster and group homes that acted the same way. He knew how to deal with her. Or, at least, he hoped that he did.
“Quentin, you get in the circle too, okay?” That didn’t help and only seemed to scare him more. Whatever, he could deal with Quentin in a minute; it wasn’t like that kid was going anywhere. He moved over to Margo, leaning against the arm of the chair. “They’re just regular snacks, Margo.”
“And you’re a regular schlub.”
While he wasn’t entirely sure what that meant, but by the context he knew it was supposed to be insulting. “Yeah…okay. Look, can you help me real quick. I gotta get everybody a drink and somebody needs to pass out snacks. Think you’re responsible enough to do that?”
This got Margo’s attention. She looked at Penny out of the corner of her eyes before letting out a deep and overdramatic sigh. “You need a sis-ant, don’t you?”
“A sis…oh. An assistant. Uh, yeah. Yeah, that’s exactly what I need. But, if you can’t do it then I’ll see if Eliot can.” He definitely needed an assistant. Granted, he would prefer it be an actual adult and not Margo (at any age) but it might keep her occupied for a little while.
Rolling her eyes, Margo pushed herself up out of the chair and grabbed the box of granola bars from Penny’s hands. “He’s a baby, he can’t even do a button. I can do buttons and zippers and snacks,” she explained very matter-of-factly.
“You’re a good assistant, Margo. Just ask if they want peanut butter or chocolate chip. Uh, the chocolate chip are the blue ones and the orange is peanut butter.”
Margo scoffed and shook her head. “Penny, I know what’s what. I’m not like the babies, duh.”
Yup, she was still Margo as far as Penny was concerned. She needed to be in charge of something, or, at least, she needed to think she was in charge of something. Hovering over the coffee table, Penny hid the cups from the kids and silently enchanted them not to spill. The last thing he needed was four pre-schoolers covered in pineapple juice and he hadn’t seen any sippy cups in the cabinet. Even if there were sippy cups he wouldn’t have given them to the kids because god only knew what they had been used for before.
“You gotta say a thing! You gotta pick one! I’m in charge and I say you gotta pick a thing!”
Oh no. He heard Margo yelling before he heard Quentin’s brain start going haywire with newfound panic. Damn it, Penny had only turned his back on them for a few seconds to fix the cups and somehow Margo had already gone mad with power. Yeah, yeah he really should’ve seen this one coming.
Margo had Quentin practically pinned against the sofa, holding two granola bars in his face. “Can you talk or what? Use your words!”
When Penny got over there Quentin was caught somewhere between terrified and deeply confused. Quentin wasn’t looking at Margo, instead his eyes were focused on the floor and he kept shaking his head. When Margo demanded he pick a granola bar he tried to scoot further backwards and get away from her. Unfortunately, he was blocked by the sofa and didn’t have anywhere he could go. For just a second he looked at Penny before very quickly looking back to the floor.
Stomping her foot, Margo put her hands on her hips and looked up at Penny. “I’m going to make him pick a snack,” she told him, her voice heavy with unspoken threats.
“Okay, yeah, I don’t think we need to do that, Margo,” he said, pulling her back away from Quentin.
With a huff, Margo threw the granola bars down and gave Quentin a murderous glare. “He’s being unreasonable, I can’t deal with him right now. I’m-I’m gonna call the-the union! I need a break!” she snapped and put her hands on her hips.
Two minutes into her job as a personal assistant and Margo was already threatening to call up human resources to complain about conditions. Tough luck, phones didn’t work at Brakebills. “Alright, Margo, go take a break, I’ll deal with Quentin.”
“Good luck. He’s a baby. A dumb baby who doesn’t know how to just grow up!” With that, she grabbed up the box on granola bars, spun on her heel, and stormed back over to the rub.
Trying to calm Quentin down was definitely going to be harder than explaining to Alice why they couldn’t play with magic. Hell, he couldn’t even talk to Quentin when Quentin was an adult. Talking to him as a terrified child who might be able to talk back? Yeah, that sounded super fun and easy. Penny reminded himself that he just had to keep them alive and relatively happy for a little bit. It was just a few hours and then he could laugh at them all for what stupid kids they were.
Penny knelt down beside Quentin, trying not to make any sudden movements. It didn’t make Quentin any more comfortable, but he also didn’t run away which Penny took as a good sign. “Hey, uh, buddy,” he started weakly, unsure what to do, “she uh…she didn’t hurt you, right?”
Quentin didn’t respond. He just folded his arms over his knees and laid his head down, watching the wall. It didn’t even seem like he recognised that Penny was beside him.
“You can come over to the circle and join everybody else if you want.” He waited but, at this point, wasn’t expecting much of a reply. “Or you can sit over here by yourself. That’s fine too. Uh…here, let’s go with chocolate and we’ll get you some juice and you’ll be set.” Penny opened the granola bar and sat it down near Quentin, since Quentin was paying him absolutely no attention. It would be easier to figure out what to do if Quentin’s brain was more words and less emotion. It was like trying to hear a baseball game through static on the radio. He knew that Quentin was scared and upset, but there wasn’t much more he could hear and Penny didn’t know what to do. He wasn’t even sure what Quentin was afraid of so it wasn’t like he could fix it!
He kept Quentin in his line of sight while he passed out juice to everyone. The last thing he needed was to lose a kid. He just needed to keep them all together until the Dean came. Then everything would be sorted out. He hoped. Or everyone would take a nap and they would fix it then.
Oh hell, where was he going to have them take naps at? They sure as hell couldn’t go to their own rooms. Eliot’s room was definitely not child friendly. Not to mention they all had school books containing spells and shit. Maybe he could just throw out some yoga mats or something. Kids could sleep on yoga mats, right?
“Hey, Eliot, eat so you can take your nap, okay?”
Eliot had his juice and snack on the floor in front of him and he was looking down with his hands clasped in front of him. At first it looked like he was just ignoring Penny and following Quentin’s example. Then Penny realised that Eliot’s lips were moving and he was saying something to himself. It couldn’t be a spell...could it? Did Eliot know any spells? Had he learned one somehow?
Just as Penny was about to jump in and stop Eliot from doing whatever he was doing the boy looked up with a serene smile on his face. He took his granola bar and lay down on his stomach, kicking his legs behind him.
Okay, yeah, that was weird. “You, uh, you talking to yourself over there, El?” he ventured to asked.
Mouth full of granola, Eliot shook his head and continued to happily swing his feet up and down as though he didn’t have a care in the world. “Not myself. Talking to God.”
Penny nearly choked upon hearing Eliot’s answer. First he talked about going to church and now the kid was sitting there talking to god? Who the fuck was Eliot Waugh and what had happened to him to make him…Eliot Waugh? “Yeah, uh, did He have anything good to say?”
“Don’t be silly, Penny!” Eliot laughed, rolling onto his back. “You pray before you eat and you tell God ‘thank you for the food!’ and then you eat your food and God makes sure you have more food later because he takes care of you!” he explained.
Thank god for the food? Penny was the one who had found the damn granola bars. Seeing Eliot pray was downright unnerving. The only thing close to praying Eliot ever did was when he was hungover and loudly prayed for death. “Right, uh…right. Drink your juice.” Yup, that was something to ignore for now and bring up when Eliot was singing his ‘God Is Dead’ song. “Kady? You still hungry?”
“No.” She was turned partially away from the ground, pulling her flannel over shirt tightly around her tiny body.
She had a way with words, her way was mostly not using many of them. “Okay, well, you can throw your trash away or whatever.”
“Don’t got none.”
There was something up with her and Penny wondered if he should say anything or not. All the other kids were a little chubby, cheeks full and round, still carrying their baby fat. There wasn’t any fat on Kady’s body. She was so goddamn puny. Out of all the kids she needed to eat the most and he was one hundred percent sure that her granola bar was still wrapped up.
Penny didn’t get the chance to call her out on her food hoarding, which was probably for the best because he had dealt with quite enough childhood trauma and issues that day. He had never before been grateful to hear Todd’s voice, but now that stupid kid sounded like a choir of angels singing.
“What I’m saying, Henry—Can I call you Henry, since we’re on the same level now?”
“You may not and we most certainly are not on the same level,” Dean Fogg said, the annoyance very prevalent in his voice.
Todd started laughing but it died off when he caught the Dean’s glare. “Right, heh. Anyway, uh, that’s Penny. His friends are babies.”
The Dean’s eyes twitched and he took a step away from the stoner and stared at Penny. His gaze shifted to the children sprawled out around the commons. For a moment, he was completely silent and it was impossible to read his expression. He was either angry or overjoyed, Penny really couldn’t tell. Finally, he glanced to Todd and back at Penny. “Are these supposed to be the babies? I can’t say I see much of a difference.”
There was only so hard that Penny could roll his eyes. This really wasn’t the time for cynicism and sarcastic remarks. “Seriously, man? They’re babies. I know what a baby looks like. Can you be helpful for two seconds?”
Just as Todd opened his mouth to speak the Dean turned around, cutting him off with a look. “Todd, go and get Professor Sunderland. We’re going to need her opinion on this matter and, please, do so without telling any stories about squirrels this time,” he said, directing Todd back out the door.
Getting rid of Todd was an important first step and Penny hoped that now that he was gone Dean Fogg would be a bit more helpful and offer some kind of insight. “Look, I have the book they were using when…when this shit happened. I don’t know for sure what went down here, but they had this Chronomancy bullshit—“
“Horomancy,” Fogg corrected, stepping forward to get a better look at the situation. “They decided that they were smart enough to play with Horomancy and were mistaken. Clearly.”
This really wasn’t the right time to be correcting someone’s Latin or Greek or whatever. They had bigger problems. “Yeah, the book said Chronomancy. Anyway, can you fix it?”
Fogg took a deep breath, clasping his hands behind his back. “I don’t know,” he admitted, instantly crushing any hope Penny had of things returning to normal anytime soon.
There was a small gasp and Eliot hopped up, his glass of juice wobbling but not falling over. He grinned broadly, bouncing with excitement. That…didn’t fit with anything Penny knew about Eliot so far. Honestly, he had expected Eliot to be hiding since the Dean was here and the Dean was a stranger. Last he checked, Eliot hated strangers.
“That’s Henry,” Eliot exclaimed to the group of confused children and adults. “Hi, Henry!” He waved enthusiastically, his whole body moving with his arm.
Furrowing his brow, Fogg watched the little boy curiously. “They…retained some of their memories, I see.”
Penny was absolutely dumbfounded. He looked around to see if anyone else was reacting to Dean Fogg’s entrance. Kady had backed away again, arms up in a defensive gesture. Alice gave a small wave before going back to playing with her horse. Margo was watching Eliot like he was a complete idiot and Quentin was, well, he was still hiding.
“They…don’t remember anything.”
Chapter 3: Magical medicine
“Are you looking for magic?” Alice whispered, staring up at Sunderland with absolute awe. She was once again sitting up on the kitchen counter, her legs swinging, and Sunderland was looking her over through a multi-coloured monocle.
Penny had positioned himself midway between the kitchen and the living room so he could keep an eye on the kids and his professors. Why did he feel so nervous? Sunderland was going to check the kids out, figure out what needed to be done, and get them all back to their usual selves. Nothing to worry about.
“Something like that,” Sunderland told her. She pocketed the monocle and pulled out a pair of blue tinted, doubled lensed eyeglasses. She slid the glasses on, moving one set of lenses over the other as she stared into Alice’s eyes. “Can you do magic, Alice?”
Before answering Alice looked to Penny and waited for him to give her an affirmative nod. “Yeah, but not as good as Charlie can,” she said quickly, lighting up. “Charlie’s really, really, really good. But Penny says I’ll be good too. Maybe even almost as good as Charlie is, which is really, really, really good.”
The floorboards creaked and Penny’s ears perked up. Taking a leap of faith, he left Alice with Sunderland and hoped that Sunderland didn’t somehow break her. He crept through the living room and walked into the foyer. The door was creaking open and Penny pushed it back shut. He looked down, brow raised, silently waiting for an explanation.
Kady jumped as the door closed and her escape plans were foiled. She looked up at Penny, lips together in a tight line and eyes quickly shifting from wide surprise to a narrow glare. “Nothin’,” she told him without prompting, crossing her arms and staring at the floor.
“Nothin’? Because it looked like you were trying to leave. I could be wrong, but you were opening the front door and I’m pretty sure you were supposed to stay put in the living room. Wanna tell me what’s up?”
Kady’s one word answers weren’t going to get them anywhere, he needed to get her to talk to him. It was almost as hard as talking to adult Kady, except she hadn’t quite perfected the art of lying yet. And, yeah, maybe it was bad and kind of underhanded, but he thought that this was a good chance for him to learn about her, since he realised how little he really knew. “Kady, why were you trying to leave?”
She frowned and looked away, turning her back to Penny and staring out the small window beside the door. “Wasn’t…” she mumbled, pressing her face against the glass.
Penny sighed and leaned against the door, looking down at her. She knew how to lie, she just wasn’t very good at it. “You were opening the front door. What? Were you trying to let some fresh air in?”
“No,” she said again. “I coulda catched it.”
Kady clammed up again and shook her head. “Nothin’,” she repeated.
This was growing increasingly tedious and Penny knelt down, looking out the window to try and see what Kady saw. “What’s out there? Something you wanna catch?” he guessed, looking over what little he could see of the grounds.
Kady mumbled something, her voice obstructed by the fact that she had her mouth pressed against the glass.
“A Flower!” Kady finally told him, pulling away from the window and pointing.
A…what? Penny followed Kady’s gaze but he didn’t really see any flowers. Especially not any flowers that Kady could catch. “Okay, what does the flower look like?” This was Brakebills, Penny wouldn’t be shocked to look out and see a flower running around or flying through the air. Stupid shit happened here nonstop.
“Not the flower, a Flower! Like a black and white kitty. It’s…” She paused, thinking it over before smiling. “A little stinker!” she explained and enthusiastically gestured outside again.
A little…oh no. Oh, now Penny knew what she was talking about. There was a skunk making its way along the path outside the cottage. “That’s….that’s a skunk..”
Confused, she looked back at Penny. “What?”
“The…skunk. Is that what you were going to chase after?” he asked and pointed to make sure they saw the same thing.
Kady nodded and pressed her forehead back to the glass, her eyes sparkling with a sense of wonder Penny had never seen in them. She was absolutely hypnotized by the little animal. “I never seen a real life one before. I seen the one in Bambi but never one off the T.V.” she explained to him, her eyes never leaving the skunk.
He never would’ve expected Kady to get so excited by a skunk. She was acting as though she had just stumbled upon the Holy Grail or was watching some rare and magnificent cosmic event. It made Penny smile to finally see Kady happy about something. “Bambi? Oh, yeah, Flower the…skunk. You like him?”
“Yeah. They stink.”
“They your favourite animal?”
She shook her head. “Lions. They’re orange and that’s my favourite but not the fruit. I like plums but not purple.”
Penny mentally jotted that down. Kady liked lions, the colour orange, and plums. Maybe he could use that for something.
“Penny? How’s it called again?”
Tapping the window, Kady pointed back outside and stared Penny down. “The Flower. You called it a different thing. Is that how it’s called?”
She was actually adorable and Penny couldn’t help but grin. “A skunk. And you can’t catch him because, uh, he bites. And stinks.” And Kady was going to get herself sprayed and go blind or something.
“A skunk,” Kady repeated to herself and took another look outside. “He waddles when he walks! Look at him!” Indeed, the little skunk was hurrying away from the walkway, as though spooked by something, and disappeared into the woods, making Kady whine with disappointment. “I didn’t get to touch him!”
Kady probably could have caught it if Penny had let her outside. It wasn’t as though skunks were terribly fast animals. However, he strongly suspected that when she did, well, she wouldn’t have wanted it very long. “Yeah, he had to go back to his skunk family,” Penny explained as he ushered Kady back into the living room. “He’s got a skunk wife and skunk babies that he needs to check on. He’s probably even got a skunk job to go to or something.” He wondered if there were any books about animals anywhere in the cottage. It would be nice if electronics worked and he could put on a video or something.
Kady seemed to accept Penny’s story about skunks as a fact, nodding in agreement with Penny as they went back to the others. “I bet I can draw him. I’m a real good drawer. I draw for Mama all the time.”
Colouring! Kady was a genius! There were definitely markers and papers in the cottage, Eliot had used them for stupid banners for his stupid theme parties. “Yeah, I bet you can. Hold on a second.” He searched behind the bar and found few sharpies then pulled a pack of paper out of the side table. Giving children sharpies was rarely a good idea, but this wasn’t his cottage and if they coloured on the walls then it wasn’t his problem. Someone would know a spell to wash the marker away. Probably. Anyway, it would keep Kady busy for a little while. He let her sprawl out on the floor with her drawing tools, focused on her work.
With Kady distracted Penny made his way back towards the kitchen, hoping that Sunderland hadn’t done anything to Alice. The examination seemed to be over and Sunderland was leaning on the counter, listening to Alice ramble on in her usual quick paced manner.
“I see,” Sunderland said, absolutely enthralled with whatever Alice was talking about. “And you did that all on your own? All by yourself?”
Alice nodded proudly. “I did what the book said and—and it wasn’t sparkles.”
“No, no, but fire is better than sparkles. More impressive,” she explained, giving Alice a rare smile.
Alright, this was exactly what Penny didn’t need happening. He stormed into kitchen, picking Alice up and spinning her around before placing her safely on the ground. “Okay, I think you’re done being looked over. Hey, Kady has some markers and paper. How about you go draw something?”
“What do I draw?”
“I don’t know…a horse?”
That idea made Alice a little too excited. “Two horses?”
“As many horses as you can fit on paper.”
“Okay, Penny!” Alice looked over and gave Professor Sunderland a little wave. “Thank you, Pearl. I’ll make you a horse too!”
Once Alice had trotted off to the living room Penny turned his attention back to his professor, the fake smile he’d used with Alice falling.
“Pearl?” he scoffed.
Sunderland shrugged, straightening herself back up away from the table. “She couldn’t pronounce Sunderland. You know, Alice shows remarkable magical ability, even at a young age. Did she really manage to conjure a fire?”
“That doesn’t matter at all. All that matters is whether or not you can make her normal again. Or, I mean, put her back to how she was.”
Sunderland took a deep breath and locked her hands behind her back. “It’s possible. It won’t be easy and it’ll take quite some time. Thankfully, we know the exact spell they used, that will definitely be helpful. I’ll need to examine the others and make sure they were all affected the same way.” She paused, humming to herself in thought. “If they all show as much magical proficiency, however, it might not be a bad idea to—“
“I don’t even wanna know where you’re going with that thought. Just…fix them, okay?”
For a moment she just stared at him, and then a small smile crossed over her face. “You’re protective of them,” she said, her voice somewhere between affectionate and accusing.
“They’re babies. Someone’s gotta protect them,” he muttered, finding himself staring at the wall behind Sunderland. They didn’t have anyone else looking out for them, and it didn’t seem like they ever did. Penny had no idea what he was doing. He was relying on sixteen years in foster care and a bachelor’s degree in early childhood development to help him out. So far, his years looking after his foster siblings were way more helpful than anything he’d learned in college. “Look, just don’t do anything weird to them, okay?”
Instead of answering him, Professor Sunderland turned away and took her monocle back out. “Send Eliot in next. Unless you can get Quentin to speak. I think he remembers enough that he’s properly horrified by what’s happening.” She ordered, flicking the glass on her monocle with her index finger and causing the colours to spin in spirals.
“Yeah, they don’t remember anything.”
“Oh…in that case I said some very inappropriate things to Quentin.” She looked up and rolled her eyes. “Don’t give me that look. I simply asked him questions about magic and The Beast and he…responded by staring at me like he had stepped straight out of a Japanese horror film.”
What the fuck? How was the woman allowed to teach at a school and be in charge of people? Penny groaned and rubbed his temples, feeling a migraine coming on. “Don’t…break them. They’re already broken. And don’t mention magic to Eliot! I think he might be in a weird, religious cult or something.”
“Eliot has always displayed a natural ability to perform magic. I’m sure even at a young age—“
“No magic around Eliot. It’ll…it’ll freak him out.”
Sunderland rolled her eyes but gave a small nod. “I won’t tell him about magic. Anything he performs naturally, however, is entirely his own ability shining through.”
“Seriously. Just fix him. I’m not dealing with a five year old who thinks he’s the devil.”
“All children are the devil, Penny. Tiny, tiny devils.”
“You should not be allowed around children!” Was Sunderland really the only person they had? All he could do was hope she could fix them. Or, well, put them back to how they were before. And not terrify them in the process. Alice might’ve been brought up with magic, but that wasn’t the case for the rest of them. He was pretty sure Eliot was from a place where magic was evil and witches were still burned. Okay, he just couldn’t leave Eliot alone with Sunderland. She’d have him setting the whole kitchen on fire just to prove his ‘magical proficiency’ or whatever.
Alice and Kady seemed perfectly content to colour on the floor. Honestly, they were the only two he could trust with sharpies. Quentin was still exactly where he had been all day and Penny was starting to wonder if Quentin could even move. The again, Sunderland had probably traumatized him talking about The Beast, so that was something Penny would have to deal with later.
Eliot was right where Penny had left him, sitting on the sofa talking to Dean Fogg. The Dean, for his part, looked like he would rather be anywhere else. It served him right for being so blasé about the whole Chronomancy (or Horomancy, whatever it was called) situation. Now he had to hear a riveting story about a goat.
Fogg nodded and cut Eliot off in the middle of his rambling. “Yes. You’re correct. Goats do, on occasion, climb things. Look, there’s Penny. Why don’t you go to him now?” he offered, his voice monotone.
Blinking, Eliot looked up at Penny and back at Fogg. He cupped his hands around his mouth, sitting up on his knees, and attempted to whisper a secret to the Dean. He was terrible at telling secrets and was using a stage whisper when he spoke. “I don’t want to see the doctor lady,” he told Fogg
“That’s…unfortunate. Go with Penny.” He turned, looking at Penny, his expression never changing. “There is no reason for him to know me. He doesn’t remember anything in regards to Brakebills and shows no signs of wanting to remember anything. He only wants to talk about goats. Perhaps Sunderland can see something more.”
“Was I supposed to remember something? Oh no…” Eliot looked down, squeezing his fingers and shutting his eyes tight as though to pull up a memory that didn’t exist.
It was becoming clear to Penny that Dean Fogg had never met a child before and had, most likely, never even been a child. “He remembers a lot of things,” Penny said quickly, trying to stop Eliot’s panic before it really began.
“Nothing of importance,” he pointed out.
“He’s five,” Penny snapped and picked Eliot up off the sofa. Were there any adults at this stupid fucking school who could actually be near a kid? As much as Penny hated it, he was starting to think it was best that he found them before a staff member did. “He remembers his mom and his dad and…goats. For some reason he remembers you.” Penny was trying so hard to keep everything calm. Quentin was terrified enough for all of them and Penny hadn’t even tried to deal with that problem yet!
“Which doesn’t fit with the rest of this narrative. He remembers nothing about being here, nothing about his friends. He knows who I am, which is different from remembering me. If he knows who I am then he must remember something.” Hints of aggression and aggravation were starting to seep into the Dean’s voice.
That was it. These were kids, babies! It was one thing to get irritated and mad at them when they were older, but they were little and didn’t know anything. If the Dean was annoyed then fine, but Penny didn’t want that to scare Eliot. There was a spell, something to keep their conversation private, something to keep Eliot from overhearing. Unfortunately, Penny couldn’t remember the circumstances for it and was pretty sure he needed both hands to cast it. Instead, he just covered on of Eliot’s ears with his hand and pushed Eliot’s other ear against his chest. “They did a spell. It went wrong. They don’t remember shit, okay? They’re kids and you gotta treat ‘em like they’re kids. Eliot might be in a cult, Kady is squirrely, Alice loves horses, Quentin doesn’t talk, and Margo is exactly the sa—“ Shit. Shit, shit, shit! Where the fuck had Margo gone. “Margo is a fucking runner. I gotta get Eliot to Sunderland and find Margo. Just…fix this and be useful! I can’t be the only one doing shit, I can’t raise five kids! I have midterms coming up!” He managed to keep his voice low enough that he wasn’t shouting, but his anger and frustration were evident.
The Dean pursed his lips together, watching Penny and Eliot like he knew some great secret they weren’t privy to. He seemed unperturbed by what Penny had said to him. It was as though Penny hadn’t spoken at all. “I’ll review the spell they attempted to cast, see where they went wrong. It’s possible we can fix this within a few days. If not, then I’ll have to call in a specialist. I’ve explained the situation to Sunderland.” He paused and looked at the children for a few seconds. “Given the circumstances, I think we can excuse you from midterms if things aren’t quickly restored to their natural state.”
“Good. Good. Wait, I can seriously skip midterms?”
“If you suddenly become an unwed, single mother raising five children who exhibit extraordinary magical proficiency? Yes, you can skip midterms.”
At least something good might come out of this. “Okay. Alright then. You go, uh, figure this out and I’ll keep them all alive as best I can.” He still had to find Margo who could be any-fucking-where and he had to make sure Sunderland didn’t do anything to Eliot.
“Penny? One more thing.” The Dean raised his hand and made a fist. “I deafened Eliot’s ears the moment you picked him up.” He pointed his index finger out and then his middle finger. He crossed the two several times, alternating which finger was on top, made a fist, and twisted his wrist. “As far as he knows, we were discussing goats. Now, if you’ll excuse me.”
How was it that Dean Fogg was simultaneously the most useless and helpful person? Eliot seemed perfectly content, unaffected by a conversation he had been magically barred from. Penny rolled his eyes as Fogg left him to keep the Physical Kids alive. “Smug bastard,” Penny mumbled, shaking his head.
Eliot gave a small wave. “Bye, Henry!” He clung to the front of Penny’s shirt and looked up, worrying his lower lip. “Penny, I don’t need to see the doctor lady. I’m not sick. My tummy doesn’t hurt and my throat is okay.”
“She’s…not that kind of doctor, El…” There really wasn’t a good way to explain this to Eliot and Penny needed a fast lie so he could find Margo.
“What kind of doctor is she? She one of those city doctors that-that—um, of who gives kids pills to make ‘em…” What Eliot said next was entirely incomprehensible and Penny had him repeat the word several times before Eliot finally, and with a dramatic sigh, gave up. “It’s that thing on the news that daddy doesn’t like.” He paused and thought for a moment. “It’s the president! He’s one! A libohl.”
First of all, it was weird to hear Eliot say ‘Daddy’ and mean ‘Father’. Almost as weird as hearing Eliot say ‘Daddy’ and mean ‘Person I Would Like To Fuck’. Secondly, Penny finally understood. Eliot had been trying to say ‘liberal’ but his rhoticism got in the way. Third, Penny was now certain that Eliot grew up in some kind of Ultra Conservative Southern Baptist cult. “The…president. Obama?”
Right, right. Bill Clinton would’ve been president when Eliot was five. To be honest, Penny had been at Brakebills so long he wasn’t sure if Obama was even still president. Time worked differently at Brakebills. Was he supposed to have voted?
“I don’t wanna be a libohl.”
Penny wanted to explain to Eliot that it was perfectly fine to be a liberal, but he decided to wait until Eliot was older. Much older. Back to being twenty-five, anyway. “She’s, uh, she’s not that kind of doctor. It’s just a normal check-up, okay? To make sure, uh, to make sure you can run and play and do all the normal camp things. We don’t want you to get hurt or anything so…Prof—Nurse Sunderland is going to look you over and make sure you’re as healthy as you look,” he explained, hoping that Eliot would accept this without question.
“She won’t give me a shot?”
“Nah, no shots. She won’t hurt you. I’ll make sure of that. If you need me you can yell, okay?”
