AN: Many thanks to all readers and reviewers. I'm very glad you enjoyed this - hopefully, depending
on the behavior of my muses, there will be more to come in this
'universe', so stay tuned.
The 'stomping instep' move and the 'you cold, I'm freezing' routine come from the delightful and very kind elecktrum. (waves) Thanks!
Here I am at the end of me (at the end of me)
Trying to hold to what I can't see
I forgot how to hope
This night's been so long
I cling to your promise there will be a dawn
all this has passed
I still will remain
After I've cried my last
There'll be beauty from pain
Though it won't be today
Someday I'll hope again
And there'll be beauty from pain
You will bring beauty from my pain
+ Beauty from Pain, bridge and chorus, by Superchick
5. Beauty From Pain
The clock read quarter after eleven. Peter rubbed his eyes and blinked wearily before glancing back down at the papers spread willy-nilly over the small kitchen table. How could it have gotten so late so quickly? The last time he had noticed, the sun was setting and painting the cabinets and walls a rosy ochre. Had anyone bid him a good night? He racked his memory, found he couldn't recall, and wasn't terribly surprised.
He stood and stretched, and then made his way to the tap to fill the battered black teakettle. The house was still – his aunt and uncle had gone to bed, and he assumed Susan and Edmund had as well. That was good – he needed a bit of peace and quiet.
This last week had been full of hustle-bustle with errands needing to be run, arrangements needing to be made, and relatives and friends passing in and out, in and out of the house, packing furniture and appliances and clothes and knick-knacks: telling stories, reliving memories, and discussing the future. There was much to be done and decided, and Peter was grateful for the help and advice of his aunt and uncle. He knew what to do in Narnia, but not so much here.
Leaning back against the countertop, the young man let his gaze roam over the familiar features of the kitchen. The worn linoleum, an expertly patched tear in the wallpaper, the cracked Formica tabletop, the brand-new curtains his mother had made just before the crash – each appliance and piece of furniture seemed a kind friend full of happy and sad and in-between memories, one he would miss dearly.
Funny how time moved so quickly, regardless of circumstances – his jagged, ever-present sorrow and grief had gradually dulled and formed into a similarly constant ache. Peter knew eventually the pain would fade and dissipate into bittersweet memories, but for now it weighed upon him like a suit of armor and made breathing difficult. He massaged his chest gently with a slight frown. He hadn't had an attack for quite some time and didn't want to start up again now.
The kettle suddenly whistled loudly, making him jump in surprise, and Peter hurriedly took it from the burner, hoping he hadn't woken anyone. The cup, strainer, and tea were ready and waiting, saved from being packed up by a foresighted aunt, and he poured the boiling water with a deft hand, wishing instead for some of Susan's cambric tea, albeit laced generously with brandy as well as milk.
"Mind making another cup, Pete?"
Edmund's voice came unexpectedly from the doorway, and Peter jumped again, nearly spilling the contents of the kettle down his front. "Well done, Ed," he said, annoyed, "A little more warning next time, eh?"
"Sorry," the teenager said, not sounding a bit repentant. He ambled into the room and folded his lanky body into a chair. "Just trying to keep your reflexes sharp. Never know when they'll come in handy."
"Oh, ha ha and ha," huffed Peter, prompting an insolent smirk in response. "You'll have to dig another cup out of the box there, sport."
When this was duly done, the second up was poured, and the older boy passed it to his brother and sat down, leaning back with a sigh. For a good while, they said nothing, sitting in companionable silence and carefully sipping the hot tea.
"You should be in bed, Eddie," Peter said at last. "It's late."
His younger brother stared at him incredulously over the teacup and then lowered it to the saucer. "I won't even dignify that groaner with a response, brother mine," he replied, nodding towards the paperwork on the table, "Whatcha' working on?"
He reached over and picked one up, running his eyes over the bold black heading and the form beneath. What he read made him start, look it over again, and then glance up at Peter, who squirmed a bit in his chair.
"And when were you thinking about telling Su and me about all this, then?" he asked.
"When I'd received a positive response," Peter said slowly, "I didn't want to get your hopes up."
