AN: This story is an alternate universe exploration of what might have become of Peter and Susan and Edmund had the two boys been late to the train station on the morning of the derailment and crash (as seen in The Last Battle). It is something of a prequel and a companion piece to my longer, in-progress story, The Land of Make Believe, and it establishes some of the relationships and emotions found therein.
Also, I'd like to apologize for the many mistakes I have undoubtedly made in portraying both the "process" of death and general culture in late 1940's Britain. I'd rather not go off half-cocked and sound like the written equivalent of an American trying on a very bad British accent, so I do what I can and ignore the rest. Please forgive the missteps. (smile)
And now, for the story… Enjoy!
Song of the Phoenix
"The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me, because the LORD has anointed me…to comfort all who mourn, and provide for those who grieve in Zion – to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair."
Isaiah 61:1a, 2b-3a, NIV
1. And So Goodbye…
"Peter!" Edmund hollered, from the bottom of the stairs, "Come on!" He raked his fingers through his dark hair and checked his wrist-watch for the umpteenth time. Random bumps and bangs came from the bedroom upstairs, and the teenager sighed. "Lucy's going to be pretty put-out with us if we're late!" he yelled, perturbed.
"I know!" came the shouted response, "but I can't find my keys!"
Edmund glanced over to the hall table and arched an eyebrow at the bunch of car and house keys lying higgledy-piggledy beside the vase of flowers his mother always kept fresh. He smirked, the smile stretching even wider as an aggravated "Argh!" and a particularly loud bang told him his older brother was most unhappy. It was a pity they had to be immediately on their way; he would have enjoyed letting this amusing scenario play out to its logical conclusion.
"They're down here!" he called, giving in to the inevitable.
Peter suddenly appeared at the top of the stairs, his blond hair tousled and his face flushed with exertion. "And how long have you been holding onto that tasty little tidbit?" he asked, thundering down the steps like a herd of elephants.
The younger Pevensie grinned. "Don't get your nose all out of joint, Pete," he said, "I just saw them. It's too bad I'm more afraid of Lucy's wrath than yours – I could have had some fun."
Blue eyes narrowed, and Edmund threw his head back and laughed.
"I oughta punch you in the nose," Peter groused good-naturedly, jamming his feet into his walking shoes and hastily tying the laces. He stuck out a hand, and Edmund pulled him up, steadying him as he swayed. He grabbed his keys off the table and pulled on his jacket, and then turned again to his brother. "Do you have the rings?" he asked.
Edmund patted his pocket, a serious expression abruptly replacing his mirth. "Right here."
Peter straightened his shoulders and lifted his chin as Edmund had seen him do many times before ordering a charge or heading into a room full of diplomats. "All right then," he said firmly, "Let's go."
They locked the front door behind them and went to the curbside where the Pevensie family car was parked. "That knee still bothering you, Ed?" Peter asked, seeing that a slight limp marred his brother's stride.
Edmund grimaced as he got into the car. "More or less," he said, tenderly kneading the aching joint in question, "It's not too bad now."
His older brother climbed into the driver's seat. "You should have seen the doctor," he said, lightly reproving, as he turned the key in the ignition, gave it a little choke, and gently pulled on the starter knob, mentally crossing his fingers as he did so. To both his and Edmund's pronounced relief, the engine coughed, spluttered, and turned over with a gutteral roar, and a gout of black smoke shot from the tailpipe.
"This thing needs to see a doctor," the teenager said, thumping the dashboard. "You never know when it's going to work and when it's not. Wish we could afford something a bit more reliable."
"Not until Dad gets a little more in the way of money," Peter responded, shifting into gear and turning out into the main street, "You know how abysmally he's paid."
Edmund made a disapproving noise in the back of his throat, and silence fell for a moment.
"Do you think this will work, Ed?" Peter asked, his eyes on traffic, which, thankfully, was light.
His younger brother pursed his lips and absentmindedly went on rubbing his knee. "I honestly don't know," he said, "I mean, I'm pretty sure the rings will work. You can tell that, just by looking at them. But as for the rest…I don't know. Jill and Scrubb have their wits about them, though; you needn't worry on their account."
Peter sighed. "I wish we could go," he said, and although there was a touch of longing, no bitterness marred the words.
"Well, we're helping," Edmund said with a small smile. "We procured the passport to Narnia – or at least to the Wood Between the Worlds. You can't tell me you didn't have fun dressing up and digging in the dirt – nothing like a little skull-duggery and intrigue to start the day out right."
The young man turned the car around a corner and made no reply, but Edmund saw the pinched look on his face and the stubborn set to his jaw. "Look," he said, "I know what you mean. I'd like to go back myself, but…"
"No," his older brother interrupted, sudden strain lacing his voice, "Something's wrong…" and with a startling bang and a horrible jerk, the right front tire blew out. Peter wrenched the wheel to the left, putting all his strength into the motion, and he managed to keep them from diving off the embankment. "…it's pulling awfully to the right," he finished lamely as he applied the brake and maneuvered them as far off the road as he could.
Edmund threw himself back against his seat in frustration and groaned. "Egad, couldn't this have happened at a better time?" he asked as Peter got out and walked to the front of the car to survey the damage. "Like when we're going to the dentist? I'd do anything to have the tires give out then."
The eldest Pevensie stood for a moment with his fists on his hips and then glared through the windshield at Edmund. "I'd appreciate a little help, here, instead of smart comments," he said, annoyed.
"All right, keep your hair on," the teenager shot back as he opened the door and stepped out, unfolding his lanky body to its near six feet in height. He joined his brother and folded his arms, staring down at the flattened and slightly shredded ring of vulcanized rubber. "Is the spare in the boot?" he asked, "We'll have to change it here."
Peter nodded and briefly massaged the bridge of his nose. "Yes, and yes," he replied, taking off his jacket and unbuttoning and rolling up his shirtsleeves. "Let's get to it. It won't change itself."
For the next twenty minutes they were busy jacking up the front, unscrewing nuts, wrestling tires, and generally getting greasy, dirty, and short-tempered. A few well-meaning motorists stopped to offer assistance but were waved on their way with thanks. When the brothers were finally finished and on the road once more, Edmund checked his watch and nearly swore.
"We're late," he said, and his older brother gave him an irritated look. "No, I mean we're really late. I'll be surprised if Lucy hasn't gotten impatient and ordered a cab."
Peter checked the mirror and pulled over a bit to let an ambulance in full cry zoom past. "She won't have," he said, "You know how keen she is on doing this all together – and she's right to feel so. Either she or Aunt Polly will probably lecture us about the importance of being prompt, though, so gird your loins." Edmund chuckled.
A few miles later, another ambulance went by, and then several police cars and a fire truck, all shrieking alarms and jangling bells. "Well, something's up," Edmund remarked, craning his neck to look behind them, "Must be pretty bad."
There was no reply from Peter, and the younger Pevensie glanced over, frowning until he glimpsed his brother's face. He didn't think he'd ever witnessed an expression of such fear, and the sight made his own body seize with undeniable terror. Peter's blue eyes were wide and full of horrified, frantic anxiety, his lips were compressed into a tense, thin line, and his knuckles were bone-white as he gripped the wheel so tightly Edmund thought he would crumple it.
"Peter?" he asked sharply, and when the young man wouldn't look at him, wouldn't even acknowledge his question, Edmund faced front and a dreadful, unspeakable suspicion began to blossom in the back of his mind.
"Oh, God," he breathed, a short, desperate prayer, and the beating of his heart grew faster and louder, nearly deafening, as traffic thickened and slowed, more emergency vehicles joining the crush and being let through, all moving in the direction of West Ham station.