Eliot sighed as though all this was taking such a toll on him. “Okay. But I was promised a nap and if this takes a real, real long time and I don’t get my nap then I’m going to be very upset with you,” he said, for once not stumbling over his words. This was either a phrase he had practised or one he heard a lot.
“Don’t worry, you’ll get your nap,” he promised. The last thing he needed was a cranky Eliot. Admittedly, he was glad Eliot was so eager for a nap. If he could get them all to take a nap then maybe he could actually get a little bit of a break to figure some shit out. Penny sat Eliot up on the kitchen counter for Sunderland.
Rubbing at his eyes, Eliot gave a small nod as he yawned. “Is she a nice lady?” he asked, squirming on the counter.
“Sunderland? She’s…she’s a real nice lady.” Hell, he’d been telling them lies all day. One more wasn’t going to hurt. “She’s just gonna look at you and I’m not gonna be far away, okay?” He hoped. For all he knew Margo was on the other side of campus by now.
The way Eliot was looking at him made Penny’s stomach clench. There was so much trust in those wide, brown eyes that Penny wanted to destroy every threat so this child would never know suffering. It made him wish he didn’t know that Eliot would grow up to have a long standing love affair with suffering.
Penny pursed his lips and nodded. “Yeah, kiddo, I promise. And you can yell if you need something, okay? Now, Sunderland is gonna check you over. You can say hi to her if you want.”
Eliot nodded and looked up at Sunderland through his lashes. “Hi…I have all my blood and we have to hurry so I can have a nap,” he told her as though those two things were connected in any way.
Rather than question his statement, Sunderland nodded and slipped the strange, blue tinted glasses on again. “That’s excellent. It’s always good to keep your blood inside your body. And, if you’re cooperative, then we’ll be done very soon. Do you know what that means? Cooperative?”
While Eliot was stumbling over a response Penny slipped out of the kitchen. He felt a little guilty about it, knowing Eliot was nervous around strangers and definitely wouldn’t like being left alone, but he also had the small problem of Margo being missing. It would be fine, he told himself, he’d find Margo and be back before anyone even noticed he was gone. Everything was going to be just fine. Maybe if he said that enough then eventually it would be true.
The first thing he had to do was get somewhere where he could focus. He hurried upstairs and slipped into Kady’s bedroom, relishing in the momentary silence. There wasn’t much time to enjoy it, however, he needed to get his mind clear and focused. Penny settled on the floor, closing his eyes and psychically scanning everything around him. Quentin’s panic was still loud as ever and Penny couldn’t shut it out. He could shut out the muted thoughts he heard from Eliot and the humming that leaked from Alice’s partially warded mind, but he couldn’t silence Quentin’s anxiety and he didn’t have time to deal with it.
Penny strained his mind, trying to extend his scan. Just when he was about to give up and try a spell he heard it. It was difficult to explain what it sounded like in Margo’s head. It was like listening to someone quickly speak a language you had studied but weren’t fluent in. Penny could vaguely understand what was happening, but he wasn’t getting the whole story. The worst part wasn’t the disjointed words in her mind, no, that was just confusing. There was something that Penny had discovered was exclusive to children. When adults didn’t have wards he could listen in on whatever they happened to be thinking, which was hilarious. With children it wasn’t their thoughts that were the loudest, it was their feelings. He had been dealing with Quentin’s fear all afternoon and when Margo’s emotions flooded him it nearly knocked him over. It wasn’t just like listening in to someone’s thoughts, it was harsher than that. Words, at least, made sense and he could understand them, explain them. It was harder to explain suddenly hearing loneliness, abandonment, confusion, and resentment. Feelings didn’t come in a way he could articulate. There weren’t words but he could still hear them loud and clear. Adults thought about things, children felt about things.
His eyes flickered open and Penny had to take a couple of deep breaths to regain his bearings. He’d spent all day with Margo, but he hadn’t heard her emotions until he pushed, as though her heart was more guarded than her thoughts. Holding onto the bedframe, Penny pulled himself up and shook off all the residual emotion from Margo’s mind that lingered in his chest. He knew exactly where she was now and there was some relief in that, but knowing how she felt left his mind swimming with worries.
Making his way downstairs Penny wondered if Margo had always felt like this. If, even as an adult, she saw herself as the person left behind. It wasn’t like Margo was isolated. Was she? Whenever Penny saw her she had Eliot by her side, she was never really alone. No, that wasn’t quite true. Penny knew better than anyone that having someone next to you didn’t mean you weren’t alone.
As he passed through he checked on everyone in the living room and found himself smiling a little. Quentin was still hiding, he hadn’t really moved much at all. Alice was stretched out in the floor, fast asleep, marker in her hand. Kady was sitting in front of the window with her markers, but she had stopped drawing and seemed to just be looking at the landscape. They were actually kinda cute when they were still. He let himself out onto the back deck, closing the door gently behind him.
“There’s at least a million kinds of dogs, but I only get whole bred dogs,” Margo was telling him, her voice very serious as though they were discussing diplomatic matters. She was lounging in a lawn chair, oversized sunglasses over her eyes. She looked perfectly relaxed, not a care in the world as she took a sip of her pineapple juice.
Todd was laying in the hammock on the deck, hands behind his head, staring up at the sky. He looked thoughtful for a minute before he nodded. “Like corgis.”
“Just like corgis. Queen got them, that makes them the wholest dogs. Queens only get the best, you know. That’s how they become queens. They get the best stuff and people make them queens.”
Jesus Christ, all children were just tiny stoners. He shouldn’t have been surprised that Todd was getting along with Margo, but he had hoped that maybe, just maybe, Todd would have realised that there was something a little weird about hanging out with a kid. Did he have to explain why that could be viewed as a little creepy? Penny cleared his throat, stepping out a little further onto the deck.
Turning her head, Margo looked at Penny over the top of her sunglasses. “You didn’t RV for this party,” she told him and settled back down in her chair, relaxing once more.
“R.S.V.P,” Penny corrected. “And that’s because this isn’t a party, Margo. You can’t just wander off. What if someone grabbed you or a wolf ate you?”
Margo scoffed. “My best friend, Todd, could fight a wolf. He can fight anything. Even Allie’s dumb-butt big brother.”
A stick could beat Todd in a fight. Penny knew this, and Todd definitely seemed to know this. He stood up out of the hammock, setting his drink on the deck. “I really don’t want to fight—are there really wolves here?” he asked, looking at Penny with bloodshot eyes.
If there were then Kady would probably want to catch them. “If there are then you’ve been volunteered to fight them. So, you’d better figure the wolf population out real quick. Todd.”
“Look,” Todd said, moving closer and lowering his voice to a whisper, “this may be the nicest Margo has ever been to me—or anyone—but I’m not fighting a wolf. They’re bigger than you think.” He paused and horrified realisation crossed over his face. “That’s why she’s been telling me about dogs.”
“Yeah Todd. That’s exactly why she was telling you about dogs. So, you should probably get inside before the wolves come.” He’d been trying to scare Margo, but apparently it worked better on Todd. Whatever drugs that boy was on he needed to quit or get better at functioning on them.
Todd nodded, looking over his shoulder as though he expected wolves to come rushing over the hills. “Okay, Margo, firework hands before I go.”
For a moment Penny was worried that Todd had been doing magic around Margo. He stepped forward to stop them, expecting at any moment for fireworks to rain down from Todd’s hands. That didn’t happen. Instead, Todd and Margo fist bumped, ending it with jazz hands and bad imitations of exploding noises that made Margo giggle.
“Keep her safe from the wolves, man,” Todd said, offering his fist to Penny.
The glare Penny gave him made it quite clear that they weren’t going to be doing ‘firework hands’ and caused Todd to awkwardly slink back inside. Alright, now he just had to get Margo inside and everything would be fine. “Come on, you don’t want the wolves to get you, right?”
Margo was completely ignoring him. It wasn’t like Quentin, who was always too anxious to answer, Margo was mad and was responding by sipping her juice and not talking to Penny.
Great, well, this was just fantastic. Penny rolled his eyes and walked over, kneeling down beside Margo’s lawn chair. “You want go back inside or you wanna sit out here alone for the rest of the day?”
“I was fine out here until you made Todd leave,” Margo told him. “He’s nice and really stupid. I like him, he’s good to have around.”
Oh god, Penny couldn’t wait to remind Margo of how Todd was her best friend. Though, it was a little bittersweet. On the one hand, yes, it was absolutely hilarious, on the other hand…he couldn’t shake off the loneliness he’d felt radiating off Margo. “Well, you can come inside and make other friends. Eliot is pretty stupid,” he offered. They were best friends, right?
Margo huffed. “Eliot is a baby. And Allie just talks about her stupid brother, and the other little boy doesn’t talk, and the girl with the curly hair…” Margo paused and thought for just a moment. “She’s too little. That doctor lady even said that she was too little. She’s probably a baby too. Anyway, I don’t wanna be friends with them. Todd is dumb but he’s not baby dumb.”
Though she was very small, Penny was pretty sure that Kady wasn’t a baby. Sunderland had mentioned that Kady was incredibly small for her age, but that definitely had a lot more to do with malnutrition than being, as Margo so delicately put it, a baby. “Well, I still need an assistant. It’s getting really close to naptime and I haven’t gotten anything done.”
“That sounds like a You problem.”
Okay, well, he’d really expected that one to work. Apparently he could only trade attention for responsibility once a day with Margo. Penny wracked his brain, trying to come up with something that might bring her inside. “That’s fine, you can stay out here by yourself. I’ll just give Kady the princess bedroom tonight and you can sleep out here with the wolves. We’ll have to repaint, I think her favourite colour is orange—“
“Orange it the worst colour ever for a princess room!” Margo interrupted, finally turning to look at Penny. “Honestly, Penny, sometimes I wonder if you know anything about things. You need my help more than I thought. “
Got her! Before Penny could celebrate too much his brain was assaulted with…well, something. It wasn’t words and he couldn’t pinpoint the emotion, but he knew one thing for certain: Quentin was in trouble. “Yeah, yeah, I guess I don’t know much about princesses,” he said quickly, trying not to wince from the aggressive static in his head.
“You don’t know nothing. I can draw it for you. I draw way better than that other girl. I bet her skunker drawing stunk.”
“Yeah? Come on and you can prove it.”
“Carry me,” Margo demanded as she got up. “But not like how you do Eliot like a horse.”
As long as it got them back inside Penny was fine with carrying Margo on his back. She wasn’t very heavy, though she did hold onto his neck like she was trying to choke him. He made a mental note as he went back inside to make sure Margo didn’t feel totally ignored. It was hard to give his attention to her though when everyone else needed just as much and there always seemed to be a new emergency. Right now, his emergency was Quentin.
Sunderland was leaned over the kitchen counter, examining a very still Quentin with her monocle. Quentin looked relatively okay, sitting up on the counter with his eyes squeezed shut, but the noise in his head was so loud it was nearly deafening.
“Hey,” Penny snapped, stepping towards the pair. “What happened with Eliot and how’d you get Quentin up there? “ As far as he knew Quentin wasn’t able to move and didn’t like being touched, or having people near him. Penny was shocked that Quentin wasn’t throwing more of a fit.
Without looking up Sunderland answered, “I finished up with Eliot. Granted, I had to do it while he was unconscious. In the middle of his examination he declared that he was overdue for a nap, laid down, and immediately fell asleep. It...it was rather impressive, actually. He just went to sleep so fast. After I put Eliot on the sofa I told Quentin to get on the counter and up he went. I think you’re all caught up now. If there are no more questions—“
“I have several questions. One: Why do you even need to look at him? He’s…he doesn’t like—I don’t know what he likes, but I know he doesn’t like this. You looked at four of them already, just skip him.” Penny wasn’t sure why he was being so protective. Maybe it was just that the fear exuding off Quentin made him want to keep the world away from him. Or maybe it was just because he didn’t know what to make of the small, scared child and he didn’t want him to have any more loud and confusing emotions.
“I was the best, though,” Margo announced as she slid off Penny’s back.
Sunderland gave a small nod. “You certainly were the first, Miss Hanson.”
Margo smiled, oddly smug for someone who hadn’t really been complimented at all. “I have to draw Penny a princess room because he doesn’t know what a princess is. He thinks princesses are orange!”
“Yeah, I’m real dumb about princesses and Margo is real smart about them,” he said, keeping his glare on Sunderland. “Hey, go draw me that room so I can make it all perfect for you and I’ll get…some cookies together for you?” Kids liked cookies, right?
For a moment Margo looked disappointed, but she held her head up high and smirked. “You’d better. I gotta get paid for this. I don’t do art for the ‘spo-sure.”
It took Penny a few seconds to realise Margo meant ‘exposure’ but she was gone before he could promise her commission pay. “I’ll be there in just a minute, Margo! Draw me something good!” he yelled after her.
“I promise it’ll be the best anyone has ever made you!” she yelled back.
Alright, Margo was happy enough for the time being. Now he could focus on this disaster of a situation. “Okay, seriously, back off. You’ve got him freaked out.”
“He’s perfectly fine. A little fear is good for a child, healthy even. Besides—“ she swapped out her monocle for what looked like opera glasses—“there’s something different about him than the others. I think he might remember more.”
Penny clenched and unclenched his fists, trying to remain calm as Sunderland continued to look at the boy. “Or he’s just fucking terrified because a weird lady with pockets full of glasses keeps looking at him,” Penny countered.
Sunderland turned around, cocking her head to the side. “Or, perhaps the fact that you can’t control the volume of your voice has scared him. Or, and more rationally, there are residual effects of the Chronomancy mistake and Quentin here has gazed into the abyss.”
“Horomancy.” Penny corrected out of nothing but pure spite. “And don’t talk about that shit in front of him.”
She narrowed her eyes. “First of all, I’m not sure Quentin even understands us or what we’re discussing. Secondly, you’ve been talking to Dean Fogg. Don’t pay attention to him, he’s arrogant and completely incorrect. I’m not going to explain why Chronomancy is more correct; you can read about it in my dissertation. You can also read his argument on the proper term, but it’s full of contradictions and, frankly, isn’t worth even your time. ” She paused. “Waste of Time, that would have been a better name for that article.”
“This entire argument is a waste of time. It doesn’t matter if Quentin remembers what happened or not. Know why? Cause he’s not gonna tell you unless you step back and let him chill the fuck out,” Penny explained as he took a step closer to her, standing between her and Quentin.
“And I can’t fix this unless I know what happened. I need to finish examining him, find out what’s keeping him so quiet. If he gazed into the abyss of time I need to know. I need to know exactly what went wrong.”
Alien in the tubes.
Penny’s ears perked up. “What?”
He held up his hand, cutting Sunderland off. “Not you. Shut up.”
They’re all around the tube. Talking about the alien, not to it. It’s a thing. Not a person. A thing. Can’t talk to it. Can’t hear it. Only talk about it. Only see it. Not a person. Have to fix it. It’s not right.
As Penny listened to the first concrete thought he’d heard inside Quentin’s head he felt his stomach twist in knots, and not from reading Quentin’s emotions. It hadn’t even occurred to him that Quentin was listening, that Quentin was taking in everything they were saying and understanding. Worst of all, he hadn’t realised that neither of them had, not one time, talked to Quentin. They’d been arguing about him without even seeing him. God, they were all terrible. The words mixed with the emotions, quickly getting drowned out by them and they ended up sounding like static.
“Penny,” Sunderland said, snapping her fingers. “Step back and let me finish examining Quentin. He’s actually interesting.”
Completely ignoring his professor’s orders, Penny turned around to look at Quentin. If Penny wasn’t able to read his mind then he’d have no idea how Quentin was feeling. The boy had opened his eyes, but his expression was unreadable. There was slight panic in his eyes, but mostly he just looked vaguely uncomfortable. “Hey,” Penny said in what he thought was a calm voice. Really, he just sounded quietly aggressive. “Hey, Quentin, you okay?”
Quentin didn’t respond and Penny wasn’t surprised. He didn’t look up, he didn’t nod or shake his head. He just sat there quietly, squeezing his eyes shut for a few seconds and opening them repeatedly.
“Alright, alright you don’t have to say anything…” Penny took a deep breath, unclear about what Quentin needed and unsure how to get that information. “Here, you wanna get down? You can go back to sitting by the couch if you want. Or you can sit on the couch. Whatever. But you don’t have to talk to the doctor anymore. She’s going to go away.”
Sunderland cleared her throat. “I really need some more information—“
“Here, want me to help you down?”
It was the first word that Penny had actually heard Quentin say. Well, he’d heard Quentin whisper his name to remember it, but this was the first time Quentin had said something directly to him. And he definitely knew what the word meant. He jumped off the counter, hitting the ground hard. If the jump hurt then Quentin didn’t seem to care. Scrambling to his feet he took off running towards the common room, not looking back and hurrying out of sight.
“You do realise that a thorough examination might have helped reveal more to us about what, exactly, the effects of the spell were, right?” Sunderland said, her voice clipped as she gathered up her materials.
Penny shrugged and leaned against the counter. “You looked at all of them. They all did the same spell. And you were about to give Quentin a panic attack.”
“I was making sure he wasn’t suffering catatonia,” she explained. “That isn’t an unheard of side effect of Chronomantic mistakes.” She paused, sighing and shaking her head. “Obviously you care about you friends—“
“They’re not my friends.”
Sunderland stopped and looked Penny over as though seeing him for the first time. “No, they’re not. They’re small, vulnerable, and defenceless. They’re children and that’s why you care about them.”
Penny scoffed. “No, they’re children so someone has to keep them alive,” he explained. He’d already talked about this with Dean Fogg. Someone had to make sure they didn’t stick a fork in an outlet or eat one of Todd’s brownies or something.
“I don’t believe that’s the whole reason. You know as well as I do that given your particular gif there are a lot of things in this world that are just impossible for you to have. You know that you’ll never have a wife or husband, much less a herd of little brats running around. You’re not trying to protect them, you’re trying to play pretend. Penny, you can’t play family forever,” she told him. There wasn’t malice in her voice, only sadness and a touch of pity. “But, you can for a few days. It’ll take me at least two days to work over their spell and if I can’t resolve it then Henry will call in a specialist.”
There was so much in her monologue that Penny needed to digest. So much that he wanted to correct and argue with, but he found himself swallowing hard and focusing on the last sentence. “A specialist?” he asked, keeping his voice strong. “Yeah, he mentioned that. What does the Specialist do exactly?”
Clipping her bag closed Sunderland gave a nod. “Yes. And she’ll be able to restore the natural order of things. If you want more information about her I suggest you ask Henry. I don’t make those calls.” She paused for a moment. “I can tell you, however, that it is highly probable that they’ll have little to no memory of what happened.” As she moved to leave Sunderland stopped and put a hand on Penny’s cheek. “So, play pretend until we figure this out.”
Without another word she left him in the kitchen, alone. It wasn’t that she had given him anything new to think about really, he had known for a while that he couldn’t settle down. Being a traveller was dangerous, it came with a lot of risks, and, sure, he got to see the world and the insides of active volcanos. All of that sounded really cool on paper. The reality was that there wasn’t much cool about it. He could travel around the globe, and he would always be alone.
But, he wasn’t playing pretend. Was he? A family wasn’t something Penny had ever had, so he never thought it would be something he missed. Yet, as he walked into the living room he felt a pang of despair and a longing he had never known.
Alice was still holding tight to her marker, sleeping on the floor with her face pressed against her drawings. Margo was half on the ottoman with a paper clasped tightly in her hands. On the sofa Eliot was curled up, looking almost smug about his nap. Kady, though not asleep, was completely silent. She sat in the window, her legs crossed and her eyes closed. Was she meditating? Penny didn’t want to interrupt and ask her. She looked so peaceful. And Quentin, terrified Quentin, was hiding in his usual spot, clutching a pillow to his face. Penny was making it his official mission to get Quentin to calm down while everyone else was napping.
Penny stood there, just watching them for a moment, wondering what it would be like and wishing beyond wishes that Sunderland had been wrong.
Chapter 4: Work, naps, and more work
Work, naps, and more work
“Hey, hey, Quentin, it’s okay. The doctor is gone, she’s not coming back. I promise.”
Penny had spent the past five minutes knelt down on the floor trying to get Quentin to put the pillow down and talk to him. It was going nowhere slowly. Quentin had proved that he could talk (or, at least, he could say the word ‘no’ and Penny’s name) he just didn’t seem to have any intentions of actually speaking. He kept his back pressed against the sofa and held the pillow so hard against his face that Penny wasn’t sure he was even able to breathe. Despite how poorly things were going, Penny wasn’t ready to give up just yet. He had a lot to do if he was going to be taking care of these kids for two days. He had to fix their rooms, figure out how to shrink clothes, make dinner. The list went on. But the first thing he had to do was figure out what was going on with this fucking kid.
The little bit Penny had gotten from Quentin’s brain had been terrifyingly insightful. First of all, he thought Quentin probably watched way too many episodes of The X-Files. Quentin’s television habits weren’t what had Penny concerned. Hell. Penny had once wanted to be Mulder and marry Scully. That was where they differed. Penny thought of himself as one of the agents and Quentin…Quentin saw himself in the aliens. Yeah, granted, Quentin was a weird kid and he grew up to be a weird, loser adult. While Penny didn’t have much sympathy for the Quentin he had been roommates with, this Quentin was tiny and was just a kid. He didn’t need to worry about fitting in or being weird or whatever. Not yet. Those were grown up concerns.
“You don’t have to be scared,” Penny reassured him for what had to be the twelve-hundredth time. He was starting to feel like a broken record and like his words were just words without any meaning. Quentin was frightened and repeating thephrase ‘you don’t have to be scared’ was useless. It was like telling an angry person to calm down. “Look, everyone else is napping, no one is gonna hurt you or make fun of you or whatever.”
“No,” Kady interrupted. “Some of us are medi-medidat-medi—“
“Meditating?” Penny filled in for her, looking back over his shoulder. She was still sitting in the window in perfect lotus position with her hands on her knees. It was almost scary how impeccable her posture was and how completely still and silent she had been. It was a clearly a practised position, something that she had done so many times that it was now just natural to her.
Kady snorted and opened her eyes to glare at Penny, her position never changing. “I know that word!” she snapped and then said a little more quietly, “My mouth just got trouble saying it. But I know what it is! I know ya gotta be quiet and think ‘bout nothin’ and you’re bein’ noisy and making me think ‘bout somethin’s.”
It was downright unnerving to see a child so hyper-focused on meditating. “You don’t have to meditate Kady. You can rest and take a nap like everyone else,” he told her, motioning towards the empty loveseat. She had to be exhausted. Hell, she’d yawned and rubbed at her eyes when Sunderland was examining her. “Naps can be better than meditating,” Penny suggested.
The look she gave him was the most scandalized look Penny had ever received from a child. Tilting her head Kady was quiet for a minute as though waiting for him to take back what he’d said. When he didn’t, she scoffed and rolled her eyes. “I don’t got time for a nap. I gotta medi-medi-“ She paused and huffed in agitation. “I gotta do my work.”
Work? Kids weren’t supposed to work and they definitely weren’t supposed to consider meditation work. “Okay…why do you have to meditate?” Penny was learning more about Kady in these few hours than he had in months of knowing her. He was starting to think he liked it better when he knew nothing.
Kady sighed as though Penny was the stupidest person she had ever met and it was beneath her to explain. “On account of how it’ll make me strong one day when I’m big,” she told him.
“You’ve got plenty of time to learn how to be strong.”
She shook her head, her curls falling over her gaunt face. “Nuh huh. Little kids learn it easy and big people learn it hard. ‘Sides, I gotta be strong real, real soon. That way Mama don’t gotta do all the stuff and I don’t gotta stay with Coco. Cause of how when you’re strong you can help better.” She paused nodded, as though having a private conversation with herself. “Imma be strong like Mama cause I do my practises like medi—I do my work.” She smiled, looking very proud of herself.
Oh shit. It really should have clicked a lot sooner, but Penny suddenly realised what Kady meant by strong. Battle Magic. She hadn’t told him much after the first Beast attack. All she’d said was that Battle Magic was illegal to study and that sometimes it just came out of people in stressful situations. Like those stories about mothers lifting up entire cars to saved trapped babies and shit. She said all she knew was that anyone who actually studied it spent decades meditating and practising. Then she’d stolen his sandwich.
“So, be quiet,” Kady said, interrupting Penny’s thoughts. “Talk like a mouse, I can make those sounds little in my head and not hear ‘em.”
He wanted to interrupt her, have her take a nap and just be a normal fucking kid who didn’t need to worry about being strong. That wasn’t a little kid concern! No one should be worried about studying battle magic. How long had this been going on and why had she lied to him about it after the Beast attack? What else was a lie?
“Alright, we’ll be quiet,” Penny promised. As much as he wanted to stop her and have her take a nap like a normal kid he wasn’t sure he could. Kady seemed so serious about her meditating and Penny didn’t know how she would react if he tried to make that away from her.
Silently, Kady let her eyes fluttered closed again. As she settled back into her meditative state she somehow relaxed her shoulders while keeping them perfectly squared and straight. It just wasn’t natural. Penny knew adults who couldn’t sink into meditation like that and Kady did it so fluidly and easily.
He’d gotten distracted again and had let Quentin fade into the background. There was just always a louder emergency that pulled his attention away. Well, not anymore. Kady was meditating, everyone else was asleep, and there was nothing to divert his focus. He turned back to find Quentin still sitting against the sofa. On the plus side, he had lowered the pillow from his face now. Penny suspected that was only because Quentin had realised he needed to breathe.
“Alright, we gotta be quiet now,” Penny whispered. “Not that that’s really a problem for you, I guess.” There had to be something that would get Quentin to talk. According to Sunderland, Penny had at least two days of babysitting ahead of him and he kinda needed to know what these kids needed if he was going to keep them alive and relatively happy. There had been kids in the system that didn’t talk, usually because of trauma. But, sometimes they had therapists and shit to help. For now, Penny was all Quentin had. “I get that you’re nervous or whatever, but it’d be super helpful if you said anything.”
There was no verbal response but Quentin did move. For a moment Penny was hopeful as Quentin lifted his hands. Maybe he knew sign language? It wouldn’t really help, but at least it would be some kind of communication, even if Penny couldn’t understand it. Quentin didn’t sign anything. He brought his hand to his mouth and sucked the webbing between his thumb and index finger.
Gritting his teeth, Penny promised himself that he wasn’t going to get frustrated. Or, at the very least, he wasn’t going to show that he was getting frustrated. He knew that Quentin understood what was going on, Quentin had proven that during the examination with Sunderland. He understood what people were saying and when people were talking about him. The kid wasn’t stupid, just weird. For a moment he wondered if Quentin had residual memories. Eliot had known Dean Fogg’s name, maybe Quentin remembered that Penny had been, at times, what some people might call a dick. Maybe that was why he was scared? If he could just get Quentin to tell him… “Give me something to work with here, kiddo. Favourite food? Show? Colour? Your name? Hell, my name? At least let me know you know where you are right now,” he practically begged, rattling off whatever he could think of.
It was too much, Penny realised too late. He couldn’t get a concrete thought from Quentin, not like he had in the kitchen. But, he was starting to get a handle on weeding through Quentin’s weird emotions. There had been too many questions asked at once and he could feel it start to overwhelm Quentin. So he stopped. He stopped and tried to think of another plan. If questions didn’t work then what would?
“Quentin Makepeace Coldwater.”
Had he really just heard that? Penny perked up, unsure if Quentin had really spoken or if he had just had another solid thought. Either one would be a win, really.
Quentin was still looking down, but his lips were moving and words were coming out. “Penny.” He paused and furrowed his eyebrows. “No otheme. I’m at Camp Brakebills. Daniel and Stephanie were here when they were grown-ups. They’re your— Al-Alice’s parents.”
“Holy shit,” Penny muttered, staring blankly at Quentin. The kid had actually talked! Not only that, he had blurted out a complete sentence with absolutely no trouble. “You remembered Alice’s parents went here…” Penny had almost forgotten about that and now he was forced to remember that Alice called her parents by their first names. “Do you remember anything else?” He was too shocked that Quentin was talking to even make fun of the fact that Quentin’s middle name was ‘Makepeace’.
There was a pause and Quentin swallowed, squeezing his eyes shut. “Charlie will come here. He makes toy horses. Alice Likes horses. Margo—“ Quentin’s eyes got wide suddenly as though he was witnessing unspeakable horrors—“Margo has a bad horse,” he finished in a frightened whisper.
Oh, right, Margo’s twenty-foot tall horse that weighed a hundred pounds. That would be a creature of absolute terror if you were a person who understood weight distribution and not a five year old boy. Unless… “Oh shit, you’re a genius, aren’t you?”
If there was an answer then Quentin wasn’t giving it up. His response to Penny’s question was to go back to chewing on his hand.
Shit, he’d made him go quiet again, and they were just starting to get somewhere! Penny tried to think of another question to ask, something that would keep Quentin going. He thought back over Quentin’s answers and paused. Wait a second. There was some kind of trend here. Penny thought back to all the questions he’d asked Quentin and started to pick up on the pattern. “Quentin? What’s your favourite food?” He had a theory and if he remembered the scientific method correctly then the next step was to test that theory out.
As Penny expected, Quentin didn’t say anything or even act like he’d heard the question.
Penny nodded, making a mental note before continuing. “Capital of Florida?”
“Tallahassee,” Quentin immediately said, his voice muddled by his hand.
Penny felt like Sherlock Holmes solving some great mystery. From what Penny could gather, Quentin didn’t answer with his opinion. He answered with facts. His name was Quentin. Fact. Stephanie and Daniel went to Brakebills. Fact. Margo’s fake horse was pure nightmare fuel. Fact. Okay, alright, Penny wanted to play with this a little bit, just to make sure he was right. “Favourite superhero?”
“What’s Batman’s real name?”
Penny smirked and relaxed a little bit. He had Quentin speaking, now he just had to get Quentin actually talking. “Yeah? You like Batman?”
Quentin was silent again, but he screwed up his face like he was trying to think of what to say. He opened his mouth and then closed it again, repeating this several times before he finally seemed to find his words. “You like Batman?” Apparently, he hadn’t found his words so he just repeated Penny’s.
Maybe he could still work with this. “Yeah, Batman is pretty alright,” he said, trying to coax anything he could out of Quentin. As far as Penny knew, Batman could do anything, even get Quentin talking. “He protects Gotham, beats people up, does all the shit the police can’t do, gets rid of all the bad guys killing people. ‘Cause he’s a good guy, right? We like the good guys. And he’s got all those weird gadgets and shit,” Penny paused and tried to remember the names of Batman’s weapons but ended up drawing a blank. “Like…a bat-gun,” Penny guessed.
Immediately, Quentin gave an exaggerated shake of his head. “Gun killed his parents,” he said quickly, making the sentence sound like it was all one word. “So he doesn’t use guns. Or kill people. Bad guys kill people and Batman is a-he’s a good guy, right?”
Penny had absolutely no idea whether or not that was true but he also absolutely didn’t care. This was an actual conversation and, yeah, it was about Batman, whatever. At least Quentin wasn’t suffocating himself with a pillow anymore. “I’ll take your word for it.”
It took a few minutes of awkward silence for Penny to realise the conversation was over. Either Quentin didn’t know how respond or he had just run out of things to say, he was chewing on his hand again, seemingly oblivious to Penny’s presence. Well, if he’d gotten Quentin to talk once he could do it again. All he had to do was figure out what Quentin would be willing to talk about. They could do more state capitals, but there was something low-key creepy about hearing Quentin spout out facts.
Think, Penny, come on! You know kids and you know Quentin. Come on! You went to school for this shit! Okay, calm down, what do you know so far?
There wasn’t a lot he knew about Quentin. He knew adult Quentin liked stupidly catchy pop music, but there was no way he was bringing Taylor Swift into this. Little Quentin liked Batman. Maybe. Or he just knew Batman. There was no way to be sure when Quentin spouted facts over opinions.
Penny thought back to that moment in the kitchen when Quentin had compared himself to an alien. He thought about everything that Quentin had said, even him repeating Penny’s name four times like Margo had done. Exactly like Margo had done. When they were talking about superheroes, Quentin had mostly just repeated what Penny had said, aside from when he mentioned Batman didn’t use a gun. The whole conversation had been little more than Penny talking to a yak-bak.
“Shit, I fucked up,” Penny blurted out.
He should have noticed earlier, but he’d been so busy with the fact that everyone else was a bit louder and prone to starting fires that he hadn’t paid that much attention to Quentin. It wasn’t really an excuse. The more he thought about it the more he realised that he should have seen this shit in adult Quentin too. It was way more obvious in the toddler sized version though. Quentin had never once looked at Penny, he chewed his hand for comfort, and relied way too heavily on echolalia for a kid his age.
By no means was Penny a psychologist or a diagnostician. He was just a kid with a bachelor’s degree and some shitty experiences. What he thought really didn’t mean anything, but he was fairly confident that Quentin was on the Autism spectrum. Penny wasn’t a specialist, he couldn’t be positive in his assumption just because Quentin presented symptoms he’d read about. Despite not having a doctorate degree to back up his theory he was going with it.
The first thing he did was try to remember all the treatments he’d learned about in school. The second thing he did was throw half of those treatments out the window on the basis that they were absolutely horrifying to him. Though, based on the robotic way Quentin had said his name, Penny suspected that someone else hadn’t found them quite so horrifying.
All he had to do was figure out what was going to calm Quentin down and, to do that, he had to know what was making Quentin anxious. For the first time, he actually started to understand. He didn’t need to read Quentin’s mind, the answer was all around him.
“It’s scary,” he finally said, breaking the silence of the room. “You’re in a totally new place, you don’t know any of these people, none of your shit is here. It’s fine to be scared. Hell, anyone would be. And…I can’t really fix that. I can’t make this your house, I can’t make you know people, and I can’t just go get your stuff. It’s just—it’s not an option.” This wasn’t the first time he’d given a speech like this. He’d given it so many times that he forgot the faces that passed through the years.
This time it was a little different. This time he had something comforting that he could offer. Or, at least, he hoped he did. “It’s, uh, it’s okay though. I mean, I bet the Chat-Chatwins? Yeah, the Chatwin kids. They probably got scared when they went to Fillory, right? It was a whole different world. And I mean that literally.” Okay, he knew jack-shit about those stupid goddamn Fillory books. All he really knew was that Fillory might be real, there were some kids who went through a clock and found magical, wish granting…things. Maybe his limited knowledge would be enough.
Penny waited for Quentin to say something. Anything. Once again, Penny wasn’t entirely sure that Quentin even heard him or if Quentin even knew about the Fillory books yet. Maybe he was trying too hard. He needed to work out a new plan, or find a plan. Right now, he thought that Quentin just wanted to be left alone and had no interest in letting Penny soothe his panic. So, Penny grabbed the edge of the sofa and moved to stand. At least he’d have some time to get the bedrooms ready for the kids.
Did he actually hear that? Pausing, Penny turned his head and looked down at Quentin. It didn’t look like he’d said anything, but maybe… “What?”
“You’re wrong,” Quentin repeated without moving.
Yes! Quentin had spoken! That time Penny had seen his lips move and everything. “Alright…how?”
Quentin took a deep breath as though preparing himself. He looked nervous, like he was afraid he was misbehaving but he couldn’t let Penny go through life being so wrong. “Fillory wasn’t scary. Fillory was great. It had everything they wanted and Rupert could even get his—get his injury fron the Great Warhealed. Fillory was the place they wanted.” He paused and screwed his eyes shut in thought. “There was a war and they had to go away from home. They went to a new place with new beds and new doors and new blankets and they didn’t have their parents or anything. Just each other and-and-and Cornwall was scary! Not Fillory.” he explained, his tiny hands balled into fists.
Okay, Penny was starting to see where he’d made his mistake. Maybe. Mostly, he was a little disturbed that Quentin, even at such a young age, had such a firm grasp of the books. Penny sat back down, waiting to see if Quentin was going to say more. “Yeah, I guess you’re right,” Penny said after Quentin fell silent.
“I’m sorry…” Quentin’s hand went back into his mouth almost immediately.
Penny shrugged. “Don’t be, you’re right. I don’t really know much about Fillory. Just thought it’d be scary going to a new world but, yeah, you’re right. Going to a new house is really scary.” Now, how did he connect this to Brakebills to calm Quentin down? “But, uh, once they found Fillory the house was okay, right? I mean, I’m not saying you’re gonna find a magic closet full of Centaurs and Hobbits—“
Right, there weren’t Hobbits in Fillory or something. “Yeah, guess that’s Lord of the Rings.”
Quentin didn’t say anything. He just stared at the floor in absolute confusion.
“You, uh, you like Lord of the Rings?” At least Penny knew something about that. He’d read those books and there were three great movies made about them.
“I don’t…know that.”
How the fuck had Quentin read so much about Fillory but didn’t know about Lord of the Rings? Oh, Penny had to fix this, and he could! This was something he could actually fix and maybe, just maybe, it would be helpful. “Oh man, you gotta read The Hobbit at least. You like reading? You don’t have to answer that—I know you do. Hold on, there’s definitely a copy upstairs. Just—just stay where you’re at.”
Not that staying still had been a problem for Quentin so far. Penny was pretty sure that he could put Quentin anywhere and he’d still be there the next day. So, for a few seconds he abandoned him and ran upstairs to the Quentin’s bedroom. If Quentin had a shelf full of Harry Potter replica wands then he definitely had a copy of The Hobbit somewhere. Penny knew that he shouldn’t be quite so excited about this, but he was. He was oddly proud of himself for everything he’d managed so far. Although, he was highly disappointed that his college degree was turning out to be completely useless when actually working with kids.
The Hobbit was stacked neatly in a pile of books on Quentin’s shelf. It seemed weird for Quentin not to have his books, like, alphabetized or some other lame nerd shit, but who was Penny to question Quentin’s organisation? He grabbed the book and hurried back downstairs, finding everyone either asleep, meditating, or cowering just as he’d left them.
“Alright, you’re gonna like this. It’s like Fillory but better.” Well, maybe. Fillory had adventure and all that shit, but it just wasn’t the book Penny wanted in his life. The Hobbit, however, was a classic with dragons and dwarves and probably all kinds of fantastic things that Fillory didn’t have.
With a suspicious look etched onto his face, Quentin tentatively took the book from Penny and turned it over in his hand. He stared at the wall behind Penny with those wide, haunting eyes, hugging his book close to his chest as though he expected to have it suddenly jerked away from him. When it became apparent that Penny wasn’t taking the book Quentin’s suspicion only seemed to grow. “How come?”
Penny raised his brow and shrugged. “Cause…it’s a good book?”
“How come I get to read it?” Quentin paused and nodded, apparently finding the answer himself. “Quentin talked. When Quentin talks like a normal boy he gets to read his books. Five minutes and then Quentin does flashcards. Don’t—don’t bite your hands.”
It was the repetition again that got Penny and made his heart sink. A part of him wanted to reach out and touch Quentin’s hair or rub his back, give him some kind of reassurance, but he didn’t. Quentin clearly didn’t like touching and Penny didn’t want to set him off or send him into a meltdown. He needed to find another way to make Quentin understand he was safe.
“Hey, no, it’s not like that,” Penny explained. “Look, it’s totally fine if you just wanna chill over here and read. There isn’t any shit you have to do before you’re allowed to read your book.” Penny didn’t understand. He’d given Quentin a book; he thought that’d make him happy. So, why didn’t it?
Quentin went quiet again, staring at the floor and worrying his lower lip. He shook his head, carrying n a conversation in his mind that Penny couldn’t hear. “Coco brought Kady,” he finally said very matter-of-factly. “If Coco brought Kady then who brought me?”
Wait! Penny actually knew that Quentin had parents! Well, he knew that Quentin had a dad. He could actually answer this one! “Well, it wasn’t Coco,” Penny said, trying to make a joke. Quentin didn’t laugh. “Uh, right, anyway, it was your dad. Your dad dropped you off this morning. You were, um, asleep and he didn’t wanna wake you up because, ya know, naps are great. But, he said to tell you that, um, he loves you and he hopes you’ll have fun and he’ll see you real soon.” That was something a dad would say, right? Shit, Penny didn’t know enough about Quentin’s family for this. In fact, all he really knew was that Quentin’s dad had cancer and that wasn’t exactly useful.
“Daddy brought me?” Quentin asked. Before Penny could think of a response Quentin had dropped his book to the ground and pressed his ears over his hands. He drew his knees in close to his chest and hid his face in his legs. “No more. No therapy for Curly-Q. Daddy didn’t know. He didn’t know the doctors were mean. He’s sorry. No more doctors. Promise. Promise. Promise.” Quentin’s voice was a harsh whisper as he echoed words his father had once said and his hands went from his ears up to his hair, pulling hard on the sandy blonde locks. “No doctors. No analysts. No counselors. No more for Curly-Q.”
Everything spiralled so quickly that Penny didn’t have time to think. “Jesus, what’d they do to you,” he said as Quentin continued his mantra of ‘no more’. Penny didn’t Quentin to tell him what he’d been through, he already knew. Someone had tried to ‘fix’ him. To make him their idea of ‘normal’. Someone out there who called themselves a doctor had hurt a kid just because he learned differently than other kids. Several people had fucked up and Quentin was the one who had to live with their mistakes. It was a punch to the gut when Penny realised that he’d fucked up too.
It wasn’t that he’d done it on purpose, he had no way of knowing that he was fucking up. He didn’t understand at the time that he had magnified Quentin’s anxiety. It wasn’t just that Quentin was in a new place with new people. It wasn’t that Quentin remembered that Penny had been kind of a dick to him when they were older. No, it was all about how Penny had introduced himself.
I’m your camp counselor.
That had done it. Quentin thought he was back in a place full of doctors looking to make him a normal boy all because Penny had referred to himself as a camp counselor. He felt sick knowing that Quentin had been terrified this whole time that Penny was going to hurt him. Was that why he hadn’t moved? Was that why he’d gone with Sunderland so easily? Penny couldn’t imagine what had been happening in Quentin’s head all day, but it had to be absolutely torturous to sit there in absolute fear.
“Hey, hey, it’s not like that—“
Penny’s panicked monologue was cut abruptly short. The world around him was suddenly too bright, too loud, and too much. He could hear the lamps in the room buzzing with electricity and it felt like his ears were being drilled into. The sunlight reflecting off the white curtains was blinding him and he hit the floor, his head spinning. A million thoughts rushed through his brain but none of them tangible. There were two words that screamed above the menagerie of twisted thoughts spiralling around in his mind: No more.
These weren’t his feelings. Penny had felt hurt before, he had felt anxious, afraid, and out of control. What was happening to him now couldn’t be compared to any emotion he’d ever experienced. The most comparable thing he could think of was a hurricane ripping along the Florida coast. Heavy rain would flood anything that the high winds didn’t tear apart and there was no way to stop it, no way to control the violent storm or stop the destruction. Penny had been through hurricanes before and this, this raw emotion, was a category four.
He pulled himself halfway off the floor, holding onto the sofa and gritting his teeth. This was Quentin. Everything he was feeling was Quentin’s. Jesus, the kid was only four, how the fuck did he deal with this? How the fuck did he not just die from whatever was ripping Penny apart? If Penny could make it back to his room then maybe he could find a combination of pills that would stop this, or at least slow it down
He didn’t make it to his room. He did, however, manage to make it to the kitchen before collapsing back on the floor. The linoleum was cold against his cheek and he rolled onto his back,, squeezing his eyes shut and trying to get away from Quentin’s open emotions. Despite the quiet of the cottage Penny couldn’t reach his usual meditative state. The noise in his head was too loud for him to focus on escaping.
Deep breaths, deep breaths, no more no more no more. It felt like he was drowning in the ocean and every time he came up to breathe those two words pushed him back underwater. There was no way to clear his mind, he just had to lay on the floor and wait for it to pass. He had to wait for his mind to calm down and for his legs to work again. Time. Time was bullshit.
After an eternity of anguishing in a mental void, Penny was abruptly pulled back to the too-bright room by a hand on his shoulder. He jerked back, his muscles burning as he moved from the uncomfortable, curled position he’d been in before. “Don’t—no touching,” he muttered, bringing his hands up to close to his chest.
“Right, no touching. Did you—did you pass out?”
He didn’t recognise the voice. It was a girl speaking and that was all he really knew. “No—don’t touch.”
“No one’s touching ya, buddy. Okay, you need to get off the floor.”
“You need to fuck off.” The feelings were starting to fade and Penny tried to pull himself up. Rubbing his face he paused. His cheeks were wet? Why were his cheeks wet? Had he been crying? “Quentin—“
The girl was knelt beside him, hands in her lap and her cane sitting beside her. She watched him with wide blue eyes and knitted brows. “He’s fine. I mean, he’s a baby and he’s not fine, but forget that right now. I came over here for a laugh and this isn’t funny. Did—why are you on the floor?”
No, Quentin was okay, Penny knew that. He hadn’t been okay before, but he was getting there. The pain in Penny’s chest was starting to dissipate and he could see normally again, Quentin’s emotions were easing away. “Don’t worry about it. Just…get me some water.” He rubbed his temples and wondered if this happened to Quentin a lot. Penny needed to talk to him, make sure that didn’t happen anymore.
The girl—Gretchen, he thought her name was—grabbed her cane and limped over to the fridge. “One of ‘em thought you were dead. I explained that dead people don’t shake.”
“One of what thought I was dead?”
She grinned and knelt back down, handing Penny a bottle of water. “The babies. I thought Todd was making it up or hallucinating because, shit, have you met Todd? But, oh my god, they’re adorable!”
Penny shook his head and leaned back against the cabinets. “No, no, they’re all napping right now,” he told her and took a sip of water, hands shaking. His throat was so dry that the water burned all the way down to his stomach.
“What? No, they’re awake and confused and one of them is really upsetting when it talks,” Gretchen explained. “Seriously, though, what happened to you? Residual magic shit or—“
“Don’t—don’t talk about magic. Shit, they’re awake?” How long had he been on the floor and what all had these kids seen? Damn it, he was supposed to be taking care of them and he’d already fucked up! Not on purpose, but if he was a better Magician then he’d have been able to block out Quentin’s emotions. He would have been able to help. “I need to—“
She held up her hand wagged her finger at him. “You need to sit down and chill out for two seconds. You want a Xanax or something?”
Again, he shook his head. He wasn’t going to fuck up again. He had to be alert and sharp if he was going to keep everyone alive and it Xanax wouldn’t help that. “Gretchen—you’re Gretchen, right.”
“At least you remember my name. Do you know your name? The president? What year it is?”
“It was a psychic attack, you wouldn’t understand, okay?” Hell, he barely understood what had just happened. “Just do me a favour and take everybody outside. Except Quentin, I guess. I don’t think he likes outside. And don’t touch him. Or talk to him. Just take everyone else outside—“
“Hey, I didn’t come over here to watch a bunch of kids—“
“And yet here you are!” Penny took a deep breath and closed his eyes. “Just give me a few minutes and I guarantee they’ll say something hilarious that’ll make it worth it.” Hell, Eliot would probably say something distressing and funny within the first five minutes.
Gretchen grabbed the edge of the kitchen counter and pulled herself up. “You’re lucky that you had some kind of seizure and that Alice is the cutest thing I’ve ever seen in my life.” She hesitated, drumming her fingers against the handle of her cane. “Are you sure you don’t need anything?”
Penny nodded and finished off the bottle of water, feeling like himself again. He had his control back and he just needed to take a few minutes to try to mediate and protect his mind from anything else Quentin might feel. Just a few minutes.
She stared at him, lips pursed as though wanting to argue. Finally, Gretchen gave a small shrug and turned away. “Okay…just don’t die.”
There wasn’t time to die, not when there were five kids who needed him. He listened to Gretchen’s heavy steps back into the common room, her cane thumping against the hardwood floor between her steps. He let his eyes flutter closed and took several deep breaths, filling and emptying his lungs completely. If he could find his centre then he could get himself calmed down, relaxed, and maybe get some extra wards up in his own brain for added protection.
Before he was even close to centring himself, Penny was nearly knocked over by a flying Eliot. He managed to catch himself with one arm before his body smashed against the floor. His other arm caught Eliot as the body buried his face in Penny’s chest. The emotional attack had left him weak and there was no way he was able to carry Eliot around right then. “Hey, what’s the matter?” he asked, leaning against the cabinet to keep himself upright.
Eliot mumbled against Penny’s shirt and Penny had to get him to repeat himself several times before he was coherent. “I’m not suppose to go with strangers,” he finally managed to explain.
Oh shit. Yeah, he should have seen this coming the moment he told Gretchen to watch them. “She’s not a stranger. She works with me, she’s a….she’s a real nice lady, okay?” It would be an easy fix.
“I told him I was a nice lady,” Gretchen interrupted, leaning against the door frame. “He’s faster than I thought. And adorable. I think we should keep him this small forever, like cance—er-Gerald.”
While Penny didn’t completely disagree he really needed for Gretchen to be a little more helpful! “Eliot, you’re gonna be fine,” Penny said, “Gretchen is gonna be real nice and good to you. But you gotta to go play outside for a little while.”
Whimpering, Eliot clung tighter to Penny’s arm. “No,” he whined. “What about if you have another fall down?”
Penny wondered if Eliot was genuinely concerned or if he just didn’t want to go outside with Gretchen. Looking at the kid, Penny decided it was probably a combination and he reassuringly rubbed Eliot’s back. “I’m okay. Sometimes people fall down.” There wasn’t a way he could explain this to Eliot and he was frankly too tired to come up with a lie right then. “But I really need you to go with Gretchen. That way I can fix your bedroom so you’ve got a good place to sleep tonight.” Fuck, he still had to do that. Why was he the one in charge of everything here?
“I can watch you do that. I’m real good at watching people.”
“You can watch everything that happens outside. Come on, up you go.” He managed to dislodge Eliot from his arm with a little work and got the boy standing again.
Lower lip trembling, Eliot looked at the floor. “How come Quennin doesn’t have to be outside?”
“Because Quentin isn’t feeling great, buddy.” It wasn’t a lie. If Quentin felt anything like Penny did then there was no way he was going to go run and play outside.
That seemed to cheer Eliot right up because he stopped pouting instantly. “Can we make him a card? People are supposed to get a card when they feel bad and it says ‘Get weller soon’ and it makes them better!”
Gretchen made a cooing noise and grinned. “Tell you what, you come with me and we’ll make something for Quentin to make him feel better.” She looked over at Penny, absolutely delighted.
“Okay! Penny, no more falling down, okay?” He sounded so serious about this.
“Yeah, I promise. No more falling down. Go with Gretchen, buddy.”
After giving Penny one last hug Eliot followed Gretchen out of the kitchen. Good, at least that was fixed. Now all Penny had to do was straighten out his brain, talk to Quentin, and get everyone’s rooms cleaned out. He made a mental note to give Gretchen a bottle of wine or something and see if he would bribe her into helping him out a little more. There was so much he needed to do and he couldn’t get everything done by himself and there was no way Todd was going to be any help. Not when he was hiding from wolves, anyway.
It took a few minutes, but Penny finally felt a bit more like himself. Okay, he was still a little disconnected and the world didn’t feel entirely real, but he could walk and he didn’t want to curl up on the floor anymore. This, he assumed, was as good as it was going to get and he grabbed another bottle of water before making his way into the quiet common room.
The silence was unnerving now. Sure, he’d only accidentally become a parent a few hours ago, but he had gotten used to the noise of children frighteningly fast. Or maybe he was just used to the Physical Cottage being loud. Whatever it was, it felt so strange to walk into a quiet room and Penny was just waiting for someone to start yelling.
As he listened, Penny realised it wasn’t completely silent. There was a grumbling from behind the sofa and Penny followed the sound, finding Quentin exactly where he’d left him. He was sitting up, his head resting on his knees and his hands on his feet. It almost looked like he was asleep, but he was talking. No, talking was the wrong word for it. He was making sounds, but they weren’t words.
Swallowing hard, Penny knelt down and opened the water bottle. What was he supposed to say? Sure, he knew what Quentin had just been through, but that didn’t mean he understood it. He didn’t know what Quentin needed or what would help. All he knew was that he couldn’t leave the kid to feel bad by himself, he couldn’t leave him on the floor all scared. “Hey. Hey, you, uh, you’re not okay. I’m not even gonna ask that. I got some water, that’ll help. Your throats probably pretty sore right now. I know mine was.”
The noises stopped and Quentin was still for a minute. Slowly, he turned his head and his blurry eyes stared down at Penny’s feet. “Chest hurts,” he said, closing his eyes again.
Penny didn’t doubt that every part of Quentin hurt, but he couldn’t just take the pain away. It was something that he knew would have to go away by itself, just like the hurricane. “I know, buddy. That’s why you’ve gotta drink something. You need some help or—“
“No.” Quentin took a shaky breath and seemed to use all his strength to sit up and lean against the sofa.
It was actually a bit of a surprise when Quentin took the water bottle. Penny had expected a bit more hesitancy, like Quentin had had before. But he reached out and took the bottle from Penny, sipping it slowly and letting out small sighs of relief. Hell, he’d probably dehydrated himself. Quentin drank half the bottle before he carefully set it back down on the floor.
“It needs a lid, Penny. It doesn’t need to spill on the floor that’s why it needs a lid,” Quentin explained, holding the bottle as though if he let go it would tip over.
“Right…” Penny screwed the lid back on and watched Quentin gently let go of the bottle. The lid seemed to relax Quentin a little bit and Penny wondered what all was going to set him off. Would a spilled drink send Quentin into another meltdown? How was Penny supposed to make sure everything was okay? “Hey, Q? I know you got scared earlier and that was—I know that it hurt you. And I can’t do a lot about that.” Shit, he was really bad at his, but he didn’t know what to say. He didn’t know what would help and he didn’t think Quentin knew either. “All I can do is tell you that nobody here wants you to be scared or hurt. Nobody’s gonna hurt you, I’m gonna make sure of that. Okay?” Anyone got near Quentin or upset him and Penny would be sure it was the last thing they ever did.
Quentin was quiet for a moment. While Penny had been talking Quentin had started chewing on his hand again and had a thoughtful look on his face as he sucked at the webbing between his fingers. “I know what happened,” he said, deadpan. “Gret-Gretchen said it. That one broke. Penny broke too. They both fell down. I came here for the funny, not this bullshit.”
Wow, Quentin’s echolalia really came in handy sometimes. Actually, with how quiet Quentin was and his ability to remember things he would make a great spy. It almost meant people needed to watch their fucking mouths around him. “She said that?” A little discretion would have been nice.
“Mmhmm. Did you fall down like I did?”
Penny gave a small nod and pulled one of his knees to his chest, wrapping his arms around it. He couldn’t fully explain what had happened and it was a bit more than just falling down, but maybe that was what Quentin called it. “Yeah, I kinda did. Did you get hurt? When you fell down, I mean?”
Quentin looked away, biting the inside of his hand and shaking his head vigorously.
Okay, he was definitely hurt somehow and sucked at lying. “Hey, hey, it’s okay, man. Just tell me if you’re hurt and we’ll fix it. You’re not gonna be in trouble.”
Again, Quentin shook his head and retreated into a small ball. “No, you’ll cut my hair,” he said frantically, bringing his hands up to cover his head.
“Why the fuck would I cut your—oh. Oh fuck. They did that to you?”
It took Penny a moment to remember everything that happened before he fell down. Quentin had been pulling at his hair and Penny suspected that he’d probably pulled part of it out. Sure, hair pulling was self-destructive, but there were way worse ways to cope. Hell, he could’ve been curling up clawing at his face or something. As far as self-harm went, Penny was pretty okay with hair pulling.
“It’s…it’s fine. I can’t fix it but it’s fine. Don’t worry. No one is cutting anyone’s hair or anything like that. I promise.” He didn’t know how else to reassure Quentin, this was the best he could do, really. “Look, I feel down too, remember? And if I feel down why would I get mad at you for falling down? You’re allowed to fall down, Quentin. We just…don’t want you to be hurt. And we’re not gonna punish you for being hurt. Okay?”
Quentin brought his head up out of his lap and looked up, blinking slowly. His eyes trailed down and his head tilted. Very slowly and cautiously, he reached out his hand and pointed at Penny’s arm, not quite touching him. “You scratched. Did you scratch when you fell down?” he asked in a quiet voice.
Penny looked down at his left arm, surprised to see several long, red, angry scratch marks running along his dark skin. There were little droplets of blood gathered along the marks, making it look like he had been running through a briar patch. “I guess I did. That’s not too good, huh?” He didn’t remember tearing up his arm, but he figured that it probably happened when he had the melt-down.
“You’re not supposed to scratch,” Quentin told him, pulling his hands back away from Penny. “They’ll tie your hands. No hitting, no scratching, no pulling, no biting.” He paused and pursed his lips, staring at the wall again. “I fell down too,” he repeated.
Nodding, Penny moved a little bit closer and relaxed when Quentin didn’t immediately pull away. “Yeah, I did. And I scratched my arm, which was bad but I can’t do anything about that now except put a bandage on it.” He had no plans of putting a bandage over his arm, the wounds were shallow and he was just going to shrug them off. “So, don’t worry about it, Q. As long as you’re okay then…it’s okay. So, are you okay now?”
After a moment of hesitation Quentin gave a small nod. “I think I am. My chest doesn’t hurt as bad. Penny?”
“Is it okay if I read the book?” he asked, looking down and nervously playing with his hands.
With everything that had happened Penny nearly forgot about The Hobbit. It was lying on the ground, forgotten in the chaos. “Yeah, course you can. You gonna be okay down here if I go upstairs for a little while?” It wasn’t that Penny wanted to leave Quentin alone, but he still needed to get everyone a place to sleep. Besides, he figured that Quentin was fine as long as he had a book.
Quentin nodded and eagerly grabbed the book up off the floor. “Yes, Penny. Will you be okay?” He lifted his head, not quite looking at Penny.
Penny smiled and pushed himself off the floor, standing and stretching. “Yeah, I’ll be fine. You just enjoy that book, okay? If you need anything I’m right upstairs, okay?”
Was it bad that he liked them small? They were sweet and caring and he kind of understood them a little bit better. Two days of taking care of these kids wouldn’t be easy, but Penny was starting to think it was kind of fun, and not just because he was going to have a shit ton of blackmail on all of them. They were good kids, and Penny felt like he was doing a pretty good job at babysitting. Everyone was alive and he had a plan to keep them that way.
The first part of his plan was to child-proof their bedrooms. It wasn’t until he walked into Eliot’s room that he realised what a monumental task this was going to be. They were sweet kids, but disasters as adults. Eliot’s room was a paean to debauchery. Mostly empty wine bottles littered the floor, an overflowing ashtray sat on the nightstand beside a flask, and there was a tower made out of medication bottles on the dresser. None of the bottles had Eliot’s name on them and Penny wondered how Eliot had lived this long.
With a sigh, Penny grabbed a black trash bag and resigned himself to his fate. There was no way he was going to be able to get everything child-friendly in time for the kids to go to bed. Eliot’s room alone was going to take him at least a week. For every alcohol bottle he picked up four more appeared and he kept finding little baggies with Adderall or Xanax in them (those were pocketed for later). Then there was the smell. Cigarette smoke and cologne hung in the air and had seeped into the blankets. This wasn’t a place to put any child, or adult. The whole room just needed to be burned.
Reaching under the bed for a bottle Penny’s hand hit something hard and he pulled out a small, wooden box. The box itself was very ordinary, just an old cigar box with no decorations or lock on it. Penny expected to find pot or airplane bottles of liquor inside, so it was a shock to just see a pile of photographs and an old, worn out stuffed rabbit. Turning the plushie over in his hands Penny looked to see where it had been resewn. There were almost certainly drugs inside it, probably really good ones if Eliot had hidden the toy. But…Penny couldn’t find anything out of the ordinary. He squeezed the rabbit, trying to see if he could feel something inside it. Nothing. The rabbit felt out of place amid the depravity of the room. He set it aside, deciding to test something later, and flipped through the photographs. Most of them were of Eliot and Margo, a few of Eliot and Quentin were scattered among them, and there were hand written notes that didn’t seem worthy of being kept. Most of them were very simple, reading ‘Here’s something for your Hangover. Love, Margo’ or ‘Here’s your book back –Q’.
Penny suddenly felt he was intruding upon something very private. He tucked the bunny under his arm and pushed the box back under the bed. Maybe the rabbit, like the photographs and notes, was purely sentimental. That didn’t feel right, though. Penny couldn’t imagine Eliot carefully preserving anything or caring about stupid notes his friends left him. Most of all, he didn’t understand the rabbit. It was simple, with oversized ears and yellow-white fur. The button eyes didn’t match and it looked like it had once had a ribbon attacthed to its neck. This was something Penny was going to have to investigate further because he didn’t understand.
He continued cleaning until he found a vibrating cock-ring in the floor. That was when he decided that there was absolutely nothing anyone could do for this room and gave up. Eliot was too young and too innocent to sleep in here so Penny found and empty room to stick him in for the night. He stole a set of silky purple sheets and a dark purple comforter from a hallways closet and made Eliot’s bed, setting the rabbit atop the pillows. It wasn’t a great room, but it wasn’t full of drugs, alcohol, and sex toys.
Taking the bag of trash downstairs he stopped by the common room, checking on Quentin and picking Margo’s Princess Room drawing off the floor. There was no way he was going to be able to recreate Margo’s excessive dream room, but he could try to make it look as princess-y as possible so she wouldn’t complain at him. When he got back upstairs he realised the he didn’t actually need to do much recreating, the room look almost identical to the sharpie drawing.
Just like in the drawing, Margo had a dark red canopy hanging over her bed, a mountain of pillows, and a fluffy duvet. White curtains hung over a door that went out to a small balcony and Penny honestly couldn’t believe that Margo had managed to get a balcony in her room. Photographs lined the walls, depicting famous monuments from New York, Paris, London, and Agra. It was exactly like her pictures and Penny realised Margo hadn’t changed her mind about anything since she was five.
Her room was also less disturbing than Eliot’s and way easier to child-proof. He gathered up everything magical, any and all photographs of her and her friends, and anything sexual. Thankfully, all of Margo’s weird little toys were in her closet, so he just put everything in their and locked the door.
Kady’s room was the easiest because there was basically nothing in there and the only thing Penny had to hide was the magic books. It took him less than ten minutes and then he was rushing through the final two rooms, finding out more about the Physical Kids than he ever wanted to. Alice had way more condoms than he expected and books that he never wanted to think about again. Quentin…didn’t have much to hide. A few liquor bottles and a lot of books, but there wasn’t really anything that surprised him. Well, there was one thing that confused Penny a little. Quentin had several pictures of Eliot, some of them framed, on his dresser. Did Quentin take them? Did Eliot take them? This was something to ask about once they were bigger because the answer, whatever it was, would be hilarious.
Penny checked the time and smiled to himself, proud that in forty-five minutes he had managed to make these terrible rooms a place he felt comfortable putting a kid for the night. Now he just needed one more favour from Gretchen and he could make dinner and get these kids in bed. They had almost survived one day and he just needed things to go smoothly for a few more hours.
Chapter 5: Little Kings and Queens of the Dinner Table
Little Kings and Queens of the Dinner Table
“Hey, Q, you wanna go outside and play for a bit?”
Quentin had been lost in his own little world while Penny was cleaning and he seemed startled when he looked up from his book, blinking and taking in his surroundings as though seeing them for the first time.
Kneeling down beside the sofa Penny gave Quentin a minute to reacquaint himself with the world before repeating his question. “Come on, everybody’s outside, you need to get some fresh air. And you can bring your book with you.” It might be good for Quentin to stretch a little bit and maybe put the book down for a few minutes. Penny didn’t plan on taking the book away, but he did want him to move away from the sofa for a few minutes.
“Oh…” Quentin looked down, his hair falling over his eyes. “I can bring my book?” he asked, puzzled.
How often did people take books way from this kid? Was there something wrong with reading that Penny didn’t know about? “Sure. It’s still daylight, you can read outside.”
“May I have a bookmark, please? I-I don’t wanna lose my place and I’m not supposed to read when I walk. I walk into stuff.”
Penny found a scrap of paper and Quentin carefully stuck it between the pages, letting the book flutter closed. Honestly, Penny had expected Quentin to put up more of a fight, but maybe he actually wanted to go outside after being confined to the common room all day. Or, maybe Quentin was starting to get a little more comfortable and was a little more willing to explore the world outside of fantasy. Penny didn’t know and he didn’t ask for fear of overwhelming Quentin again.
With his book held tight to his chest, Quentin silently followed behind Penny with his eyes on his shoes. Every few steps Penny would look back and make sure Quentin was still behind him, not wanting him to wander off, get left behind, or walk into ‘stuff’. Quentin didn’t stray too far, but Penny had to walk a bit slower than normal so that Quentin could keep up with him.
When they made it outside Quentin squinted and looked up, holding his book over his eyes. “Hot,” he commented.
“It’s a little warm.” It wasn’t hot, not by Penny’s standards. He thought it was actually a pretty mild day. The sun was warm against his skin and he took a deep breath, glad to be out of the stuffy cottage for a few minutes.
He spotted the kids playing on a grassy knoll and motioned for Quentin to follow him. They weren’t all playing, exactly. Kady had a pile of grass that she was quite busy hitting with a stick and Eliot was laying on the ground beside Gretchen. Margo and Alice were the only ones playing and Penny wasn’t sure he could call it that. Margo was holding onto Alice’s hands, spinning her around in a circle. They certainly weren’t playing any game that Penny had heard of and as he got closer he wondered if the game was actually ‘Torture Alice’. His suspicions were confirmed when, without warning, Margo let go of Alice’s hand and Alice went tumbling down the hill, shrieking.
In an instant, Penny abandoned Quentin and ran to Alice’s aid. She was still screaming when he stopped her from rolling down the hill, scooping her up in his arms and eliciting a very confusing excited giggle from her. “I got ya, I got ya,” he repeated, holding her close to his chest. “Are you hurt?”
Alice let out another shrill giggle and shook her head. “No! I was rolling! And that was a lot of fun, Penny, but you ruined it,” she told him as sweetly and politely as she possibly could.
“I…ruined it?” She had been screaming, how had he ruined anything other than her absolute terror?
“I was gonna roll further than Margo that time! She made it all the way to that tree and I was gonna make it further. I was rolling very fast, Penny, and I was gonna roll very far because I was rolling very fast.”
So, it was a game? Margo hadn’t just been tormenting Alice because she could get away with it? “So, you’re not hurt?”
Alice shook her head and wiggled until Penny put her back down. “You don’t get hurt when you roll. It’s Margo’s turn to roll now and I have to go spin around with her.” After her explanation, Alice took back off running up the hill.
There would probably be permanent grass stains on her dress, but Alice seemed perfectly fine. She might’ve been a little annoyed that Penny had caught her before she could finish rolling down the hill, but she wasn’t hurt. Just weird. Kids were just fucking weird.
Penny went back to find Quentin wandering off in the wrong direction and got him turned back around to join the others at the top of the hill. Quentin found a shady spot under a tree and settled in, setting his book down in his lap. Unexpectedly, he didn’t immediately open it and start reading again. Instead, he quietly watched as Alice threw her hands into the air and Margo went rolling down the hill, gleefully screaming the whole way down. As long as he was happy Penny was going to leave him be.
“Hey, Gretchen, everybody okay?”
Gretchen was stretched out, her face turned towards the sun and her eyes shielded by Lennon style sunglasses. “Huh? Oh, yeah, they’re alive. Kady ate a bug and Eliot made everybody royalty. Oh, and Margo and Alice have been doing, ya know, that for the past fifteen minutes. They seem happy enough with it.” She smiled, chuckling to herself. “Dude, honestly, this is the best thing that has ever happened here. When Margo grows up, she’s going to be a nine-foot tall super model. I don’t have the heart to tell her otherwise. And Alice is going to be a horse. Or make horses. I was confused about that one.”
Yeah, all that sounded on par with what Penny knew about these kids. “Alice likes horses,” Penny explained, sitting down in the grass. God, it felt so good to just sit down for a minute and relax. Everyone was happy and playing and he could just breathe for a minute.
The minute was up when Eliot climbed into Penny’s lap and started doing something weird to his hair.
“Woah! Hey! What’re you doing, El?”
“I made it for you and you have to wear it. There! It looks very pretty and now you’re a king,” he told Penny, smiling his crooked little smile. “I’m a king too, but I’m a little king and you’re a big king.” Eliot proudly pointed to the flower crown adorning his head. “Quennin is a king too. Can I give him a crown?”
Oh, that was how Eliot had made everyone royalty. Penny looked around and grinned. Kady, Eliot and Gretchen had wildflowers in their hair and there were two crowns set aside, presumably belonging to Alice and Margo. He needed a picture of this and he needed it now. “Well, buddy, I don’t know if Quentin wants a crown. Don’t go over there and just put a crown on his head like you did me, okay? You’ve gotta ask him first.” Eliot was…a lot and Penny wasn’t sure Quentin could handle that. He also wasn’t sure that Eliot knew what personal space was.
Eliot nodded and ran over to grab another flower crown. “He wants it. Everyone wants a flower crown that’s how come I made them. Quennin!”
Penny was ready to intervene at a moment’s notice, holding his breath as Eliot hurried over to the tree. He really didn’t want for Eliot to set Quentin off, but he also kind of wanted Quentin to be included. This could either end really well or really, really poorly.
“I made you a—I made this and that means you can be a king like me and Penny are. Gretchen says that she’s a king too but that’s cause of how I don’t think she knows what a king is. You put it on your head!” Eliot held the flower crown out, practically jumping with excitement.
There was a moment of hesitation where Quentin just stared at Eliot in complete and utter confusion. Then, his hand reached out and gently took the crown, looking it over before lifting it up towards the sun. “Kings,” he said in a very serious voice before lowering the crown onto his head.
Eliot beamed, putting his hands on his hips and puffing out his chest. “Kings.”
“Kings,” Quentin repeated again.
They started chanting. Quentin, who had been too terrified to speak a few hours ago, was now obnoxiously chanting the word ‘kings’ with Eliot. It was the most maddening and wonderful thing Penny had ever heard and he couldn’t help but be proud of himself. He’d helped! He’d actually managed to do something right and Quentin was happy, comfortable, and annoying. Just like a kid was supposed to be.
“On that note, my girlfriend had been waiting for me for, like, an hour.” Gretchen used to her cane to push herself off the ground, brushing stray grass and flower petals off her skirt. “So, Gretchen out. You’re welcome and thank you, this made my year.”
“Can you….can you do me one more favour?”
Gretchen lowered her sunglasses, looking over her nose at Penny. “Look, this was funny and all, but I’m not a baby sitter.”
“It’s not babysitting,” Penny promised, scrambling back to his feet and digging through his pockets. “Look, I can’t leave campus because duh, I’ve got five fucking kids to look after. Here’s Margo’s credit card, can you please just—just go get some kid’s clothes for me? Pyjamas and shit? Please?” He held out the black credit card and blinked slowly, doing his best to win her over.
Rolling her eyes, Gretchen swiped the card out of Penny’s hands and stuck it in the front of her shirt. “You’re so lucky you’re pathetic, my man.”
“Really? Oh. My. God. Thank you,” he said, letting out a sigh of relief. It was official, he owed Gretchen his life because he hadn’t really come up with a Plan B for this.
“Yeah, yeah, I’m a nice person and basically a god or whatever. Anyway, Margo’s credit card, I’m taking Nadia out to dinner with this. You get kid’s stuff and I get a nice date somewhere other than the dining hall. Tootles, Mama Penny.”
Mama Penny? Wouldn’t he be Daddy Penny—No, he didn’t want to think about those words ever. They actually made him a little sick to his stomach and he shook his head, trying to shake those words out of his brain.
As Gretchen headed back down towards the healing cottage, Penny decided that the kids could play outside until it got dark. Everything was going according to his plan. Better, actually! He really couldn’t believe it! They seemed happy and he figured that if they ran around for a little then they’d tire themselves out and be easy to put in bed later. He settled himself back down, watching Kady attack the grass with her stick.
“What, uh, what’re you doing?”
Gritting her teeth, Kady slammed her stick hard against the pile of grass while answering, “I. Ate. A. Bug,” she told him angrily.
That explained literally nothing about what she was doing and Penny covered his mouth to hide his laughter. “So, aha, so…why the stick?”
Panting, Kady finally stopped her rampage against her enemy and wiped her brow. “I’m makin’ the grass flat.”
“What does that have to do with eating a bug?”
“What? I ate a bug and now I’m makin’ grass flat.”
Nothing. Her intense battle didn’t have anything to do with the bug she’d eaten, she just felt like sharing and Penny couldn’t stop himself from laughing, much to Kady’s confusion.
She stared at him, brows knitted, and put her stick to the side. “How come you laughin’ at me? Huh? I bet you don’t know how to make grass flat! Do ya? Huh? Do ya, punk?”
There was absolutely nothing more adorable and hilarious than a tiny child calling you a punk. Penny covered his face with his hands, laughing so hard that he struggled to breathe for a few seconds. Kady had seen Dirty Harry just a few too many times and the effect was glorious. “Nah, nah, I can’t think of a better way to—to flatten glass,” Penny managed to say through his laughter. He didn’t want to suggest putting the grass in a book or something because he didn’t want Kady to stop whatever it was she was doing.
“I didn’t think you did. Grass. Gotta. Be. Flat,” she yelled and resumed her assault on the grass.
They were all so fucking weird and it was fantastic. Eliot and Quentin were still chanting (though they had switched over to yelling ‘No More Goats’ and Penny didn’t want to know why), Alice had Margo were still throwing each other down a hill, and Kady was still flattening grass. It was oddly peaceful and Penny closed his eyes and lay down on the ground, letting himself relax while the kids played. He wasn’t sure how long he laid there, but the next thing he knew he was being poked in the leg.
“Did he fall down again or is it naptime?”
“Grownups don’t take naps, Ellie!”
“And that’s how come I’ll never be a grownup.”
Penny’s eyes flickered open and he found himself surrounded by children, staring down at him like he was some kind of alien. Head tilted, Kady was jabbing her stick into his leg.
“He just OD’d, he’ll be fine,” she said with a shrug.
What kind of fucking life had she been living where that was something you said? “I didn’t OD,” he told her, “and you shouldn’t know what that means. Can a man not lay down for two seconds?” Sitting upright, Penny rubbed at his face and yawned. Had he fallen asleep? Shit, shit, that was what happened when you relaxed! You had to keep yourself alert when there were kids around! “Ya’ll done playing?” he asked, counting to make sure they were all there. God, he couldn’t believe he’d let himself fall asleep! He couldn’t have been out that long, the sun hadn’t set yet, so at least there was that.
“Margo rolled all the way down to the bush,” Alice excitedly exclaimed, pointing down the hill. “She’s probably the best roller and when Charlie comes we’re gonna see if even he can roll that far! I’ve never seen him roll before!”
Margo nodded, looking a little too proud of herself. “Well, yeah, that’s how come I’m the Rolling Queen. Allie is still just a baby, Penny, she’s not good at rolling yet. But I’m teaching her.”
“I told you my name’s Alice,” she said, sounding absolutely exasperated.
“And I told you that I don’t care.” Margo rolled her eyes as though Alice was being completely unreasonable about this.
Alice pouted, lower lip trembling and eyes welling up with tears. “But that’s not my name and I don’t like being called things that’s not my name. You know my name.”
Oh, this was about to get really bad. Before Margo could say something mean or Alice could start crying Penny swooped in. He grabbed Alice, spinning her around in a circle and turning her whimpers into shrill giggles. It seemed like the best thing to do to avoid any kind of confrontation and it definitely helped calm her down. By the time Penny put her back down the threat of tears was completely gone.
Alice held out her arms to balance herself, laughing as she walked and wobbled and tried not to fall over. “That was fun and I’m really, really dizzy now!”
Crisis averted, thank god. Penny wondered if that trick would work when they were bigger and he was going to have to try grabbing Alice and spinning her around, just to see what happened. “Okay, well, who’s hungry?” Penny asked, reaching down to pick up Eliot.
Margo’s hand shot in the air. “I am! Being the Rolling Queen really makes a girl hungry!”
“All I eat is two bugs.”
“Two?! Kady, did you eat another bug?”
Kady looked up at Penny like he was stupid and nodded. “Yeah, it was in my grass.”
Penny really hoped that Kady wasn’t going to get sick from eating bugs and realised that he definitely needed to watch her a little closer. “Yeah, you need real food. Let’s…let’s go get ya’ll some normal dinner back at the cottage.” Oh god, Penny had no idea what there was to cook. He figured that if Eliot could suddenly whip up a four course meal out of nowhere then he could find something to cook.
“Come on, everybody line up. Margo, you’re the line leader. Everybody line up behind Margo!”
They were easier to count when they were in a line and Penny could make sure no one was left behind. Besides, Margo needed a job and looked a little too proud to be the line leader. She marched them towards the cottage, Penny taking the back of the line so he could keep them all together.
“Alright,” he said, sitting Eliot on the sofa once they got back inside, “you guys just play in here while I make dinner. I’ll be right in the kitchen if you need anything. You guys can colour, Quentin you have your book.” There wasn’t really much for them to do, but he hoped that colouring and reading would keep them occupied for a little while, at least long enough for Penny to find something that resembled dinner.
He could partially see into the common room from the kitchen, just enough the he could sort of keep an eye on them. Kady and Alice seemed to be satisfied colouring while Margo talked at them, Eliot was sprawled out on the sofa, and Quentin was back in his reading corner. Trusting them not to spontaneously combust, Penny took his eyes off them and started digging through the cabinets. He managed to find some boxed macaroni and almond butter. Why couldn’t these people be fucking normal and just eat peanut butter? Well, he was gonna find out if kids liked almond butter. Continuing his search, Penny found a plate of homemade brownies in the fridge that definitely weren’t for children and gummy bears that smelled like cheap vodka. The freezer proved to be slightly more bountiful with frozen pizzas, cheese sticks, and lactose-free ice cream. Everything was labelled with someone’s name and Penny ignored it. If he was raising the Physical Kids then everything in the cottage was now fair game and people should just be thankful they didn’t have to do this.
This wasn’t so bad. He’d expected the kitchen to be a lot barer, considering he’d really only found granola bars for a snack. All in all, he was actually going to be able to make a pretty decent dinner. He got the oven preheated and was just getting water on for the macaroni when he heard heavy sigh behind him.
Margo was sitting up at in one of the high bar stools, her elbows on the counter and her head in her hands, looking distraught. She let out another dramatic sigh, eyes on Penny to see if he was looking at her.
Penny wasn’t going to withhold attention from a clearly desperate child. He turned the stove on low and pulled out a chair. “Alright, kiddo, what’s on your mind?”
“Oh, nothing,” Margo said, pouting and deliberately looking away from Penny.
Yeah, she clearly had a whole lot of ‘nothing’ going on. Well, if Penny could get Quentin to talk then surely he could take care of whatever was bothering Margo. “Yeah, nothing? You don’t wanna play with Alice anymore?”
Margo groaned and shook her head. “Allie says that it’s time to play alone now. She’s drawing more stupid horses and they look really bad. I don’t even want to play with her, she’s such a baby.”
“Alice,” Penny corrected. He was wondering how long it would take for the nickname situation to come to blows. “And, okay, Alice is tired. Sometimes people like to play by themselves. You can play with Kady or Eliot or Quentin,” he told her.
Taking her head out of her hands Margo looked at Penny as though he had just told her she could cover her face in spiders and become the Cave Queen. “Penny, Penny baby, no. Kady isn’t fun to play with at all. Kady doesn’t even know what fun means. And Quentin can’t play. He’s not a boy. He might be a really dumb dog or a kinda smart plant,” she explained to him, her tone serious as though all of this was fact and Penny should’ve already known.
He had to bite his lip to keep from laughing. The last thing he needed to do was encourage Margo to call Quentin a smart plant. “What about Eliot?”
Her head fell again and the pout returned. “I can’t play with Eliot.”
“Eliot is a baby. A stupid, dumb, butt baby. I can’t play with dumb butt babies and he hates me!” The last part was said in a high pitched whine before Margo dropped her head against the counter.
This was, by far, the stupidest problem they had dealt with all day. Penny rubbed his temples and smiled to himself. He wasn’t sure Eliot hated anyone except strangers, and Margo definitely wasn’t a stranger. She had made herself known. “I’m sure he doesn’t hate you—“
“Nuh uh, he does. And that’s dumb of him ‘cause I’m Margo. Everyone loves me! Everyone is my friend. But he just wants to play with Quennin and take naps and make you carry him!” She looked over at Penny, lip out in a pout. “Can I stay in here with you? I can tell you how to make dinner. I’ve watched people cook before, I know how to do it.” She paused, thinking for a moment. “You’re my friend. That’s why I should make sure you cook right.”
It was hard to say no when Margo was actually being sweet. Poor kid, she needed a friend and Penny wasn’t sure that she’d ever actually had one. “How about instead of cooking you make me a menu for dinner so everybody knows what we’re eating? I bet you’re really good at drawing and writing.” It would keep her busy and Penny wouldn’t have to deal with Margo burning herself on the stove.
“I can do that,” Margo said, seeming a little less upset now that she had a job to do. “That way the babies will know what they’re eating.”
“Right…I’ll go get some markers. You hang tight, don’t touch the stove.”
Problem solved. He was getting really good at helping these kids out and fixing whatever little problems came up. Was there a profession in the magic world for this? Like a Magician social worker? He thought about asking Sunderland about it, and then shook that thought away. She would just tell him, again, that he didn’t have a real future and that jobs shouldn’t be his main focus. Besides that, Penny wasn’t about to let her know that she was right, that he was enjoying himself.
Alice and Kady were still colouring. Well, Alice was colouring, Kady was aggressively scribbling a marker against the paper. Quentin was reading, lost in his own world again. And Eliot was…staring at the ceiling.
Gathering up materials for Margo, Penny went over and lightly shook Eliot’s shoulder. “Hey, buddy, you can’t take a nap right now. Dinner’s gonna be ready soon.” He didn’t want Eliot to spoil bedtime with a nap.
“Not napping,” Eliot whined. “Just bored. You guys don’t got a T.V or nothin’. There ain’t nothin’ to do here at all.”
It was pretty boring here, especially if you were a kid. Unless you liked reading there weren’t a lot of options for fun activities. Hey, maybe that was why the Physical Kids held so many parties. A party would ward off the impending monotony of being stuck in upstate New York.
“You can always play with someone. I mean, I know Alice wants to play alone but…you can play with Quentin.”
Eliot sat up and raised his brow, looking more like Eliot than he had all day. “Penny, not be rude but I already done a lot of jumping with Quennin and that was fun, but I don’t want to jump anymore. And Quennin is wood.”
“Wood,” Eliot repeated. “Ya know, like Pinocchio but not a real boy yet.”
Kids were so fucking weird. Quentin was apparently a dog, a house plant, and a block of wood. Thankfully, Penny managed not to laugh and Quentin was too busy reading to hear anything that was happening. “Quentin isn’t wood. He’s just…different than you,” Penny said, unsure how to explain it.
Eliot sighed and laid back down. “Whatever. I’m bored.”
“You could play with Margo?”
“No, she hates me.” Eliot paused and sniffled, lip wobbling. “Which isn’t fair because I’m friends with everyone even though Alice likes horses and Kady doesn’t know any real songs and Quennin isn’t real! I should be friends with Margo even though she’s mean and bossy. I’m friends with everybody! She plays with Alice and I don’t like rolling down hills and why does Margo hate me?”
What. The. Fuck. How had Eliot and Margo independently decided that they hated each other? What was wrong with them? Okay, okay, Penny could fix this. This was easy to fix because both of these kids were fucking idiots. “Eliot, you wait right here, I’ll be right back.”
Penny was thrilled to see that the kitchen hadn’t burned down while he was gone for two minutes and Margo hadn’t tried to cook. Honestly, the latter was more impressive. He walked over, picking Margo up and balancing her on his hip.
“Penny! What’re you doing? I can walk! I’m not a baby.”
Oh, she was definitely a baby, the worst kind of baby, and he was going to put her with the other baby and they would be best baby friends forever. He dropped Margo on the sofa beside Eliot, kneeling down so he was eye level with both of them. “You two are going to play together. Some kind of game, I don’t care what, but you’re going to play together,” he told them, trying not to grin.
Eliot and Margo looked at each other and then looked away, Margo crossing her arms. “I don’t wanna play with him.”
“I don’t wanna play with her either,” Eliot said in a quiet voice.
Penny rolled his eyes and scoffed. “Listen, I can read your minds and I know for a fact you two wanna be friends.”
“I told you that,” they exclaimed in unison before looking at each other.
Margo giggled and looked down. “We said the same thing!”
“That’s called a jinx,” Eliot told her, his smile returning. “If we said the same thing then are we friends?”
There, now this was better. When Margo didn’t immediately answer Eliot’s question, Penny stepped in. “Hey, you two, I can kinda see into the future, okay? And I know for fact that you’re going to be more than friends. You guys will be best friends and it’ll annoy the shit out of everyone else. Trust me.” They would be horrible and loud and drive everyone around them completely insane, but it was better than them not being friends somehow.
Margo listened and nodded, looking back to Eliot. “Penny is really weird.”
“Oh yeah, he’s the weirdest and his shirt is weird. But he has lots of bracelets, so that’s good.”
“I like his necklace but not his shoes.”
Great, they were friends. They were friends who disapproved of Penny’s fashion choices, but they were at least friends and they were happy. Goddamn, he was good at this! Everybody was happy, he was getting pizza in the over, his water hadn’t boiled over, and he was wondering if he was forgetting about something. Things had been going too right. Were these people just more functional as children? Would it be wrong to keep them this small?
No, no, Penny couldn’t think about that. He had to focus on dinner and keeping everyone alive. Sunderland was going to figure out what had happened and she was going to fix it and that was all there was to it. Somehow, even the prospect of blackmail and laughing at them had lost its flavour. Even the most hilarious moments were just adorable now and he wasn’t sure what to do.
Alone in the kitchen, with all the kids happily playing, it all hit Penny. This taste of honey was vehemently unfair and he almost wished that he had just handed these kids off to Sunderland and Fogg so they could deal with it. This, all of this, was just the universe mocking him for what he could never have. This could be the last time he ever got to take care of kids or fix their problems or listen to dumbass ramblings about horses. He’d thought about it a couple of times during the day, but there had always been a bigger emergency to distract him. Now, everyone was happy, even Quentin was fine, and Penny felt more cut off from the world than ever before. He felt like he was sixteen again, sitting in a group home and knowing that he was never going to be adopted, knowing that he would never have a family to go home to. This was stupid, this was the stupidest thing in the world and he hated himself.
There was no way the kids could see him like this. After getting the macaroni stirred up and taking the pizza out, Penny popped in some cheese sticks to cook, checked on the kids, and went to the bathroom. They couldn’t be left alone for long and the cheese sticks cooked fast, so he had to pull himself together as quickly as possible.
Oh he looked like absolute shit. There was no spell to get rid of the puffiness around his eyes or his runny nose. All Penny could do was wash his face and hope for the best. His chest ached with unshed tears and he slammed his fist against the porcelain sink, biting down on his lip to keep from yelling as pain shot through his hand. “Goddamnit,” he muttered, wincing as he flexed his fingers. Well, nothing was broken so at least he had that going for him! He still looked like shit though.
Running cold water over a towel he roughly rubbed at his face, which only made his eyes burn worse. It helped a little with the swelling and he figured this was as good as it was going to get. He dried off and got back to the kitchen just in time to take the cheese sticks out. He took several deep breaths and grabbed another bottle of water, trying to calm himself down before he went back to the kids.
Margo and Eliot were still on the sofa, Eliot half laying on her. They looked almost like themselves again, just smaller. They were talking, but quietly, and Penny couldn’t quite make out what they were saying.
There was a tug on his shirt and Penny looked down to see Alice staring up at him. “I drew you this!” Alice told him, excitedly waving a piece of paper in front of him.
“Oh you did? Let’s see it.”
He looked down at the paper, seeing two poorly drawn horses, each carrying an equally poorly drawn rider. Alice pointed at the grey horse that seemed to have a mushroom of yellow on its back. “That’s me,” she explained before pointing to the black horse that with a brown tree above it, “and that’s you. And that’s Brakebills and we’re going to learn about magic! Do you like it?”
Penny bit the inside of his lip and smiled, blinking quickly as he looked down at the drawing. It took him a moment to get himself back together, but he cleared his throat and folded up the paper. “I love it. I’ll hang it up somewhere, okay?” For now, it was going in his pocket and he’d find a book or something to stash it in later. “Let’s get some dinner, okay?”
“Hey, guys,” Penny said, trying to get everyone’s attention. “Come on, we’ve got pizza and macaroni, and cheese sticks. Or I can make you a sandwich. Whatever. Dinner’s in the kitchen.” It wasn’t until he said it out loud that Penny realised how fucking weird this menu was. Whatever, if they would eat it then that was good enough for him.
Eliot slid off the sofa, holding onto Margo’s hand. “Thank goodness, I’m starving!”
Penny counted them as they went into the kitchen, making sure everyone was coming to dinner. Margo, Eliot, Alice, Kady…and he was missing one. Figuring that Quentin was still stuck in his book Penny made his was over to Quentin’s hiding spot to gently pull him back into reality and get him some dinner. The spot was Quentinless. Penny checked under the sofa despite knowing that Quentin wouldn’t fit. Penny felt his stomach drop. Quentin couldn’t be missing, not now, not after Penny had worked so hard to keep everything perfect!
“Hey! Hey! Has anybody seen Quentin?”
The kids stopped and Margo turned around, shaking her head. “Penny, Penny, baby, Quentin doesn’t even real.”
For a split second Penny thought that maybe, just maybe, he had completely imagined Penny. Then he realised that was stupid and Margo was just being Margo. “Seriously, Quentin is missing. Did anyone see him?” he asked again.
“I seen him,” Kady spoke up, crossing her arms.
Good, good, this was good! “Okay, Kady, where’d you see Quentin?”
Kady shrugged. “He was behind the couch. Wearing a sweater. I seen him a’fore. I know what he is.”
“Do you know where he is, Kady?”
“What? Why would I know that?”
Okay, this was decidedly not helpful. Quentin could be anywhere and he could be scared or confused or god only knew what! All Penny knew was that Quentin was either perfectly calm or too far away for Penny to hear him, and Penny had serious doubts that Quentin was calm. “Alright, I have to find Quentin, you guys just hold tight, we’ll have dinner in a minute. TODD!” Penny yelled, heading towards the stairs. “TODD GET DOWN HERE!”
There was a hurried thumping sound followed by a door opening, smoke billowing out. Todd emerged, running towards the stairs, coughing. “What the hell, man? You can’t just do that. Wait. Is the cottage on fire?” He looked back at his door and laughed. “Oh, naw, the cottage isn’t on fire, don’t worry man.”
Until Todd spoke Penny hadn’t had any worries about the cottage burning down. He pinched the bridge of his nose, hoping that Todd hadn’t left anything burning in his room. “Stop. Talking. I just need you to watch the kids for a minute while I find…something that’s missing,” he explained, not willing to admit that he’d lost a child.
Todd paused and looked over the railing of the staircase. “Is it the wolves, man?”
“The wolves, Margo’s wolves,” Todd whispered. “I’m not dealing with wolves right now, I have enough problems.”
Oh, right, the wolves Todd had to fight. Penny had almost forgotten about that due to the fact that his entire day had been chaotic. “Todd, shut the fuck up. There aren’t wolves. Just keep the kids occupied until I can get back to give them dinner, okay?” He hated leaving Todd in charge, but it wasn’t like he had much of a choice. Gretchen wasn’t back yet and he wasn’t just going to leave the kids without any supervision. Todd wasn’t much of an adult, but he thought it might be better than leaving everyone alone.
“I don’t even know what kids like,” Todd whined as he walked down the stairs. “I mean, I guess Margo liked my stories—“
“Tell them a story, and know that if you hurt them I will absolutely kill you. Do you understand that?”
Penny grabbed Todd’s shirt, dragging him the rest of the way down the stairs and pressing him against the wall. “Listen, man, if I come back here and any of these kids are hurt or upset then it’s your fault. You’re just literally the only other person here and I need you to focus. Got it, man?”
Todd nodded, staring up at Penny. “Yeah, okay, whatever dude. Just chill out. I can keep an eye on them.”
Penny let go of Todd and stepped back. “You’d better.” He went into the kitchen and charmed the food, making sure it would stay warm until he got back. “Hey, guys, Todd is going to watch you while I find Quentin. Be good, okay? And don’t leave the common room until I get back.”
Margo grinned and gave an excited gasp, clapping her hands together. “Todd is my husband! My husband gets to see us!” She spun around, thrilled with this new development.
That was a problem for Todd to deal with, Penny had slightly bigger problems. “Good luck, don’t feed them anything and—can you be less high right now?”
“I absolutely cannot. I cannot unsmoke weed. I have tried before and it does not work. I probably shouldn’t talk about weed. Hey kids, wanna hear a story about a time I got lost in the Mall of America?”
Well this was…happening. Penny shook his head and left before he had the chance to hear if Todd’s story was age appropriate or not. He just hoped Todd would show some discretion while dealing with four kids, but he also picked up the pace so he didn’t heave Todd alone with them any longer than he had to.
Penny let his wards down as he hurried along the pathway, listening closely for the faint buzz that was Quentin’s mind. He didn’t hear panic or fear as he listened, he didn’t feel any pain in his chest, and he didn’t have the urge to run and hide. Instead he was starting to hear what he could only describe as excitement. If the Indian Jones theme was a feeling then that was what Penny was getting.
He paused and pressed his fingers to his temples as though that would help him zero in on what he was hearing. Yeah, the feeling of adventure. That made little or no sense. If Quentin was wandering around campus shouldn’t he be absolutely terrified? Oh god, what if someone found him before Penny did? What if someone found him and tried to talk to him or touched him or looked at him? Okay, now he was running, the feeling growing stronger in his chest as his feet slapped across the path. All the while he was running Penny looked around, trying to spot Quentin among the students milling about between classes. If any of them so much as went near Quentin then Penny was going to kick their ass into another dimension.
As he came up over the top of a hill Penny finally spotted the boy, walking along the tree line with his book in one hand and a stick in the other. He didn’t seem to have any idea that there was a world outside of his head and was perfectly happy in his brain. Penny worried what would happen when he pulled Quentin back to reality but he didn’t have a choice. He ran through the grass, jogging up close to the kid.
“Quentin,” he panted, trying to keep his voice low and casual. The last thing Penny wanted to do was yell at him and send him into panic mode. “Hey, hey buddy. You kind of wandered off there for a second.”
Blinking, Quentin looked up and nodded. “Adventure,” he explained before looking around the campus, eyes wide and sparkling with wonder.
Penny nodded and knelt down so that he was more on Quentin’s level. “You went on an adventure,” he repeated, “like Bilbo?”
“Yeah, and Martin.” Using his stick, Quentin pointed towards the academic building. “It’s like Castle Whitespire!”
Oh god, maybe the adventure-fantasy books were a mistake. Although, Penny couldn’t say that Quentin was wrong, exactly. The old, gothic style, stone building in the centre of campus did have a castle-esque look about it. Penny figured that if he was five he might think it was a castle too. “Yeah, it is. How about we visit it tomorrow. It’s starting to get kind of dark out here.” And there was dinner waiting and Todd was sitting in the cottage telling stories! Quentin didn’t really need to know about that, though.
His eye lit up and Quentin nodded enthusiastically. “We can really see it?”
“Sure, buddy. First thing tomorrow, I promise. We’ll take a little field trip up to see the castle. You can even go in one of the—uh, ya know, little towers.”
Did this kid know everything? “Yeah, those. Come on, you can tell me all about Castle White-uh-White Fire on the way back.”
During their short walk back to the cottage Penny would learn that it was called Castle Whitespire, not White Fire, and it was where the Chatwins lived while they ruled. Penny was actually amazed at how many words Quentin knew and how many he could string together in one sentence. He wouldn’t call it a conversation, Quentin did all the talking this time. While Penny felt he should have been annoyed, he could stop himself from smiling.
“Alright, leave the stick outside, buddy. It’ll be here tomorrow when we go see the castle,” Penny promised. “Let’s get some dinner. I don’t know about you, but I’m absolutely starving right about now.”
There was a moment of hesitation, but Quentin did eventually lean his stick on the porch of the cottage. He repositioned it twice and doubled checked to make sure it wouldn’t fall over before he followed Penny back inside.
The kids were on the floor, looking up at Todd, save for Margo who was on the sofa and had Todd’s arm in a tight hug. Alice’s face was etched with confusion, Kady seemed to be trying to decide whether or not she could take Todd in a fight, and Eliot was sprawled out on the ground. Yup, those were his dumb kids.
Alice slowly raised her hand. “Mister Todd, how come you didn’t know that lady worked at the Nike store and also…I don’t understand the pretzel part of this whole story…or the story.”
Much to Alice’s obvious distain, Todd reached down and ruffled up her hair. “Okay, so there were free pretzels and—wait, which story was I telling you again?”
Oh yeah, things were totally fine here. “Hey Todd,” Penny said, shutting the door loudly behind him. “You and your pretzel story can go back upstairs now. And by that I mean: go upstairs, Todd.”
Todd turned around, looking at Penny through bloodshot eyes. “Man, that took forever. I thought you said you’d only be gone a few minutes,” he complained, trying to detach himself from Margo to no avail.
There was no way Penny had been gone for more than ten minutes. By stoner time, he figured, that was at least six hours. “There was traffic,” he said deadpan as he walked into the room. “Sorry about that, guys.”
Smiling, Todd reached over the back of the sofa and clapped Penny on the back. “It’s okay man, I know how things can be. I forgive you though,” he said so earnestly it almost hurt.
Penny looked over, giving Todd a deadly glare. “I one-hundred percent was not talking to you.” He knelt down in the floor, earning him an immediate hug from Alice. “Hey, kiddo, you guys have fun?”
“No,” Alice told him, for once not yelling everything she said. “Mister Todd tells weird stories and doesn’t like carousels and, Penny, I don’t know where Hoboken is but I don’t want to go there!” she whined, burying her face in his neck.
“New Jersey,” Quentin said quietly.
What the fuck happened while Penny was gone? Oh, he was so going to kill Todd the first chance he got. “It’s okay, Alice. No one is making you go anywhere. We’re going to make Todd go away. Todd! Go,” he snapped, holding Alice to his chest as he stood up.
“Todd is my husband,” Margo declared, tightening her grip on him. “So he should stay for dinner!”
“I’m not her husband,” Todd said instantly, trying again to pull away. “I didn’t tell her to say that, I think the girl with the cane did!”
There was a small laugh and Kady rolled her eyes. “Naw, you smell like ol’ man so I reckon you’re somebody’s ol’ man. Makes sense that it’s Margo’s.”
There was so much happening in this moment that Penny wanted to freeze time to sort it all out. “Hey, kids, quiet for just a minute,” he said, holding his hand up to get their attention. Surprisingly enough, everyone, including Todd, stopped talked. Wow, maybe he had some kind of kid magic after all. “Let’s start with ‘girl with a cane’. Todd, did Gretchen come by?” he asked, using the same voice he would use to coax a problem out of one of the kids.
“I don’t know her name. She brought a lot of stuff though,” he explained, pointing to a pile of bags on the other side of the room, “said she had a dinner date with her girlfriend and seemed really confused about you not being here.”
Honestly, Penny was a little surprised Gretchen hadn’t stayed considering Todd was the one watching the kids. He kind of wished that she had. At least he had stuff for the kids now. “Okay, good. Margo, let go of Todd. You can see your husband—don’t interrupt me, Todd, or I will knock you out—you can see your husband tomorrow. Right now, you’ve got to eat dinner and then you can see what Gretchen got. So, let go of Todd’s arm.”
Margo paused, thinking this through. “If I let go of Todd then can I have a girlfriend like Gretchen?”
“What? I mean—sure, that’s fine.” What the actual fuck had he missed? How had so much happened in less than ten minutes? He could never leave these children alone again!
“Can Alice be my girlfriend?”
“Only if she wants to be, Margo. You can’t just force people into a relation—“
“Okay,” Alice interrupted, looking down at Margo. “But only for dinner.” She turned and looked back to Penny. “I’ll be anyone’s girlfriend if it makes Mister Todd go away. Penny, I don’t like him.”
Yeah, he’d kind of gathered that from Alice’s reaction to everything about Todd. Never again. Next time Quentin went missing Penny would just take all the kids on a recovery mission with him. “Mister Todd is going away now. Aren’t you Todd?” There was unspoken threat in Penny’s voice.
Now free from Margo’s grip Todd jumped up off the sofa. “Yeah, sure. Uh, Penny, next time you need a babysitter—“
“I won’t be calling you.”
Todd let out a sigh of relief. “Oh, thank god. I was afraid this was going to become an everyday thing. Like, I’m all for helping people and whatever, but it gets weird when—“
“Todd! Go away before I make you,” Penny snapped.
With Todd heading back upstairs it was easy enough to usher everyone into the kitchen. He sat Alice down at the table and helped Eliot into his chair. With everyone settled in, Penny cut the pizza and started filling everyone’s plate.
“Are you going to say grace,” Eliot asked, smiling up at Penny with absolute innocence.
Penny hesitated, scooping macaroni onto Eliot’s plate. “Uh, how about you say it to yourself, El? I bet you’re real good at it.” There was a lot that Penny was willing to put up with, but he didn’t know what everyone’s religion was and he didn’t need a debate or questions about God during dinner.
Eliot pouted and shook his head. “I can say it but you gotta to hold hands when you say grace at supper. That’s how it works and if you don’t do it right it doesn’t work, Penny,” he whined.
Fuck. Penny sat down the bowl of macaroni and reached over, taking Eliot’s tiny hands in his. “Okay, go.” This was going to be weird and Penny hated it before Eliot even started talking.
“Lord,” he said quietly, bowing his head, “make us truly, um, truly grateful for-for these and all other blessings. In Jesus’s name, ah-men,” he finished. Smiling, he looked up and squeezed Penny’s hands before letting go.
Yeah, that was weird and he hated it. Penny forced a smile and ruffled Eliot’s hair, trying his best not to look unnerved. “Great, well, that happened. Eat up, you’ve got a lot of food there.” At least Eliot’s blessing was short.
There was a tug at his sleeve and Alice cleared her throat. “Penny, I think I need a napkin. No, no, actually I definitely need a napkin. I’m not too good at eating macaroni.” She wasn’t wrong, unfortunately. In the time that Penny had been uncomfortably praying with Eliot, Alice had managed to get macaroni on her shirt…and her face…and her lap…somehow.
“I think you need a couple napkins,” Penny corrected, giving Alice a small smile as he pulled a couple paper towels off the roll. “Look up. Oh yeah, you are—you’re covered in cheese.” He laughed, he couldn’t help it. Alice was looking up at him with cheese sauce covering all over her and Penny had to wonder if she had just slammed her face into the plate of macaroni.
“Yeah, macaroni is hard to eat. Maybe pizza’s gonna be easier.”
Penny hoped it would be but he somehow suspected that Alice was going to managed to get pizza in her hair. For now, she was, well, she was slightly sticky but slightly less covered in cheese. He looked around at the kids, checking to make sure none of them were getting too messy. Quentin was carefully taking the breading off his cheese sticks, putting the mozzarella on one plate and the breading on another. It didn’t look like he was eating at all and Penny was going to have to talk to him about that, try to get some kind of nutrition in him. Kady was alternating between shovelling forkfuls of macaroni into her mouth and taking a bite of pizza, her face hovering close to her plate. It was like watching an animal eat and Penny wondered if she got regular meals. Despite using a fork, Eliot had somehow managed to get his hands completely covered in cheese and tomato sauce. Technically, Margo was using a napkin, though she was just dabbing at her lips and not actually cleaning off the mess and didn’t seemed concerned about getting her hair out the way of her mouth.
A horrible thought occurred to Penny as he looked at the cheese covered, grass stained children. They were messy, horribly, horribly messy. And messy children needed to be cleaned and that almost always involved a bath. There were certain things that Penny just couldn’t do, and bathing his friends was definitely in the top ten list. Some lines weren’t meant to be crossed and he thought about finding Gretchen and convincing her to do it. Would it be less weird if it was a girl? Would it be weirder? Was there any possible way to make this scenario not weird?
“Well, you seem to have this under control.”
Penny stiffened and glared at the wall, gritting his teeth. It wasn’t like there was necessarily a good time for Sunderland to drop in, but this was a really bad time. “Hey, guys,” he said, trying to soften his expression. “I’ve gotta talk to this bi—cunt, not better.” He shook his head. “You guys keep eating, I’ll be right in the living room. Give me just a second.” Stepping away from the table, he quietly ushered Sunderland into the living room. “What?” he said in a harsh whisper.
Sunderland raised her brow, crossing her arms over her chest and staring Penny down. “What? That’s your whole question? You should be relieved to see me since I’m the one fixing the mess your friends made.” She stopped and somehow smiled without changing her expression. “Then again, I suppose you wouldn’t be since I’m the one who’s going to fix all of this and take away your fantasy.”
“Calling it a fantasy sounds so fucked up—and that’s not what it is. There is no one else here who can do what I’m doing. Trust me, I’ve met people here and none of you know what a child it.” Yeah, okay, he was enjoying himself, but there was no way he was going to let Sunderland know she was right.
“Right, of course. You’re such a martyr, Penny.”
If Penny rolled his eyes any harder they would have fallen out of his head. “Look, did you find a way to change them back or not?” Why was he nervous? No, he knew exactly why. If Sunderland figured out the spell then it took all this away and they were back to being sad adults with severe anxiety disorders, impulse control issues, and addictive behaviours. They were easier to deal with when they were covered in cheese.
“Don’t get too excited but, no, I haven’t,” she told him, watching his reaction carefully. “We’re calling in a specialist and she’ll be here in the morning. By lunch tomorrow they should be back to their old selves and you can go back to learning how to control your travelling. Or, did you forget that that was supposed to be your main focus here?”
Right, there was that whole ‘learning not to die’ thing that he needed to get back to. “And shouldn’t your main focus be killing The Beast? I mean, seriously, you’re a full-fledged Magician who works with other full-fledged Magicians. Shouldn’t you be thinking about the killer monster coming through mirrors instead of a bunch of kids who fucked up a spell?” Penny didn’t want to be angry, he didn’t want to argue, but his stomach had gone cold when Sunderland mentioned bringing in a specialist. She’d told him he’d have two days! Two days of watching these stupid kids and now she was taking that away!
“You really think that we’re not also looking into that? Penny, people are capable of focusing on multiple things at a time. Just because you’re unable to multitask doesn’t mean the rest of us are like that,” she explained as though Penny was a child.
It really didn’t seem like the faculty was too concerned with The Beast. From Penny’s perspective, it seemed like there was a certain group of students doing a lot more to figure out how to stop him. “Why can’t this specialist help bring down moth boy? Or turn him into a baby? I bet The Beast would be a lot easier to kill if he was a toddler.”
“You want to…kill a baby?”
“Look, it’s an idea, okay? I’m not saying it’s a good one but it’s a plan. And they’re…” Penny paused and leaned back, looking into the kitchen at the kids as they happily, and messily, ate their dinner, “they’re tolerable like this. I can keep an eye on them. Dean Fogg said I could skip midterms, which is great for me,” he pointed out as though that were a selling point.
Sunderland stared at him for a moment before sighing. She looked down, gathering her thoughts before she spoke, “Penny, I understand you’ve grown…quickly attached—“
“I haven’t,” he said a little too quickly.
She didn’t say that he was lying, she didn’t have to, her expression said more than words ever could. “I’m sure you could raise five wonderful children, Penny. But, as you’ve already pointed out, it’s easier to kill a baby. If The Beast returns and they’re in this state then you can’t protect them. Caring won’t save them when their hearts are being ripped out of their chests. Surely you can understand that.”
Understanding something didn’t mean he had to like it. Yeah, obviously they had to go back to being adults, but Penny wanted a little more time, just a little more pretending. “I just think you should be focusing a bit more on The Beast.”
Reaching out, Sunderland put a hand on Penny’s shoulder. “We’ll get you a cat or something that you can take care of. You’ve done am acceptable job keeping them alive and I’m sorry that we can’t change your fate. Be happy with what you got and let things go back to normal, Penny. It’s for the best,” she said, her voice low and serious. There wasn’t mockery in her tone like there had been before, instead there was something worse. Genuine pity.
Penny shrugged out of her touch, looking in on his kids again. “It’s whatever. Change ‘em back, kill The Beast, whatever.” God, he hated this. Every moment of this. He hated feeling stupid and attached and he hated that his chest hurt over the idea of the kids growing back up. Penny glared down at her, hiding his disappointment under a mask of anger. “Forget it. Are you done here? I got shit to do.”
“Penny, I didn’t mean to upset you. I thought you should know ahead of time that this was happening and—“
“I said forget it, okay? Thanks for the warning; I’m sure tomorrow all of this will be funny as shit. I gotta make sure they don’t die.” He turned away from her, taking a deep breath to try and calm down.
“If there’s anything I can do….”
Penny stopped and looked back over his shoulder. “Actually, there is one thing you can do.”
Chapter 6: Bubbles and Bedtime
Bubbles and Bedtime
Kady was quite possibly the most stubborn child in the world. She stood in the common room, arms crossed over her chest, telling Penny she didn’t need a bath as though he was unable to see the grass in her hair and dirt on her cheeks.
Penny sat on the floor digging through the bags of clothes that Gretchen had brought. She had really gone all out with this. The bags were all labelled with names, everything was brand new, and there were even toys. When Penny had sent Gretchen out he had expected a bag of stuff from Goodwill, not a haul of bougie shit. Hell, the bags looked like they cost more than anything Penny owned.
“Come on, Kady, if you take a bath we can get you in pyjamas…these sixty dollar pyjamas…” Why the fuck did they cost so much? These were blue owl pyjamas for children who would outgrow them in a month!
Sulking, Kady firmly shook her head. “Nuh uh, I don’t need to. A bath’ll wash off all my essential Kady oils.”
Well, Penny didn’t know what essential Kady oils were and, frankly, he didn’t want to. What he wanted was for Kady to get cleaned up so Penny could get her in the bed. His plan was to get one kid in bed while another one was taking a bath, he was still working out how he was supposed to watch the kids who were waiting.
“’Sides,” Kady went on, “I don’t need no weirdo doctor lady helpin’ me to take a bath. No way.”
Before Penny could say anything, Sunderland knelt down to be eye level with Kady. “How about you take a shower instead? Take your pyjamas, go into the bathroom, and get the dirt off your face by yourself?” she suggested, already sounding exhausted despite having only spent five minutes around the kids.
Kady paused and looked over at Penny as though trying to gauge his reaction to this idea. After a moment, she shrugged and grabbed up the owl pyjamas, throwing them over her shoulder. “Alright, but don’t do nothin’ tricky while I’m in there. I’m watchin’ you, lady.”
As Kady stormed off Sunderland gave Penny smug grin. “Children are simple, Penny. You just have to know how to manipulate them,” she said before strutting off down the hall.
“Right, sure.” Penny was just waiting for Sunderland to learn. Kady had agreed way too quickly and with very little argument. She had a plan and that plan definitely didn’t involve showering. Kids weren’t that simple or easy, and Sunderland was going to find that out the hard way. “Margo, you need to get ready to take a bath when Kady gets done. It’s almost bedtime.” He grabbed a bag, pulling out white and gold pyjamas.
“I’m not tired,” Margo complained, flopping onto the floor beside Eliot.
Yeah, the kid on the verge of a tantrum definitely wasn’t getting sleepy. “Well, I’ll send your new clothes back and give Kady the Princess room, since you’re not going to bed,” Penny said, folding the pyjamas back up.
Margo shrugged. “That’s fine. I bet there’s nothing good in those bags anyway.”
“There’s a tiara.” Damn, Gretchen wasn’t fucking around when it came to shopping and she was good at buying shit for kids.
“Let me see it!”
The next thing Penny knew Margo was in his lap, digging through the bags. He leaned back, letting her pull out tissue paper and outfits. She would look at the clothes for just a second before tossing them to the side. “That’s cute, that’s cute, that’s ugly. Alice can have the ugly one. I don’t see a tir-a anywhere in here!” she whined, throwing the empty bag on the floor and pouting.
With a smile, Penny reached behind his back and held up the small, silver tiara. The faux diamonds sparkled beneath the yellow glow of the lamps and reflected in Margo’s awe-struck eyes. “Nuh uh,” Penny said, pulling the tiara away before Margo could snatch it. “You can have it after you take a bath and get your pyjamas on. I mean, hell, how are you supposed to sleep in a Princess room without a crown? That’s just stupid.”
Margo nodded in agreement. “Princesses need their crowns and unlimited power, and power comes from the crown,” she explained with righteous vigour.
“Yeah, I’m sure they do and that’s definitely how princess power works.” Bribery, now that was how you manipulated a kid. Penny checked the clock, it was almost nine-thirty and his plan was to have everyone in bed by ten. They were already exhausted, Eliot was starting to nod off while colouring and Alice had started yawning and rubbing at her eyes. He checked to make sure Quentin hadn’t drifted off while reading, but he was still hyper focused on his book. With any luck, they’d all fall asleep as soon as their little heads hit the pillow.
“Gretchen’s back!” Margo yelled with a gasp as she jumped up off Penny’s lap. “And she brought a lady with her! Hi! I’m Margo, I’m almost six, I’m the tallest and the best and are you Gretchen’s girlfriend and you’re really pretty and what’s your name?” All of this was shouted in one breath with Margo smiling up at the girls.
Gretchen looked less than pleased to be back, leaning on her cane and looking down at Margo. The girl with her, however, seemed absolutely thrilled. She knelt down, balancing on her heels, her dark curls falling over her tan face, and gave Margo a smile.
“I’m Nadia, aren’t you just the cutest?” she cooed. “And I am her girlfriend! Isn’t Gretchen pretty?”
“She’s okay looking,” Margo said, glancing briefly at Gretchen. “Alice is my girlfriend but only at dinner and that’s okay because that means I can have other girlfriends when we’re not at dinner and I can still be married to Todd. I’m going to have a million girlfriends.”
This was just great, now Margo was going to be all excited and worked up right at bedtime. Groaning, Penny pushed himself up off the floor and walked through the mess of bags, clothes, and tissue paper that had been scattered around. “Hey, did, uh, did you forget something?”
Rolling her eyes, Gretchen looked over at Penny. “No, my idiot girlfriend got so excited over babies that she didn’t even want to eat out, in any sense of the phrase.” She looked down, watching Margo and Nadia talk, and a smile tugged at her lips. “It isn’t cute.”
It really wasn’t, it was just going to make the kids all hyper again. The again, maybe Penny could make this work. Like last time Gretchen appeared. “Hey, Nadia, Gretchen, can you two watch them for a minute? I need to check on Kady.” More importantly, he needed to prove that Sunderland wasn’t as smart as she thought she was.
“Again?” Gretchen complained. “Penny, I’ve done this once and it was hilarious, but I kind of had plans to—“
“Of course we can,” Nadia interrupted. “Gretch, we can go to dinner any time. How many times are we going to get to play with itty-bitty Eliot,” she said, speaking in a high-pitched baby voice.
Great, this worked out perfectly. Penny grabbed up the bag of Kady’s new things, tucking it under his arm. “Awesome, I’m just gonna be down the hall. They’ve already eaten so if Eliot says he needs snacks then he’s lying to get extra ice cream. Don’t give him extra ice cream, he’s had enough sugar. Same thing with Alice except with milk. Don’t give her more milk or she’ll be sick, there’s water and juice in the fridge. Quentin’s reading, leave him alone. If you give Margo soda it’ll be the last thing you do.”
Margo sighed and put her hand on Nadia’s shoulder. “Listen, I like coke. Penny thinks we can’t have soda this late but he’s stupid. Coke is good for me.”
“Don’t give her soda,” Penny repeated, staring down at Margo. She was the one he was worried about going to sleep. Despite her being exhausted he suspected Margo would stay awake just to spite him.
“We got it, Penny,” Nadia said. “Go, check on your other baby. We’ll be fine in here.”
At least he knew he could trust Gretchen. He suspected that Nadia might kidnap one of them, but hopefully Gretchen would stop her before she got out the door. Heading up the stairs, Penny back once to make sure everyone was okay before he disappeared down the hall.
Sunderland was waiting outside the bathroom door, leaning against the wall and flipping through a book. “She’s still in there. Hasn’t drowned yet,” she said without looking up.
He could hear the shower running and steam seeped out from beneath the door. If Kady was taking a shower in there then she was probably going to end up with burns, which was exactly why Sunderland needed to be watching her instead of catching up on whatever she was reading! Penny knocked on the door, pressing his ear against it so he could hear better. “Kady? You need to wrap it up in there. It’s time for bed,” he told her, sitting the bag on the floor.
“Just a second,” Kady shouted and there was a frantic scuffling inside the bathroom.
A moment later the door opened, steam billowing out and fogging up Sunderland’s glasses. Kady walked out, pyjamas and slippers on. “Okay, I can go to bed now.”
Penny looked down at her and then at Sunderland, grinning. Oh, he loved being right despite the inconvenience. “Kady,” he began, bending down, “your face is still covered in dirt, your hands are cheesy, and your hair isn’t even wet. You can’t stand in the bathroom with the shower on and call it a bath,” he explained to her.
Stepping forward, Sunderland removed her glasses, letting them hang by their chain over her chest. “You told me you knew how to take a shower by yourself.”
Pursing her lips, Kady stared down at the floor, her mind working quickly to come up with an excuse. “I do so know how to shower by myself and…and my hair don’t get wet. It’s magic and it don’t get wet in the shower or when I go swimmin’ or never,” she finally said, looking back up at Penny. “And same thing with the dirt and maybe I like dirt.”
She wouldn’t like the dirt so much when she was big again and found her bed covered in cheesy mud. Penny glanced up at Sunderland, almost wishing she could read his mind in that moment. Children were simple. You just needed to know how to manipulate them. “So, you’re tellin’ me that your hair is magical?”
Kady nodded. “Yeah, there’s loads of magic in it. It won’t never be wet.”
“Okay, well, let’s see what we can do about that.” Penny took a deep breath, twisting his fingers together.
Eyes wide, Kady backed up until she was against the wall. “What’re you doing? Are you doing magic?”
“Yeah, I’m getting all that magic out of your hair so you can wash it. Just one more second…” He clapped his hands together three times and finished the ‘spell’ with a snap of his fingers and smiled. “Now you can wash your hair and your face and your hands. Go take a shower, Kady.” He stood up, clapping her on the back and pushing her towards the bathroom.
Kady looked back over her shoulder at Penny. “You can’t just do magic on people’s hair! Penny, undo it! Undo it!” she demanded, stomping her feet as she walked.
Penny shook his head, ushering Kady into the bathroom. “Not until after you wash up. Now, go take a shower. A real shower this time. And we’ll know if you didn’t.”
There was a huff and Kady slammed the bathroom door, the sound echoing off the walls, and the shower turned back on.
“Terrifying a child with magic? That’s brilliant, Penny, how did you know it would work?” Sunderland asked, crossing her arms over her chest.
Between the wards blocking Kady’s mind and her decision to mediate instead of take a nap, Penny strongly suspected that Alice wasn’t the only one to grow up in a magically adept family. Though, he was certain that Alice’s crazy family was a bit more stable than Kady’s. “Her hair is magic. I took the magic away. Kids are simple, right?” he said with a smug grin.
Before Sunderland could answer the door popped open and Kady stood there, wrapped in a towel, water dripping from her hair onto the floor. “I might not know how to shower so good,” she said, sounding angry about the whole situation.
“Well, Professor, I believe that’s your job,” Penny said, grabbing the shopping bag and backing up.
“You’re the one that wants to keep them small,” Sunderland reminded him.
Penny shrugged as though to say ‘Sorry, it’s out of my hands. I literally can’t stop walking away. Good luck’. With Kady being taken care of by Sunderland and the girls watching the other kids, Penny actually had a few minutes to make sure everything was ready for bedtime. The rooms were child-proofed as he’d left them, and he did a quick muffling spell to keep the hallway quiet while the kids slept. He didn’t need the Physical Kids who weren’t toddlers being loud and waking up his babies in the middle of the night.
He turned the blankets down on Kady’s bed and fluffed up the pillows, making sure everything was nice and comfortable. There weren’t just clothes in the bags, Gretchen had actually tried to get everything Penny might need. He plugged in a little moon shaped nightlight and smiled to himself as he pulled out a stuffed animal. Kady had evidently told Gretchen about how much she wanted to catch the Flower because there was a fluffy, stuffed skunk included. Penny sat the toy back into the bags so he could surprise her with it. He wasn’t sure if Kady liked stuffed animals but hoping she would appreciate having her own Flower that wouldn’t spray her when she hugged it.
Everything was perfect for the night. Penny had everything he needed, the kids would get to sleep. He just wished that this wasn’t the end. Throughout the year at Brakebills Penny had gotten to know the Physical Kids, but he hadn’t really been friends with them. In fact, he’d never really been friends with anyone except Kady. Alice, Quentin, Margo, and Eliot…he’d been forced into a situation where they all had to be together. They were more like co-workers than friends. They were all just trying to survive long enough to kill The Beast and after that they’d probably all go their separate ways. They didn’t hang out together for fun, they barely talked about anything non-Beast related, and they had no interest in each other’s lives. It was all business and once The Beast was dead, well, they’d all probably go their own separate ways.
It was so much easier when they were small. Penny didn’t have to ask himself if they liked him, they told him that with zero prompting. They had no filters and would loudly scream about what they liked and what they hated. He knew what they needed, he knew how to fix their problems, and they all got along. There was no fighting, no relationship issues, no worries about dying. It was all just simple and domestic and nice. And tomorrow they would be back to bickering about stupid shit that didn’t matter and couldn’t be fixed in five minutes. It would all be about relationships and dying and Penny didn’t want to go back to that. He wasn’t sure he could.
Things were definitely going to be different, but he wasn’t sure it was for the better. Would it be more awkward? Would he actually be able to use the blackmail he now had or would things just be too weird? How were you supposed to act like things were normal when you had spent the entire day babysitting your friends?
Penny’s train of thought was interrupted by the door creaking open. Faking a smile he got off the bed, opening the door the rest of the way, and letting Sunderland steer Kady inside. Her hair was dripping wet now and Penny grabbed a towel from Kady’s dresser to dry it off with.
“She’s actually clean this time,” Sunderland said with an exasperated sigh. The front of her shirt was soaking wet from what had apparently been a struggle in the shower. The white fabric was sheer now, the beige bra clearly visible. “Don’t stare, Penny, it’s rude.”
Had he been staring? Yeah, he wasn’t even going to try to deny that, it was hard not to. “Sorry?” He shrugged, completely unapologetic.
Crossing her arms over her chest, Sunderland shook her head. “Hopefully Alice will be slightly better behaved than Kady was. Although, I think a Tasmanian devil could take a shower with less fighting.”
Penny was so glad that he had delegated the job to someone else. Bathing Kady would have been awkward enough, he didn’t need the added pain of being soaking wet. “Come on, let’s get your hair dried and brushed and get you into the bed,” he said before he started running over Kady’s hair with the towel.
Kady whined and complained the entire time Penny was drying her off and attempted to escape twice. In the end, she gave up and sat on the floor, pouting, while Penny brushed through her curls and pulled her hair into comfortable top knots that wouldn’t get in her face while she slept. He knew that Kady, big Kady, anyway, always slept with her hair up. He figured it was just a Kady thing and she didn’t complain as much when he was fixing her hair.
“Hey, they look even better than when Mama does them,” Kady said, looking at herself in the vanity mirror. She turned her head to the side, admiring her hair style. “You didn’t pull my hair or nothin’! You gotta teach Mama how to do it like you do it. She’s good at learnin’, you can show her.”
Hairdressing definitely wasn’t in Penny’s future, but he had gotten all of the insane tangles out and he didn’t think he’d done a half bad job. Her hair was out of her face and that was the main thing. “Yeah, I’m kind of amazing. Come on, get in bed, Gretchen got you a present.”
Kady turned around and stared at Penny, brows knitted in confusion. “She already got me clothes. How come I get presents here?” she asked, for once not sounding suspicious in her questions.
“Cause this is a really great camp. Come on, bedtime.”
“It’s charity, ain’t it?”
Picking her up, Penny swung Kady into the bed. “No, it’s not. Everybody got new shit. You think Margo needs new pyjamas?”
Kady shrugged. “I don’t know her story.”
“Well, she doesn’t,” he said as he tucked Kady under the blankets. “But that’s the kind of camp this is. Now, do you want your present or not?”
“Okay…I ain’t above charity.”
“It ain’t—it isn’t charity.” Penny reached down into the bag and pulled out the stuffed skunk. “Now, you can have one that you don’t have to chase down. No catching involved.” He tapped her nose with it once before laying the toy beside her.
He wasn’t sure what to expect, but was delightfully surprised when Kady grabbed up the stuffed animal and looked it over. “A Flower,” she said with a smile. “He’s mine? Really mine?”
Thank god. He was afraid that Kady might’ve hated it or been confused by it or not known what to do with it. To see her so happy made him smile. “Course he is. That’s why he’s in your bed. You can do whatever you want with him, he’s all yours.”
Kady carefully lay the skunk beside her, covering him up with a blanket and making sure his plush head was on the pillow. “He got both his eyes and everything. He’s good. Real good. A real good Flower.”
“I’m glad you think so. Here, let’s make sure you and Flower are all tucked in. Comfy?”
“Yeah.” Kady yawned and rubbed at her eyes. “Does camp still happen tomorrow or do we all go home?”
There was a lump in his throat and Penny had to swallow hard before he could answer without his voice breaking. “Yeah, you’ll all still be here tomorrow. We’ll have pancakes or something for breakfast and you can flatten some more grass,” he promised her. Just one more lie to add to the list.
“I think I might play with Alice tomorrow. She knows stuff about things and even though she’s loud she’s kinda smart about stuff,” Kady explained, hugging tight to Flower. “She draws good. I draw pretty good.”
“Yeah, I think that’d be good. You can definitely play with Alice tomorrow,” Penny told her, managing a smile.
Kady rolled over, curling up into a little ball. She was quiet for a moment before she sat up slightly and stared at Penny. “Um, Penny?”
“Yeah, sweet pea?”
She cleared her throat, fiddling with Flower. “I wasn’t scared or nothin’ earlier, but you gonna OD again?” she asked, looking up at him with big, brown eyes.
Shit. He’d never really explained what had happened before because, well, how could he? Kady would probably understand if he said it was a psychic attack… “I didn’t OD, I just fell and hit my head. I promise,” he assured her.
“I seen people OD before, Penny. They do how you did. Shake on the floor and don’t get up for nothin’. It happened to Coco once and Mama’s old ol’ man too. Coco made it, ol’ man got taked off. If you OD again is Gretchen gonna watch us? Cause she’s nice. She smells nice. I smelt her.”
“Kady don’t…don’t smell people. And I’m not…I’m not gonna OD on ya, okay? “
Kady nodded but didn’t look like she believed a word Penny was saying. And why would she? She didn’t have anyone to trust. “Okay…you can go away now. Goodbye.”
Oh, right, Kady was tired and probably ready for sleep. Penny just hadn’t expected her to kick him out without saying anything. Some things never changed. “You don’t need anything? A story? Water? Anything at all?” he asked, mentally going through a list of things a kid might want at bedtime.
“No, I’m okay. Goodbye.”
“Teeth brushed and everything?”
“Yes, the doctor lady made me and that’s part of how come I don’t like her. Goodbye, Penny.”
“Kady, we usually say goodnight.” Who said ‘goodbye’ at bedtime and why? Why couldn’t any of these kids just be normal?
With a sigh, Kady flopped back down on the pillows, covering her head with her blankets. “That’s stupid. Goodbye, Penny, I’m sleeping now.”
“Yeah, alright, well, goodnight, Kady.” Getting up from the bed, Penny watched Kady readjust herself and wordlessly stare at the nightlight on the wall. “I’ll be right down the hall if you need anything, Get some rest.” He flipped off the light, leaving just the dull yellow glow of the nightlight.
As he went to close the door, Penny heard a tiny whisper from the bed say “Goodnight, Penny,” so quietly he almost wasn’t sure he’d heard it at all.
He closed the door, grinning despite the pain in his chest. He needed to keep himself busy and not think too much about what was happening. So, he went back downstairs to get Alice’s stuff together and get her in bed.
Margo was sitting on the arm of the sofa, holding court, her engaged audience consisting on Nadia and Eliot. Nadia was sitting cross-legged on the floor, Eliot in her lap playing with her bracelets. On the other side of the sofa, Gretchen was slumped over, her head resting in her hand. Occasionally, she would look over and make sure Quentin was still alive.
“So, when you’re Queen President of the Universe you’re banning goats, oranges, and declaring war on pirates?” Nadia asked, looking up at Margo. “I think you’re going to be the best Queen President the universe has ever seen.”
“She’ll be the only Queen President,” Eliot interjected. “Cause of how when you invent a job nobody can take it from you and you make the rules.”
Margo gave a frim nod. “Yup, and that’s why Eliot gets to be my second in command. He’s in charge of everything I don’t feel like doing,” she explained.
Yeah, that was Margo, hell bent on world domination. Penny rolled his eyes, smiling to himself as he walked over. “So, what’s the punishment for being a pirate in your world, Margo? Cause, I’ve been looking into it as a career path. I hear they offer dental and good prices on eyepatches,” Penny said as he leaned over the back of the sofa.
Turning around, Margo put her hands on Penny’s cheeks and leaned in close to his face. “Penny, baby, you have such a pretty head. I don’t want to have to cut it off and hang it on the front of my castle for my enemies to see. And there are no dentist in my world. They’re illegal. I have their heads.” She smiled and let go of Penny, patting his hair. “Besides, you’re already going to be my loyal man-servant. Don’t worry, when you need an eyepatch I’ll get you one,” she promised in a sickly-sweet voice.
Right, no matter what age Margo was at she was absolutely terrifying. Someone definitely should have gotten her into therapy as soon as she learned how to talk. But, Penny just smiled and nodded. “That’s…very kind of you.”
“I’m a kind and giving Queen President.”
Penny had heard worse plans come out of a child’s mouth, but he also knew that Margo literally never changed and she was going to be like this forever.
The sound of feet pitter-pattering down the stairs grabbed Penny’s attention and he left Margo to tell Nadia of her plans to construct a soda fountain in the gardens of her palace. He met Alice at the bottoms of the steps, picking her up and spinning her around and eliciting a series of excited giggles out of her.
“Oh, your hair is so wet,” he said, wondering if Sunderland had ever taken a bath herself or knew how to dry hair. Whatever, he could fix it.
Alice grinned, hugging Penny’s neck with one hand. Her other hand was tightly clutching her little, glass horse. “My pyjamas have cats on them! Cats, Penny! I love cats! Cats are my favourites!”
They sure did. Little black cats all over the place and apparently this was fantastic. As long as Alice was happy that was all that mattered. “You sure do, sweetheart. Lots of little cats. I thought horses were your favourite animal?”
“No, I just really, really, really like horses. Cats are my favourite.” She lowered her voice dramatically as she leaned in close to him. “Cats are mysterious and sneaky. And, they can climb things. And they used to be worshipped as Gods. Or maybe they still are…I can’t really remember that.”
“Is that so? We’ll have to look into that. Right now, we’ve gotta get you in bed. Eliot!” Penny motioned with his free hand for Eliot to come to him. “C’mon, buddy, you’ve gotta take a bath and get in bed too.” He reached down, grabbing Alice’s bag.
With a yawn, Eliot nodded. “Okay, let me say goodnight to my friends, I’m very tired.” When was that kid not tired? “Goodnight Nadia, goodnight Quennin—I think he’s asleep—, goodnight Margo, Goodnight Gretchen and I’m sorry Margo said you had an ugly shirt on. I told her it was an ugly blouse. She didn’t know the difference.” How could you get mad at kids saying that your clothes were ugly when they were so adorable about it?
“Yeah, it’s a hideous blouse,” Gretchen said, giving Eliot a hug goodnight.
Before he could go upstairs Eliot had to hug everyone—except Quentin. He didn’t even try, apparently deciding that you couldn’t hug people if you thought they were asleep.
When Eliot hugged Margo the two of them toppled over onto the sofa, laughing. “And tomorrow I’ll make you a Queen crown that’s better than all the other crowns. It’ll have roses and daisies on it,” Eliot promised her.
“And I’ll up your status to Prime King Vice President!” Margo declared. “That’s the best position next to Queen President and if I die, if I don’t take you with me, then you’ll be the Queen President!”
“I’ll try to live up to your legacy. Goodnight, Margo, I love you!”
“Goodnight, Eliot, I love you!”
They finally let go and Eliot rolled off the sofa, trotting over to Penny and holding his arms up, silently begging to be held again.
Penny obliged, holding Alice on one hip, Eliot on the other, and the shopping bag precariously hanging off his wrist. “Alright, bath for you and bed for you. Margo, you’re next, so get ready.”
“I’m not tired and Nadia wants me to stay up all night.”
“Ah, but how will you be a beautiful ruler if you don’t get your rest,” Nadia noted. “For example, I sleep all the time. Eight hours of sleep a night and at least one nap during the day. That’s why I’m so beautiful and my skin is flawless.”
That was a complete lie and Penny knew it. The only reason he knew it was because Nadia lived across the hall from him in the Physic Cottage and was always incredibly loud, especially at night. She claimed her abilities were amplified by the moonlight and Penny wasn’t sure he believed that.
By the time he got to the top of the stairs his arms were killing him. Penny wasn’t a physically weak guy by any means and it wasn’t like he didn’t work out regularly, but after carrying Eliot around all day his arms were ready to give out completely. It was a relief when he was about to put Eliot back down. God, did he need to work out more? Was he falling behind? Had Eliot somehow gotten heavier? If he did this everyday his arms would get fucking ripped.
“Okay, El, I’ll be right down the hall if you need me,” Penny said, going through his usual spiel. “Go get a bath and we’ll get you in the bed.”
Before Penny could take Alice to the bedroom there was a tug on his pants leg. “Wait,” Eliot whined, “I didn’t get to tell Alice goodnight and she’s my friend and I love her.”
Oh, right, Eliot loved everyone. Damnit, he didn’t have to be so sweet. Why couldn’t he be like this all the time? Penny knelt down enough that Eliot could give Alice a tight hug and he held Alice’s waist so she could hug him back.
“Goodnight, Alice, I love you.”
“Goodnight, Eliot.” Alice paused and thought for just a moment before she nodded to herself. “You’re my friend and that means I love you too. Right Penny?” she asked, looking up at him with those wide, blue eyes.
Penny smiled down at the two of them. “Yeah, you guys are friends so you love each other.” He let them hug again before standing back up, his knees protesting the whole time. Oh, he couldn’t wait until the kids were asleep in bed and he could lie down and rest his body for a few minutes. “Be good for Sunderland. Sunderland…be good to Eliot.”
“I’m sure we’ll get along just fine. Mister Waugh, I hope you like bubbles as much as Miss Quinn does.”
“Lady, there ain’t nothin’ I like more than bubbles.”
Before Penny could get down the hall there was another whine of “Wait!” This time is wasn’t Eliot tugging at him, but Alice leaning over his shoulder. “Miss Pearl is my friend too and she likes cats. She has an orange cat named Arty and I want to meet him one day and I have to tell her goodnight. Miss Pearl!”
How was he supposed to say no to her? Penny backtracked, knocking at the bathroom door until Sunderland opened it. “Hey, Alice has to tell you goodnight,” he explained with a shrug.
Alice reached out, managing to give Sunderland a small hug. Much to Penny’s surprise, Sunderland hugged back.
“I hope I can meet your big, fat, orange cat one day and I hope he can meet my cat,” Alice said.
Sunderland patted Alice on the back, a rare, genuine smile crossing her face. “I’m certain we can arrange for that to happen, Miss Quinn. Arty loves meeting new people. Now, go get in your bed and let Penny take care of you. I’m sure we’ll see each other again.”
Well, that was unexpectedly cute. Penny chuckled to himself. “You’re a cat lady,” he laughed, grinning at Sunderland before he turned and started back towards Alice’s bedroom. The cat thing was something he could laugh about later; right now he still needed Sunderland to help him with the babies. So, he would have plenty of time to make fun of Sunderland drinking wine alone with her cat.
Sitting Alice on her bed, Penny let of a sigh of relief. His arms felt weightless now that he wasn’t carrying kids around. God, it felt nice. Alice put her glass horse on the bedside table before letting Penny towel dry her hair. It wasn’t completely wet, but she wasn’t dripping water all over the place now. She nestled down into bed, letting Penny tuck her in.
He made sure Alice was warm and snug underneath the blankets before he went digging through the bags to try and find whatever extra gift Gretchen had gotten her. Tucked beneath the pale pink tissue paper there was a stuffed, white unicorn with a rainbow mane. It wasn’t a horse, but it was close? Hopefully Alice would be okay with that.
“Hey, while your little glass horse sits on the table you can sleep with this horse,” he told her, prancing the toy up the bed and pretending to kiss her cheek with it.
Alice tilted her head, looking at the plush for a few seconds before staring up at Penny. “Not to rude, but this…isn’t a horse. It’s like saying a lion is cat. Horses and unicorns are part of the same family, but they’re not the same thing. They’re equines. But one is magical and the other is a unicorn.”
The way Alice explained it made it sound like unicorns were real. Wait, were unicorn real? Penny knew that dragons were real, just incredibly rare. It wasn’t a stretch to guess that unicorns could be real. He’d have to look into that later. “I’m sorry, kiddo. I’ll see if they can’t trade the stuffed unicorn out for a stuffed horse.”
“I like unicorns too,” Alice said quickly, pulling the toy to her chest. “Unicorns are okay, just don’t call them horses. They hate that. And they aren’t kelpie. Right? A unicorn isn’t going to try to drown me, is it? Can kelpie be unicorns? Penny, I need to know!” she said frantically, suddenly absolutely terrified of her own ideas.
Penny didn’t know if there were unicorns, but he did know that kelpies were real and Alice would be really easy prey for them. “Uh, no, unicorns aren’t kelpie,” he said, trying to sound as confident about this as he could. “And even if they were, this one definitely isn’t and I would fight a kelpie if it tried to drown you.”
“You can fight a kelpie?”
“Course I can. Especially if one tries to drown you. I’m not gonna let anything bad happen to you,” he promised, tweaking her nose.
That got a smile out of Alice and she relaxed again. “Good. I don’t want to get drowned and we’re awful close to the river. There could be a kelpie out there right now. Can you check? Can you make sure there isn’t a kelpie outside?” she asked, holding the unicorn close to her face.
Checking for monsters under the bed, now this was familiar. Penny got up and moved the curtains out from in front of the window, pretending to scan the grounds. “Hmm, nope. I don’t see any kelpies, horses, or Todds outside. I think you’ll be safe for the night,” he told her before letting the curtain fall and making his way back to the bed.
“That’s a relief. I don’t think they can come inside, but I don’t have enough faith to really believe that,” she said with a sigh.
“I’ll be sure to keep them out. You’re safe here, I promise. Now, you need to get some sleep. You’ve had a bath, pyjamas are on, teeth are brushed, what do you need? A story or anything?”
Alice was hesitant, peeking out at Penny from behind her unicorn. After a moment of thought she finally shook her head and looked at the wall. “No…you probably don’t know it,” she said, more to herself than to Penny.
“Won’t know what? A story? I know a lot of stories.”
“It’s not a story. It’s…” she paused and squeezed her eyes shut. “Have you ever seen The Breakfast club?” she asked quickly.
The Breakfast Club? Was he supposed to tell her the entire movie? Was that what she considered a bedtime story to be? “The…one with all the kids in detention? Yeah, I’ve seen that one before…”
“Do you like it?”
“It was a good movie.”
Alice opened her eyes and sat up. “You know the part in the end where they’re all leaving and Bender does like this-“ She fist pumped the air and looked at Penny. “You know the song that plays when he does that? When they all leave and he does like that?”
“Don’t you forget about me?”
“You do know it!” she gasped, smiling wide. “My brother, Charlie, sings that to me when I’m sad and at night before I go to sleep. And I know that Charlie isn’t here right now and I know that you’re not Charlie, but…can you sing it? Do you know how?”
Okay, so they had gone through all of this nonsense because Alice wanted a dumb little song from some stupid 80’s movie? That was adorable and he really needed to meet her brother, he sounded like a great guy. “Alright, alright. Now, I’m not great at singing, but I’m pretty okay. So, lay back and I’ll do my best here.”
Alice put her hand on Penny’s shoulder. “I’m sure you’ll do okay,” she assured him before settling back down with her unicorn, watching him with an eager smile.
Penny hadn’t really sung anything in a while, not around people. It wasn’t that he was a terrible singer, he just didn’t like singing in front of anyone. It felt weird to him. But, when a little girl asked you to sing her a bedtime song, well, what could you do? “Won’t you come see about me? I’ll be alone, dancin’ you know it baby,” he started, trying his best to remember the tune. This was one of those songs that he somehow knew almost all the words to but he had never really actively sought it out to listen to it. “Tell me your troubles and doubts. Givin’ me everything, inside and out. Don’t you forget about me….” He tried to keep the rhythm and sing it as best he could for her. Alice seemed to be enjoying it, so he pushed on through the chorus.
By the time he was finished Alice had the biggest grin on her face that he had ever seen. She gave him a very tight hug, squeezing his shoulders. “You did a good job! You’re not Charlie and you missed a line but you tried really hard. Thank you, Penny.”
Well, that gave him some warm fuzzy feelings. Penny ruffled Alice’s hair, tucking her back into bed. “I’m glad you liked it. Feel like you can go to sleep now?”
“Yeah, I think so. No kelpie and no Todds are gonna get in here.”
“That’s right. I’ll be watching all night just to make sure.” He slipped off the bed, plugging in the horseshoe shaped nightlight into the wall. “Now, get some rest, we’ve got a lot to do tomorrow.”
“Are we going to learn about magic?”
“We just might. I’ll definitely think about it and if the doctor says everybody’s ready then we can.” It wasn’t like they’d have an opportunity to learn magic, but Alice seemed happy with the prospect. “Goodnight, Alice,” he said, making his way to the door.
Alice snuggled down, yawning and pulling the blankets tight around her. “Goodnight, Penny, I love you,” she said softly.
Penny hesitated at the door, swallowing hard. “I love you too, Alice.” With that, he quietly slipped out before she could say anything else that might make him tear up.
Alright, he could do this. Just three more kids to get in the bed. He figured Eliot would probably be asleep almost immediately, he didn’t know about how well Margo would go to bed, and Quentin…well, that was a wild card. He didn’t know how Quentin would react to a bath or to his bed or his pyjamas or anything. He was just going to have to wait and see.
He knocked on the bathroom door, opening it just enough to see Sunderland kneeling on the floor. “You guys almost done? Alice is in bed and Margo’s next on the list.”
“I’m getting my pyjamas on,” Eliot yelled back.
“Good, I’ll be up in just a minute to tuck you in.”
Penny shut the door and headed back down stairs. There were so many stairs, why were there so many stairs? And how many times was he going to have to go up and down them tonight? “Margo,” he said as he walked into the common room. “Get your pyjamas, Eliot is almost done in the bath and you’re next. You’ve got a Princess room waiting for you.” Maybe that would tempt her to go to bed.
Nadia shook her head, pulling Margo into her lap. “No, we’ve decided that Margo is our daughter now. We’re going to—“
“We’re not adopting Margo. Nadia, we went over this,” Gretchen said sternly, crossing her arms over her chest.
At least one of them was responsible. “You guys can play with Margo tomorrow if you want. Right now, I need to get her to bed so that she’s rested and able to play.” Nadia and Gretchen didn’t have to know that by tomorrow this would all be over. Damn, he was getting really good at the whole lying thing.
“It’s okay, Nadia. We’ll lock Penny in a dungeon and you can take his place. A woman-servant is better than a man-servant anyway,” Margo promised her. “I’ll even let you bring Gretchen along and feed her dinner. She gets really grumpy if she doesn’t get dinner,” she said, glancing over at Gretchen.
Nadia looked up at her girlfriend and smiled. “She sure does. I’ll make sure she’s had her dinner tonight. I guess you oughta go with Penny. C’mon, gimme a hug, Queen President.”
“If my loyal subject insists.” Margo turned around, giving Nadia a hug. “I’ll miss you until tomorrow. Gretchen? Goodnight, I guess….”
Gretchen rolled her eyes and sat up a little straighter on the sofa. “Alright, come here, give me a hug before you go,” she said, putting her cane aside.
Instantly, Margo ran and nearly tackled Gretchen to hug her. For a minute Penny was worried that Margo had hurt her, but Gretchen seemed perfectly fine and happy. The two hugged, said their goodnights, and Margo grabbed her bag before she skipped over to Penny and took his hand in hers.
“Let Quentin read his book, guys. Just keep an eye on him and I’ll be back as soon as I can,” Penny said over his shoulder, grabbing Eliot’s bag of gifts before letting Margo lead him up the stairs.
Sunderland met him at the top of the staircase, holding Eliot out to him. “I believe this is yours,” she said, all but pushing him into Penny’s free arm.
Eliot didn’t hesitate going into Penny’s arms. He wrapped his arms around Penny’s neck, clinging to him like a spider monkey. A very heavy spider monkey in blue and black zebra striped pyjamas. “That was the biggest bathtub I ever seen,” Eliot told Penny, absolute awe in his voice.
Penny tried not to groan as he shifted Eliot to a more comfortable position. “Yeah? Well, let’s hope it’s big enough for a queen. Margo, you’re up,” he said, pushing Margo towards Sunderland with his free hand.
“That’s Queen President,” Margo corrected with a roll of her eyes.
Of course, Queen President. How could he have forgotten? “My mistake, your highness. Now, bath time. Then you get your tiara.”
That got Margo’s attention and she nearly knocked Sunderland down getting into the bathroom, tearing off her dress as she ran. Well, at least she was excited about her bath. Penny gave Sunderland a ‘good luck’ smile before heading down to tuck Eliot into bed.
By the time they got to the bedroom Eliot was already half asleep against Penny’s shoulder. He whined in protest as he was put down into the bed and reached out to grab the blankets. Instead of blankets his hands brushed against the ears of the stuffed bunny and his eyes flickered open. In an instant, he was wide awake and clutching the bunny against his chest in a tight cuddle. “Dale,” he squealed in delight, “I was afraid of if I had left him at home! Mama must’ve packed him! She knows I can’t sleep without Dale!”
So, Penny’s instincts about the rabbit were right. It wasn’t used for smuggling drugs, but rather was something that had been well loved over the years. Thank god he’d decided to put it in the bedroom. “Yeah, your mom wanted me to make sure you had him tonight. Said he was really—his name is Dale?” Alright, yeah, Eliot was a weird kid, but Dale? What kind of name was that for a rabbit? Floppsy or Hoppy of something like that would’ve been way more normal. Dale?
“Dale Earhart, like the driver,” Eliot explained.
Oh. Oh, this was some kind of dumbass, redneck NASCAR thing. Penny was so shocked that he couldn’t even laugh at how fucking un-Eliot that was. Dale Earhart. Now that was something he could bring up later. “Of course, how did I not guess that? Well, you and Dale need to snuggle on down into bed. I bed Dale is exhausted.”
Eliot looked up, giving Penny a look of…was that pity? He reached out and put a hand on Penny’s arm. “Penny, Dale is a toy, he doesn’t get tied. Me? I’m very tired. I had a very long day and I played a lot and now I need to go to sleep. I’m sorry you didn’t know toys weren’t alive,” he said, patting Penny’s arm.
Great, now somehow Penny was the stupid one here for making a joke. “Right, you’re right. C’mon, lay down buddy and get some sleep. Need anything? Water? An 80’s song? A story?”
“A story,” Eliot told him as he flopped back onto the bed. “A nice story, please.”
Well, since he was so polite about it… “Let me just get everything settled here and I’ll tell you a good story.” In truth, he needed to try and remember a story for the kid and plugging in the star shaped nightlight gave him time to wrack his brain. He left the stuffed moose in the bag, figuring that Dale was good enough to keep Eliot occupied.
Most of the old stories he knew were terrifying and he might’ve sometimes used them to scare his foster siblings on occasion. The Pink Fog, the Stink Ape, and Murderous May would probably have Eliot crying and clinging to him all night. So, he decided to just make up a story and go with that.
“Once upon a time,” Penny started, because all good stories started that way, “there was a man who could go anywhere in the world he wanted to go. All he had to do was close his eyes, wish really hard, and when he opened his eyes again he was there. He went to Paris, visiting the Eifel Tower, he saw the sun rise in Maine and set in Los Angeles the same day, he walked through the busy streets of Tokyo and the cobblestone streets in Savannah. He went everywhere anyone could ever want to go.
“No matter where the man went he always felt like he was missing out on something. He went on adventures, trekking through the snow in the Artic and exploring the great wide ocean. Still, it wasn’t enough. There was no journey that satisfied him and no place on earth left to explore.
“Then, one day, the man was sitting alone when he heard a strange noise outside. At first, he thought a stray cat had showed up and was meowing to let the man know it needed to be fed. When he went outside, cat food in hand, he didn’t discover any cats on his porch. Instead, there was a little boy, sitting on the ground, crying.
“The Travelling Man asked the boy ‘Why are you crying?’. And the boy looked up and said ‘I’ve got no family.’
“Sitting down on the ground The Travelling Man asked ‘What happened to your family?’ and the boy told him ‘I never had a dad and my mom is gone.’ The Travelling man was quiet; he understood the boy’s plight. You see, he didn’t really have much of a family either. No mom, no dad, no brothers or sisters, no wife, and no children. He knew what it was like to be alone.
“So, he invited the boy inside for dinner and made him a place to sleep. He couldn’t just leave him sitting outside starving in the cold. They ate together, the man telling the boy about his numerous adventures and the boy listening with rapt attention. The boy said he had never been on an adventure, he’d never even left the state of Florida.
“They went to bed and the next morning The Travelling Man made them both breakfast. He thought about how the boy had never been on an adventure before. It didn’t seem right to stay in the same place your entire life. So, after breakfast he decided they would go out for lunch. He took the boy’s hand and The Travelling Man took him to his favourite café in London. For dessert, they went to Paris, and they had dinner in German.
“It was the most fun The Travelling Man had ever had.” Penny paused, swallowing hard and looking down at the glow of the nightlight. “He learned that exploring and all the adventure shit, well, it was nice and everything. But, it wasn’t so great when you did it alone. What The Travelling Man was missing was a family. His own family. The two of them, well, they weren’t a particularly big family but that didn’t matter. They had each other and they could go on all the adventures they wanted. Mostly though, they stayed in Florida and caught lizards. Uh, the end?” The story he’d originally planned involved The Travelling Man fighting a bear and becoming a folk hero, but he never quite got to that part. It got all stupid and sappy and way too real. It was bullshit was what it was.
Eliot yawned, mostly asleep at this point. “I wish he’d found a cat,” he muttered. “I bet cats make good families. I got big brothers and a family and I wish I had cats instead. Cats just meow…”
Okay, well, Eliot had completely missed the point of the story. Penny rolled his eyes and ruffled Eliot’s hair. “They adopted a cat. Its name’s Peanut Butter and it travels with them.”
“Good, I like Peanut Butter. He’s my favourite character.”
“Yeah, he’s a great cat. Get some sleep, buddy.” Penny started to stand up, only to have Eliot grab hold of his shirt.
“We have to say night-time prayers first,” he insisted.
How many times a day did this kid have to pray? Jesus Christ… Alright, alright, maybe it wouldn’t be quite as weird as dinner had been. Oh hell, it’d probably be weirder but it wasn’t like there was anything Penny could do about it.
Eliot clasped his tiny hands together and looked down, taking a deep breath. “May God watch over me while I rest and make tomorrow the very best. May I sleep through the night and wake to see the morning light. God bless mama, and daddy, and Ellery, and Ellis, and Elton—“
“Who are they?” Penny interrupted.
“My brothers,” Eliot said, clearly annoyed. Hell, Penny would be annoyed too if his entire family had ‘El’ names. “They’re mean but that’s why they need for God to bless them. That way they’ll be nice to me like you are and they’ll call me by my name. Anyway, bless all my aunts and uncles and cousins. And, God, especially bless my new friends: Margo, and Alice, and Quennin, and Kady, and Nadia, and Gretchen, and Miss Pearl and extra bless Penny. Ah—men. Oh! And God bless Scout too! Ah-men for real this time!”
“And Scout is…”
“Right.” Penny leaned down, giving Eliot a hug and letting Eliot hug him back. “Alright, buddy, get some sleep, I’ll see you in the morning.”
Eliot squeezed Penny’s neck before curling down in the bed. “Goodnight, Penny, I love you.”
“Love you too, buddy,” Penny said as he got up off the bed, flipping the light out.
“Penny,” Eliot said in a tiny voice.
Pausing in the doorway, Penny looked back over his shoulder. “Yeah, buddy?”
“I already have four brothers can I have five?”
“That’s, um…that’s something you’ll have to talk to your parents about. Do you want a little brother?”
Eliot shook his head, holding Dale close to him. “No, but I want my brothers to be like you and they can’t be like you. Can you be my brother?”
Oh hell. “Yeah, buddy, I can be your big brother.” It wasn’t like he hadn’t been a big brother before, to numerous children. He remembered them all as though they had never left him.
Even in the dim glow of the nightlight Penny could see the smile crossing Eliot’s face. “Oh good.” He paused and his smile faded. “Penny?”
Eliot was quiet for a moment, clearly wracking his brain for the right words. “I did something bad…” he admitted sheepishly.
Oh no, this was going to take a while. Penny walked back over, sitting down on the bed. “It’s okay, you can tell me. I swear I won’t be mad.”
“Cross your heart?”
“Cross my heart.”
Eliot took a shaky breath and swallowed hard. “I know I should’ve but I didn’t pray for one of my brothers. But I did pray for—I didn’t pray for Elmer.” He rubbed at his eye and squeezed Dale close to him. “But Elmer is mean and I don’t want God to bless him because I tried—I tried every night for a real, real long time and God didn’t make him nicer.”
Penny reached out to rub Eliot’s back only to have him jerk away like he’d been struck. “Hey, it’s okay, come here. I’m not gonna hurt you,” Penny promised. “It’s okay, there you go. There you go.” He let Eliot lay down in his lap. “Sometimes…I don’t know. I don’t think that God or anyone else can take the mean out of someone. I’m sorry he’s mean because, well, you’re a pretty great kid. I like you and maybe one day he will too.”
“He won’t. I tried to be friends and I showed him my secret place in the woods. He knocked it down and told daddy so’s I’d get in trouble for playing by the deep part of the creek. And I prayed that we’d be friends and he threw mud on my church clothes and mama got sad because we were late to church and had to sit in the back pew. I couldn’t see the singing people and they’re my favourite part,” he explained, whimpering.
“Well, he sounds like someone you shouldn’t be friends with. Eliot, if he’s mean to you, even if he’s your brother, you don’t have to be friends with him. You gotta be friends with people who are nice, people you like to be around, people who are stupid but sometimes funny and throw great parties.” He was getting off track now. “What I’m saying is, only be friends with people that are cool to you.”
“Like Gretchen and Nadia?”
He was thinking more like Margo and Alice and Quentin and Kady, but, sure, that worked too. “Yeah, like them.”
Eliot took another deep breath. “I prayed for them,” he whispered.
“That’s good. Right? You’re supposed to pray for your friends.”
“No,” Eliot said, sitting upright. “They’re abomin-abombinimi—bad!”
Penny perked up, putting his hands on Eliot’s shoulders. “Did they do something? Did they hurt you? What happened?” Damn it. He trusted them to take care of his babies, he should’ve known better! He should’ve found some way to be in two places at once!”
“No, they didn’t do anything bad to me just at me.”
Alright, he needed this one explained a little bit better. “What’d they do at you?”
“Penny, they’re lesbians,” he said with the most serious expression a five year old could possibly muster.
It was all Penny could do not to laugh and then it was all Penny could do not to scream and hunt down Eliot’s parents and scream some more. “Yes,” Penny said, taking a deep breath and trying to stay as calm as possible. “And they love each other.” He didn’t want to have to explain this, he wasn’t sure he could explain this. But, goddamnit, he was going to do his best.
“I know,” Eliot said, looking down again. “And that’s why—I don’t know! Nadia looks at Gretchen and she smiles and she looks like you do of when you’re happy! But they can’t be happy, Penny! Not like that! Not when they’re going to hell!” He put his head in his hands, taking a deep breath. “Girls—girls can’t do like that with girls and boys can’t do like that with boys! Right? Right, Penny?”
“Okay, okay, shh, shh, calm down, baby. Calm down, El,” Penny said, wrapping his arms around Eliot. “Calm down and talk to me for a second. Just…tell me why. Why can’t they be happy like that?”
Eliot whimpered loudly and put his head against Penny’s chest. “Because God says it’s bad and so does my daddy.”
Penny could have mentioned that God said a lot of things that didn’t make sense, but he figured that would only make things worse. He also refrained from saying that Eliot’s dad probably had some stupid ideas too. So, he rubbed Eliot’s back and tried a different route. “Look, God wants people to be happy. Right?”
He held up his hand, cutting Eliot off. “And Gretchen and Nadia are happy. Forget all the rules for a second and think about how God wants everybody to be happy.”
Eliot sniffled again. “How can they be happy if they’re sinners?”
“Because this is how God made them, El. People are different, it’s fine. Great, even. If everyone were the same it’s get pretty boring. Imagine a world full of all the same people. Imagine a world full of Margos.”
“I would rather not, thank you.”
Penny gave a small laugh. “Yeah, me either. Anyway, the point is why would they be like that if God didn’t make them that way? Listen, it’s good that you prayed for them. You know why?”
“Because of how now God can see that-that they’re happy,” he guessed.
Actually, Penny was going to say it showed how much Eliot cared about his friend, but Eliot’s answer was somehow better. “Yeah, exactly. And he’s happy that they’re happy. And now he wants you to be happy you because you didn’t do anything wrong. Everybody’s happy.”
“Okay, but, Penny—“
“Wait. Did you just call me Butt Penny? I’m a regular Penny, not a butt Penny,” he joked, tickling Eliot.
The sniffling turns turned into loud giggles. “Butt Penny! Butt Penny,” Eliot laughed out, rolling on the bed and grabbing at Penny’s hands. “You’re a Butt Penny!”
After a few minutes of this, Penny had a very exhausted, giggling Eliot in the bed. “Alright, c’mon, buddy. Back under the blankets, thank you. Okay, feel better?”
Eliot sighed and gave a small shrug. “I guess a little bit. I wish I could pray my brother nicer or know about Nadia and Gretchen and if they’re going to hell. I don’t know, Penny. I just don’t know,” he said with a sigh.
Penny managed a small smile and patted Eliot on the leg. “Well, that’s not for you to worry about. And, as your big brother, I am obligated to tell you that everything is going to be okay,”
“Cross my heart.” He smiled, ruffling up Eliot’s hair. “Besides, you’re, like, really small. You don’t have to know everything right now. Shit, you don’t actually have to know anything. You can be small and dumb for a while.”
“What about forever?”
Unfortunately, he wouldn’t be small forever, but he would have a few extra years of being dumb. “Sure. Think you can go to sleep now?”
“I might need another hug, Penny. I got real sad…”
Of course he needed another hug and of course Penny was going to give it to him. He hugged the little boy tight in his arms, a part of him not wanting to let go. It felt like the moment he let go Eliot would be hurting again and he wouldn’t be able to fix it, he wouldn’t be there to help him. So, he held on for far too long, blinking quickly to keep any tears at bay.
There came a time when he did have to let go and let Eliot lay down in the bed. “Get some rest, buddy. I love you, okay?”
“I love you too, Penny. Thank you.”
Maybe they could just keep Eliot small and give him a happy life. Whatever had happened to him, whatever life had done, had taken the sweetest little boy in the world and turned him into an alcoholic mess of a person. He could raise Eliot better, outside of a religious cult. Eliot could grow up away from the fear of god and hell and his father and whatever sick, twisted shit those demons had filled his brain with. He could live somewhere where no one would hurt him or make him feel bad about being Eliot. The only problem was that Penny didn’t know how to do that. He didn’t know how to fix the damage already done to him or stop him from turning into who he became.
All Penny knew how to do was get kids into bed. Two more kids to go, and they’d probably prove to be the most difficult. Kady, Alice, and Eliot had been almost too easy. Eliot he wasn’t surprised about, the kid was lazier than hell and had been excited over getting a nap. Alice was just an all-around good kid and just needed to know that there weren’t monsters anywhere. Kady…he stopped on his way to the bathroom, creaking open Kady’s door to make sure she was still in bed.
By the glow of the nightlight he could just make out Kady’s silloutte in the darkness. She was laying on her stomach, head propped up in her hands, whispering something. Within a few seconds she stopped whispering and laid down, covering her head up with the blanket.
“Kady, you gotta go to sleep,” Penny said, leaning against the doorframe.
“I am asleep,” came the muffled reply.
Yeah, of course she was. “Who were you in here talking to?”
“No one. Go away, I’m sleeping!”
Penny rolled his eyes and crossed the room, sitting on the edge of the bed. He flipped back the blanket, finding a glaring, angry Kady staring back at him. “Yeah, you look super asleep in here. What’s up? Can’t sleep? Monsters under the bed?”
“No, that’s the dumbest thing I ever heard,” she snapped, pulling the blanket back over her head.
Penny grabbed the blanket away from her, uncovering her head again. “Yeah? What were you up to in here then?”
Kady glared at him before sighing and reaching under the blanket, pulling out Flower. “Some of the time when I’m at home and Mama’s at home she asks me what I today and I tell her. And then she tells me what she did and then I go to sleep. But she’s not here and you already know what I did all day.” She paused and looked down. “So…I told Flower,” she finally admitted.
Okay, Penny couldn’t even pretend to be mad at her when she was awake because she missed her mom. It was sweet and all Penny could do was tuck her back into bed. “Well, you can talk to Flower all you need to until you go to sleep, okay? I’m sure you’ve got a lot to tell him. And if you need someone else to talk to then I’m right out in the hall.”
“Oh…alright. Um, goodbye, Penny?”
“Yeah, goodnight, sweet pea.”
“Do you say ‘goodnight’ when it means you’ll be here in the morning?” she asked, her voice casual.
Did…did she usually wake up alone? Jesus, she was four! “Yeah, I’ll be here in the morning.”
“Oh, okay. Goodnight, then!”
He let Kady cover up her head again and closed the door behind him, leaving her to tell Flower all about the things she had done. From what he knew about Kady, her home life wasn’t great, but maybe it hadn’t been that terrible. Sure, her mom left her with a prostitute name Coco, and she meditated instead of napping, and…yeah, no, it sucked. Kady’s entire childhood just seemed to suck. But, she loved her mom and it sounded like, in a weird way, her mom loved her too. Her mom had tried to protect her in some ways and that had to mean something.
At least she was going to sleep and had stayed in bed. Now, he had to try and get Margo into the bed. He was sure that would be fun and easy and Margo would actually do what he asked her to provided they travelled to an opposite dimension.
“Hey,” he said, knocking on the bathroom door again, “Is Margo almost—“
The bathroom door swung open so hard, hitting Penny’s forehead and nearly knocking him over. “Ta-da,” Margo yelled, throwing her hands up the air as she skipped out of the bathroom.
“She’s been waiting for you just so she could do…that,” Sunderland explained to him, looking smug.
Penny checked, making sure his head wasn’t bleeding or something. The door had hit him head, but he didn’t want to show that he was hurt. Oh, there was definitely going to be a bruise in the morning. “Ah, yeah, ta-da,” he managed, rubbing his head. “That’s…great, Margo. You look super cute and royal.”
Margo smiled, twirling around to make sure everyone saw how adorable she was. “My tiara, good sir.”
“When you get in bed I’ll give it to you. I need to talk to Pearl for just a minute.”
The smile fell from Margo face and she groaned, crossing her arms over her chest. “Whatever. Grownups always gotta talk about something. What is it? Cases? Stocks? Earthquakes? I can talk earthquakes with you.”
“It’s not hurricanes, sweetheart. And this’ll just take a second, I promise. Then we’ll get you into the bed and get your crown on and everything will be great.”
Sunderland raised her brow. “Sweetheart?”
That was…just what you called kids. It was like calling them buddy, or kiddo, or—“Shut up,” Penny said, rolling his eyes. “Look, I think we’re good here. Quentin isn’t really covered in cheese or anything. Besides, he…doesn’t really trust you and I don’t think a bath is going to be good right before bed. It might just upset him and—what? Why do you keep looking at me like that? What did I do this time?”
She was standing there with that stupid smug look on her face like she had just discovered some great secret. “You’re protective of him.”
“So? He’s a kid. They all are. Am I the bad guy here for being protective of a bunch of kids?” More importantly, why did he feel like the only one protective of these kids?
“They’re not just kids, Penny,” she told him, taking a step closer. “They’re your kids.”
Penny took a breath, ready to argue before looking down at Margo. Fuck. “Yeah, ya know what? Yeah, they are my kids. All of ‘em. Is that a problem?”
“Not yet, no. Right now it’s actually incredibly helpful. I’m just worried about you. I don’t want you hurt when this is all over and you know that this isn’t going to last much longer. I’m not being cruel, Penny, I’m trying to help you.”
Well, her help was pretty condescending. Forgetting the pain in his arms, Penny swooped down and picked up Margo. “Well don’t. I don’t need your help. What I need is to get Margo in bed and for you to leave,” he snapped.
Sunderland put her hands up in front of her in a sarcastic surrender. “Only trying to help. When you need someone to talk to you know what my office hours are.”
“Well, I won’t need that. C’mon, Margo, let’s get you in bed. I’ll see you in class, Sunderland.”
He didn’t wait for her to reply. He turned on his heel, barely remembering to get Margo’s bag as he went. Sunderland didn’t know jack shit, she had no idea what he felt and how ‘okay’ he was going to be when this was all over. Even if things weren’t okay he certainly wasn’t going to talk to her about it. One more condescending smile would send him right over the edge.
“Why did she say all that,” Margo asked. “Is she mad at you? Is she your girlfriend? Is your girlfriend mad at you?”
“She’s not—no. She’s not my girlfriend,” Penny said, shaking his head. “She’s just…someone I work with. And sometime she can be…you know…”
“Yeah, sometimes. Just ignore her, she’s a bitch sometimes and sometimes she’s not. Let’s focus on Margo right now and how much Margo needs to be in the bed.”
Margo opened her mouth to argue, but stopped when Penny flipped on the bedroom light. Her eyes went wide and she stared around in complete amazement. She wiggled until Penny put her down and then just stood there, looking around at everything. “This…is not a princess room,” she whispered. “This room is for a Queen.”
So, by doing absolutely nothing at all Penny had managed to do everything exactly right. There was no reason for him to be proud, yet he was. He reached into the bag and pulled out the tiara, placing it neatly on Margo’s wet hair. “And now you’re a queen,” he said with a mock bow.
The biggest smile crossed her face and she turned around, hugging Penny’s leg. “You listened! You listened and made the most perfect bedroom ever! I never wanna leave!”
“Of course I listened, why wouldn’t I?”
“You’re a grown up?”
Oh. Oh, yeah, that was on par with everything Penny knew about Margo. “Well, sometimes grown-ups are just…bad a listening, ya know?”
“Try all the time. Grow-up’s ears are broke. I don’t know why.”
It did get old sometimes listening to someone scream about what they wanted, but he figured it also got old to have to scream to be heard. “Let’s just get you in the bed, okay? Up your go, there. How’s the bed feel?”
Margo bounced a couple of times, humming to herself. She flopped down against the pillows a couple of times and rolled across the blanket. All of these seemed to be very important tests in determining bed quality. She sat back up and gave Penny a firm nod. “This is everything I ever wanted in the entire world. I sure hope Todd likes pink. If he doesn’t he will,” she added with a smile.
Threatening Todd, what a perfect way to end the night. “Right now this room is all for you. So, you need to snuggle down under the blankets and close your eyes. It’s getting pretty late.”
“That’s okay, I’m not tired!”
Penny sighed, rubbing at his tired eyes. Yeah, Margo was definitely going to cause him some problems. He really should’ve put her to bed first. “Margo—“
“I said I’m not tired,” Margo repeated, looking up at Penny. “And that means that I don’t gotta go to sleep. And you can stay awake with me! I have a lot of queen things to do and—“
“And you can do them in the morning,” Penny told her as sternly as he could. “Right now, it’s bedtime. You have a great, comfortable new bed, you’ve got brand new pyjamas, and you need to go to sleep.”
Margo scoffed and hopped off the bed. “Penny, I’ve been very nice—“
Her face fell and she hesitated for a moment, trying to find her next thought.
The pause was all he needed. Penny got off the bed and knelt down beside Margo, wrapping an arm around her. “I know you’re really excited right now. Anyone would be if they had a badass bedroom like this.” He never thought he’d see the day where pink pillows were considered badass, and yet here he was. “I need you to sleep right though—don’t interrupt. I need you to sleep because you’ve got to be at the top of your game tomorrow. Margo, you’ve gotta be on top of things tomorrow. I mean, there’s four of them and only two of us. We’re outnumbered and if you’re all sleepy tomorrow then who’s gonna help me watch the babies? I can’t do it by myself, Margo.”
She thought about this for a moment, pursing her lips and mulling it all over. “You do need an awful lot of help,” she said, tapping her chin with her finger.
“I’m counting on you here, Margo.” He hoped that if she had a job she would feel better, she would have something to focus on and get to feel important long enough to go to sleep. “You’re more grown up than the others, and I really need your help. So…be a grown-up for me?”
That seemed to get her attention. Margo looked up at him, nodding slowly. “I am more grown up. I’m not a baby,” she said, her voice quiet and lacking the familiar demanding tone.
Penny nodded, leading Margo over toward her bed. “That’s right. You’re definitely a grown up.” It wasn’t like he could say ‘You’re somehow the least grown up of anyone, including Eliot, but for the love of all the is holy go to bed.’
“Can you tell my mom?”
Margo sighed, taking Penny’s hand and letting him help her into the bed. “I said, can you tell my mom? She’s always like ‘Margo I can’t talk to you when you’re like this’ and I don’t even know how I’m being like except like a grownup. So, tell her I’m a grownup? She’ll believe you,” Margo mumbled, holding onto the edge of the blanket.
Oh. Oh, yeah, no, that made sense. “Do you have anyone to talk to?”
“I talk to you when you’re not busy with the babies. And, if you I help you with the babies tomorrow then we’ll have more time to talk,” she added, perking up a little bit.
As nice as that was, it wasn’t exactly what he meant. “I mean at home, Margo. Your mom and dad don’t—they don’t talk to you?” Now that he thought about it, Margo was the only one who hadn’t said anything about her family.
“They’re really busy,” she explained. “They got really hard jobs and get the stress. And I’m really busy too, I got a hard job.”
“Yeah? What do you do?”
“Well, like, when a new nanny comes in I gotta explain the rules to ‘em. I gotta tell how I like my toys and my food and what clothes I wanna wear. It’s tough to train new nannies and by the time they do learn the rules they gotta go be someone else’s nanny,” she explained as though all this were perfectly normal. “And I try to tell Mom about it, but she just says I need to behave when I am. She doesn’t even show the nannies how to do my hair so they do it wrong and I don’t even fire them for that. I tell how to do it and they learn. That’s how you be a grown-up. You don’t fire your nannies cause they’re bad at bows.”
How many nannies did this kid go through in a year? How had no one been able to deal with her? It wasn’t that Margo was a bad kid, not really. She was just, well, Margo. She was loud and obnoxious and needy, but that could be dealt with, especially if you didn’t have four other kids to watch. “It’s, uh, good that you don’t fire your nannies and, not to brag, but I’m pretty damn good with at doing bows.” He managed a small smile. “Look, Margo, it’s okay. It’s okay if you’re not a grownup.”
“But I am—“
“Let me finish. It’s okay not to be. You can be a kid, you can just be Margo. You’re not the one who needs to tell your nannies what to do, that’s your parents’ job. You don’t need to worry about firing nannies or jobs or any of that shit. Right now, you just have to worry about making friends and shit like that. You’ve gotta relax, not put so much pressure on yourself.” He’d been wrong. He’d been completely wrong all day. Margo didn’t need a job, she just wanted one. The happiest he’d seen her was when she was playing with Alice or talking to Eliot. He’d spent the day thinking Margo needed to be in charge when all she really needed was less responsibility.
Margo gave him a quizzical look and shook her head. “If I do that then how am I going to be the best?”
“I don’t know. The best,” she answered with a shrug.
“Just be Margo and that’ll be the best.”
It didn’t look like Margo was understanding any of this. She shook her head, rubbing at her eyes. “I don’t know what I’m supposed to be….”
“Margo. You’re supposed to be Margo and roll down hills and talk about my clothes with Eliot. Or whatever you two do together. Don’t worry if it’s grown up or whatever, just do what’s fun.” Penny wasn’t sure what the right words were here. It didn’t matter, Margo wasn’t going to remember any of this and she tomorrow she could still be a competitive, lonely person. But, maybe, just for one night, she could relax.
“Can I roll down a hill tomorrow?”
“You can roll down several hills.”
That got a smile out of her. She reached up, hugging Penny’s neck again. “I want you to be my nanny forever. I’ll tell Mom and Dad to fly you to L.A and you can live in my house and be my nanny.”
“Alright, we’ll let ‘em know. Now, how about you lay back in bed for me and some sleep, okay?”
“I guess I am a little sleepy…”
Yeah, the way she was yawning and rubbing at her eyes definitely came off ‘a little’ sleepy. Penny got her tucked in and plugged in the little castle shaped nightlight. “Alright, Margo. Goodnight, I’ll see you in the morning.”
Margo rolled over, curling up and letting her eyes flutter closed. “Okay, goodnight, Penny, I love you.”
“Love you too,” he said as he got off the bed and headed towards the door.
He knew it was too easy. “Yeah, Margo?”
“Will you for real be my nanny? You’re good at stuff and make real good macaroni and I bet you know how to swim and you’re good at making pretend games.”
Oh, well, he did make some damn fine macaroni. “Yeah, I will be,” he promised her as she flipped off the light.
“You’d be a good mom or dad but the best nanny,” she mumbled into the pillow.
Smiling to himself, Penny slipped out the door and closed it behind him. Victory. Margo was in the bed, she was happy, and she was going to sleep and she’d told him that he’d be a good parent. Hell, maybe she was right. Maybe this stupid little kid was right and Sunderland was wrong. The fuck did Sunderland know about Travellers anyway? Maybe he could have his own stupid little family. He’d lasted a day. Who really knew if his ‘gift’ would take his entire life from him? Not Sunderland, he told himself. He’d prove her wrong somehow.
Back downstairs, one last time. His legs were absolutely burning but he promised his body that it could relax soon if it just held on a little bit longer. The common room was quiet and Penny took a moment to just enjoy the peace. Nadia was sprawled out on the sofa, her head in Gretchen’s lap, and Quentin was still sitting on the floor with his book.
“Hey,” he said quietly as he walked over to the sofa, “thanks for keeping an eye on everybody. There’s some wine in fridge. And also in the cabinet. Ya know what? If you see a bottle of anything you want just take it. I don’t think it’ll be missed.”
Nadia stretched out, yawning. “They’re so cute. I want my own baby.”
“Not until we graduate,” Gretchen told her. “Come on, get up, I’m starving right now.”
With a groan, Nadia clambered off the sofa and pulled Gretchen up. “Okay, but Penny had to give me a hug before I leave. Everyone else has and I don’t think Penny has ever hugged a girl before.”
“I dated Kady,” he said, rolling his eyes. “Not, like, little five year old—you—you know what I mean. Oh shit, that’s gonna be so weird when this is over. I didn’t think about that. I don’t want to think about that. Please make me stop thinking about that.”
In response, Nadia pulled him into a tight hug. “Not the kind of psychic that can take memories, precious. Oh…I thought you’d be softer. Never mind, I don’t wanna hug you anymore. Take your creepy kid and get some sleep.”
“Quentin isn’t creepy.”
Gretchen scoffed. “He looked at me like he knew my sins and like he knows the exact day I’m going to die.”
Okay, yeah, Quentin did have a horror movie child stare, and sometimes he might seem a little…odd. But he wasn’t creepy! “He’s different. You guys go find liquor or food or whatever, I have to take care of not-creepy Quentin.”
“You have fun with that. And, hey, be sure to give us a shout tomorrow if you need anything—Gretchen!” Nadia said before being pulled away by her girlfriend.
Well, at least Gretchen would be happy when this was all over with. Penny rolled his eyes as the two of them disappeared into the kitchen. He was glad they had helped, but he was also kind of happy to see them leaving. Now, he needed to get Quentin to bed somehow. Maybe it wouldn’t be as hard as he thought. Maybe Quentin was ready to go to sleep? Maybe Penny was doing a lot of wishful thinking here.
He walked over, kneeling down beside the boy. “Hey, Q, we gotta go upstairs, okay? Everybody else is in bed and sleeping and it’s time you got your pyjamas on and did the same. Okay, buddy?”
Wordlessly, Quentin marked his page and closed his book. He stood up and gave a small nod, heading towards the stairs.
“Okay, yeah, just follow me,” Penny said, jumping up to lead the way. Quentin definitely didn’t know where his bedroom was and Penny suspected he was just copying what everyone else had done. It wasn’t a problem, Penny just had to stay slightly ahead of him and make sure Quentin was still behind him.
Thee bedroom was unremarkable, especially compared to Margo’s room. Quentin, however, looked amazed. As soon as Penny opened the door, Quentin made a beeline for the bookshelf. He knelt down and a small gasped escaped him as he thumbed through the titles.
“This is mine,” he said slowly, pulling a book off the shelf.
Penny pulled Quentin’s pyjamas out of the bag, looking them over as though he might be able to tell whether or not Quentin would hate them. He didn’t see anything wrong with them, but that didn’t mean anything. “It is? It’s your book?” he asked as he threw the pyjamas over his shoulder.
Quentin nodded and opened the front cover, holding it out to show Penny. “See it? It says my name. Can you read it? Please don’t take it, it’s mine.”
He had been reaching out to get the book for a better look but withdrew his hand, holding it up so Quentin could see he wasn’t going to snatch the book away from him. “Okay, okay, no taking. Let’s see…” He leaned forward, reading the handwritten inscription. “’Always Keep Your Magic. Happy Birthday Curly Q, Love Daddy.’ Well, that’s sweet.” Quentin’s dad seemed like he was definitely trying his best and Penny was glad that someone in Q’s life was looking out for him.
“I got it on my birthday from my dad,” Quentin explained as though Penny hadn’t just read that. “It’s Fillory. You don’t know Fillory, you know Hobbiton.”
“Please, I know all of The Shire,” Penny corrected, rolling his eyes. “Now, how about you get your pyjamas on and we’ll…I don’t know. We can read a chapter of Fillory before you go to sleep.”
Quentin paused, worrying his lower lip. “Do…you want me to read it to you?” he asked cautiously.
“Dude, that is so not how bedtime stories work. No, I read you the story and you listen to it and I’ll figure out about Fillory. Hey, look, these pyjamas have foxes on them—I probably shouldn’t have told people about that…”
“Told people about what?”
“Told people that…” He paused, coming up with a quick lie, “foxes…are really great and my favourite animal?”
“Oh. Foxes are canids,” Quentin told him.
Well, that was something Penny knew now. That didn’t erase the knowledge he had of fox sex, but he knew that about foxes now. “That’s super cool how you just know that. Pyjama time. Can you get these on yourself?”
“Are their buttons?”
“It doesn’t look there are any buttons.”
Quentin took the pyjamas and looked them over before throwing the shirt on the floor, jumping back from it like it was going to explode. He repeated the action with the pants after looking them over and stood back, wrapping his arms around himself. “Bad,” he said, shaking his head.
Penny knew there would be something wrong with them! He didn’t have time to feel smart, he had another emergency to solve. Kneeling down, he picked up and pyjamas and turned them over in his hands. He wasn’t able to find what made them bad, that was information only Quentin was privy to. “Okay, okay, tell me what’s wrong with them. Penny can fix it.” He could get Margo to bed, he could do anything!
“No! The-the thing that makes your back and your neck hurt and bad feel. Bad feel!”
Makes your back and neck hurt? Were there needles in these pyjamas? Wait. No. No, there weren’t needles but there was something almost as bad. “That tag!” Penny turned the pyjamas inside, showing the tag to Quentin. “This is it, right? This is the part you don’t like?”
Quentin gave a small nod, his face scrunched up in anguish.
“Hey, it’s fine, look. These are tear-able. See.” He took the tag off the shirt and the bottoms, leaving the pyjamas tagless and comfortable. “I do the same thing to my shirts. I can barely stand sleeves. “
“You do the same thing to your shirts? And sleeves?”
Penny nodded, handing the pyjamas back to Quentin. “Yeah, sleeves kinda make me feel like my arms are in prison. They’re restrictive and catch on fire real easy. C’mon, get your pyjamas on.”
Now that there weren’t tags on them, Quentin seemed perfectly happy to take off his regular clothes and pull on his pyjamas. It took him a minute and he somehow got his shirt on backwards twice. Finally, ignoring how awkward the whole situation was, Penny knelt down and helped Quentin with his shirt. Together, they managed to get it on the right way and Quentin was actually ready for bed.
When this was all over Penny was going to buy himself a ‘World’s Best Dad’ shirt because he had more than earned it. He helped Quentin up into the bed. “Alright, you want just a sheet or the comforter too? Which is gonna help you sleep best?”
“The big blanket,” Quentin told him. “I like the heavy of big blankets.”
“Not a problem,” Penny said as he tucked Quentin in all snug and cosy. “There you go. Alright, so we’re gonna be reading some Fillory tonight?”
Quentin looked down at his book, holding it so tight that his little knuckles turned white. “Why do you…why are you nice?”
The fuck kind of question was that? Oh shit, maybe Quentin did remember how mean Penny had been to him before he was a baby. “Cause…I’m a nice guy? And you’re a little kid. And people are supposed to be nice to little kids, even if they’re like Margo.” Especially if they were like Margo, actually.
“Even if they’re like me?”
“Quentin…you’re not, like—hold on. What I’m trying to say is, you’re weird.”
He looked down and gave a small nod. “Yeah, I know.”
“I’m weird. I hate sleeves. Alice is weird. She talks about horses and kelpie and it’s weird. Eliot’s weird. He just wants to nap all the time. Kady’s super weird, she meditates. Margo’s weird, she’s a Queen President. In case you missed it, Q, not a single goddamn person here is normal. So, yeah, you’re weird. Get over it, be weird, read Fillory.”
“We’re all weird?”
Penny nodded. “Yeah, buddy, we are all weird and fucked up. That’s how shit is. But, we have books. And books are good. Books make you feel, ya know, less weird. So, do you want me to tell you what the Chatwins were doing in England or not?”
Quentin nodded and slowly held the book out to Penny, trusting him with it. “Am I…do I live here now?” Quentin asked in what Penny could only describe as a calm terror.
“What the fuck—no. You do not live here. Have you ever stayed overnight at someone’s house?”
Quentin thought for a moment. “My Aunt Karen. We slept at her house at Thanksgiving. Me and Mom and Daddy.”
“Okay, well, it’s like that except your mom and dad aren’t here. You’re just taking a break from everything for a while. “You get to read your books and we’re gonna go explore the castle and everything is gonna be fine.”
“But everyone here is weird…”
“Quentin, everyone everywhere is weird. It’s not just here. The whole world is weird. I’ve been a lot of places,” he said, putting the book down on the bed, “and I’ve met a lot of people. Not a single damn one of them was normal. Normal isn’t real. It’s a made up idea by people who don’t like rollerblading. Or, reading, I guess, applies to you…. Anyway your dad’s gonna be here tomorrow and you’ll be fine. If you wanna go home you can. Nobody is making you live here. So just…” Penny sighed, rubbing his temples. “I don’t know, Q. Can we just read the book? Can we read the book and can you not be afraid of things?” Penny was exhausted. Absolutely, mentally and physically exhausted and knew he wasn’t going to get any sleep. He just wanted to rest.
Quietly, Quentin nodded and laid back down in the bed. He wasn’t better and he was still worried and Penny knew that he couldn’t take that worry away. That was something that would take days, maybe weeks to fix. Hell, it might never be fixed. Some things were just broken and all the right words in the world wouldn’t repair them. All Penny could really do was read this stupid book and maybe get Quentin to sleep.
“Good. Thank you.” Clearing his throat, Penny opened it to the first Chapter. “Martin Chatwin was very excellent at minor mending. He had repaired pocket watches and radios. He didn’t suspect that the grandfather clock in the sitting room would be too terribly different. The grandfather clock had springs and cogs just like the pocket watch, they were simply bigger…”
Penny read, glancing over at Quentin at the end of every page. The kid was still just lying there, wide-eyed and invested in the story. The book was starting to make Penny feel tired and he couldn’t help but yawn as he started the next chapter. The book wasn’t bad, but Penny wasn’t interested in the storyline. All he cared about was Quentin sleeping.
“Penny,” Quentin interrupted just as Jane was caught in a hunter’s snare. “You’re sleepy.”
There was some Adderall in his pocket. That mixed with a little coffee might help get him through the night. “Yeah, buddy, and you’re the one who needs to be asleep.”
“I don’t sleep right. Um, I know how to read myself a story. I can read it at me. You can go to bed if you want to.”
“I know I’m supposed to sleep but it’s hard sometimes to sleep…can I read for a little while?”
Maybe it would calm him down enough so he could actually get some rest. Maybe he just needed to be alone in the quiet and that would help him drift off. Penny sure as hell hoped so. “I’ll come check on you in a little bit, okay?”
“And if you need anything I’m gonna be right out in the hallway all night. You can come get me anytime.”
He handed the book off to Quentin and plugged in the book shaped nightlight. “Alright, buddy, try to get some sleep. I love you.”
Quentin didn’t even look up from his book. “Get some sleep,” he said before pausing. “I love you.”
Great, Quentin was parroting things back at him because that was, apparently, what it meant to be normal. “You don’t have to say it back.”
Oh. Oh, well, that was…nicer than her was willing to admit. Despite being overwhelmed and exhausted, Penny smiled and closed the door behind him. Quentin wasn’t normal, but he was a good and sweet kid. Maybe when all of this was over Penny could actually help him out some. They could actually talk and he’d try not to be too cruel when Quentin went on a long tangent about Fillory. He understood Q better now. Maybe this would actually all be for the best. Maybe fucking up a spell was the best thing the Physical kids had ever done.
Sunderland had told him that none of the Physical Kids would remember what happened while they were babies, and Penny hoped that she was wrong. He hoped they did remember some of what happened, like how well they’d all gotten along, how patient he could be, and how nice he really was. More than anything else, Penny hoped that when all of this was over they could still be friends. They could be a really weird and fucked up little family.
Chapter 7: Goodbye
People liked to say ‘the third time is the charm’. Well, that was just inherently untrue. Henry Fogg had been through this eighteen times already. Not this exact scenario, of course, but some very similar and some incredibly different. He sat behind his desk, his gripping his pen a little too tightly as he scoured his brain for some indication of where things had gone wrong. The recollections of the other timelines were vague to him. He often found them confusing as they overlapped in his memories. Trying to remember details was very much like trying to remember a dream. Sometimes, if he pushed himself hard enough he could see the other attempts at stopping The Beast. Sometimes, he wished he couldn’t remember anything at all.
The sound of his thin tipped pen scratching across stationary was the only sound in the room. There were certain things he could remember, certain people that missing. His favourite student wasn’t there. In fact, he didn’t even know where she was. What he knew was that they hadn’t even invited her to take the Brakebills exam and he’d never gotten to see her work her own special kind of magic. The door to magic had been closed on her completely and, as far as he knew, she was living in blissful ignorance while the students who should have been her friends were…babies. They had kept Eliot this time, which he was starting to feel was a huge mistake. It had been his idea to fuck around with Chronomancy, just as it had been in three other timelines.
Eighteen times they had tried and each attempt had been thwarted. There had been as few as three or as many as eight young Magicians who were always defeated. In some timelines The Beast tore them apart, one by one, in others they self-destructed before The Beast could even reach them. It was starting to seem as if they were all suicidal and hell bent on not saving magic or themselves. Henry was starting to lose hope and his list of consistencies and inconsistencies proved to be little help. Upon hearing the door creak open he quietly sat his pen down and waved his scarred hand over the desk, destroying the list in a single flash of fire.
“In polite society we knock before entering someone’s office, Eliza,” he said without bothering to look up.
There was a hesitation in Jane’s steps and she lingered by the door long enough that Henry knew she had nothing particularly pleasant to say. She always dawdled right in the entry to his office when things started going south, seeming to believe that if she stayed there long enough maybe she could figure out how a way to fix it herself. Though she only waited a few seconds before sitting down it felt like a lifetime. Bad news had a way of making time stretch out far too long.
“We can’t undo what they did. We’ve looked at it from every angle and there’s nothing we can do,” she told him bluntly as she smoothed out her blue suit skirt. That was the thing about Jane. Though she hesitated at the doorway she didn’t beat around the bush when actually speaking with him. They didn’t have time to be anything other than frank. “And before you make a suggestion I’ll remind you, because you might not recall, they did something similar in the eleventh timeline and our attempts at reversing the spell weren’t—“
“I remember.” He wished he didn’t. “Their bodies couldn’t handle the change back into adulthood. I recall the tenth timeline where they first experimented with Chronomancy and did almost the exact same thing. We waited too long with our attempts at reversal. That was the only time that death would have been preferably to the fate they received.” That was the one that made him wish he had the luxury of starting a new timeline with a fresh mind. That was the one that made him drink.
Jane involuntarily shuddered at the memory, suddenly finding herself unable to meet Henry’s gaze. She swallowed hard and cleared her throat, struggling to regain and maintain her composure. “Yes, well, I think we can agree that the best course of action is to end this timeline and start anew before things get out of hand,” she said as though simply restarting a game rather than the entire world. “Clearly Horomancy isn’t going to help any of them with this. None of them are particularly skilled with it, no matter how much help we give them. In fact, I would actually suggest removing all books relating to the subject from the school. Best not let them accidentally stumble upon it. Turn themselves into foetuses or something.”
Henry drummed the fingers on his right hand along the top of his left hand, nodding in silent agreement. “The question remains: What can we change? What small difference is going to give them the edge that they need?” God how he wished the fate of the universe wasn’t resting on the shoulders of students who couldn’t save themselves, much less all of magic.
“Bring back Mayakovski, perhaps? It might be helpful if we keep him on campus. So far, he’s the only one we haven’t seen die horribly. …Granted, he’s been in the Artic for eighty percent of the timelines…” she added almost as an afterthought.
There were an infinite number of changes that could be made and yet after eighteen lifetimes Henry was running low on ideas in general and was almost completely out of good ideas. They had changed major things: swapping people in and out and watching them die tragically in new and horrific ways. They had changed minor things: having a butterfly flap its wings a million miles away and then watching it die tragically in a new and horrific ways. Though Henry knew in his heart that every person was born with free will he was beginning to doubt his own knowledge. Perhaps they couldn’t change destiny. Perhaps it was simply fate that magic died and took all of them with it.
In response to his silence Jane leaned forward, putting her hand atop his. “I know you’re tired, Henry. We’re all tired. Unfortunately, we don’t have the option of simply giving in to our exhaustion. I have to change the past and you have to prepare these students for the future. There’s not an easy answer here. We have to keep trying.” She paused, pursing her lips and she looked down at his hand. “We should let Kady die when the Beast first arrives and make sure Penny learns battle magic from a safe house in Florida. Not the one in Gainesville this time.”
Henry gave a vague nod, he’d stopped listening. Jane could change everything and the end result was the same. Despite that, they would keep trying. They would keep trying because what other choice did they have? “How many times,” he asked, jerking his hand away and turning his chair to look out the window.
“How many times…what, Henry?”
“How many times are we going to watch them die? How many times are my students going to be ripped to pieces? How many more times am I going to lose my hands? Or my eyes? Have my spine broken? How many more times?” he snapped, slamming his hand against his desk drawer.
The chair scooted back, scrapping against the wood, and Jane’s shoes clicked against floor as she walked around the desk. She leaned over Henry, putting a hand on his shoulder. “Until we get it right. And we will get it right. It’s just taking a bit longer than we expected,” she told him, managing a smile that looked more like a grimace.
That didn’t sound hopeful. Maybe it had given him faith in the past, maybe he had wanted to try. At this point, after eighteen horrible outcomes, there was very little left for him to hang onto. Hope was as dead as his students.
“We’ve got keep trying. We can’t give up yet, Henry,” she pleaded, squeezing his shoulder in a pathetic attempt to reassure him. “Just trust me a little longer. I feel that we’re very close to solving this.” She let go and turned, heading away from him. “Besides, what other choice do you have? Until next time, Henry.”
“Until next time, Eliza.”