Edmund snorted. "I don't think you have to worry about Su," he said and then grimaced at the pained expression that crossed his brother's face. "Sorry, Pete."
The older boy forced away the hurt that stabbed him with every reminder of Susan's cold withdrawal – she had been as good as her word and barely given either him or Edmund the time of day since the funeral two weeks ago – and smiled humorlessly. "'Sokay," he said, waving a hand, and then hesitated. "What about you?"
"You mean would I be content living under your roof, eating your food, and being under your protection and provision?" the teenager asked with a sudden twinkle, "Since I did that for about fifteen years or so in Narnia, I think I could manage it here."
"Oh, come now," Peter protested, "You did not."
"High King of Narnia, Lord of Cair Paravel, remember?" Edmund said, "I was king in my own equal right, yes, but the final responsibility for all of us and the country lay in your more than capable hands, brother, placed there by Aslan. I certainly had no problem with the arrangement."
Peter sighed a bit and rolled his eyes. "This isn't Narnia, Ed."
"No," the younger boy responded, "but I guess what I'm saying is, I would be honored to have you as my guardian. In fact, I don't know why you need a form – I think you've already been doing the job. The thing is," he paused and eyed his brother carefully, as if gauging his reaction. "I don't know if they'll let you."
"Well, thank you for being optimistic," Peter said, a little stung by this apparent lack of faith. "They might. I have a decent job, and I could certainly get another if required."
Edmund blew out a soft breath. "Listen," he began, "Peter, I did mean it would be an honor. You've been taking care of me my whole life, both with and without my thanks, and you've done well – why stop now? As nice as they are, I would much rather live with you than Aunt Harriet and Uncle Tom, or, God forbid, Aunt Alberta and Uncle Harold, or Uncle Roger."
The older boy swallowed, feeling a suspicious pricking around the edges of his eyes. Lion's mane, was he ever going to stop choking up at every slightly soppy moment? "But…" he said, anticipating the rest of Edmund's argument.
"But," his brother echoed, "You're only twenty and not even really out in your own flat or anything yet. And a job at the Crown of Avalon archives is swell – and perfect for you, Pete – but I'm not sure the good old government will think it's enough, even with what Dad left us added in. It's just," he ran his fingers through his dark hair, "We've got to be realistic about all of this."
Peter looked back down at the paperwork and knew that Edmund was right. "Well," he said, "That may be true, but I'm going to try anyway. Who knows, right?"
The teenager grinned suddenly. "Right."
"Besides, even if you and Susan do end up with Aunt Harriet, eventually you'll be set free. Whenever that is, I'm sure I'll have a place, and you can come live with me." Peter said, "And then look out, world!"
Edmund snickered and drained his teacup. "Yeah."
"Help me wash up?" the older boy asked, standing and moving to the sink. His younger brother nodded and grabbed the lone dishtowel off the rack.
When they were finished, Peter gathered up the forms and other papers, and the two left the kitchen in darkness and made their way up to the room they'd shared since boyhood. Already the great majority of their belongings were neatly tucked and folded into boxes, with only the bare essentials left out for use.
"Hard to believe the auction is tomorrow," Edmund said, throwing back the covers and climbing into bed as Peter buttoned up his pajamas.
"Estate sale, Ed," Peter corrected, "Susan's set me straight at least twenty times this week."
"D'you think many people will come?"
When his brother made a noncommittal noise in reply, the teenager gave him a quick glance. "No using your inheritance to buy everything back, now, Pete," he said, only half joking. "Where would you put it all? You kept enough junk as it is."
He got a pillow full in the face as a reward for his cheek and leapt back out of bed, tackling Peter around the waist. The next few minutes were full of flying fists and feet, pillows and blankets, gleeful insults, and much choked laughter as the brothers cheerfully pummeled one another, crashing into boxes and beds and empty dressers.
"Ow!" Peter howled, clutching his bare foot where Edmund had stomped on his instep, "That's my move!"
Edmund tossed his head, his deep brown eyes snapping with delight. "Oh, that's rich. You stole it from me, and you know it!" he retorted triumphantly.
The older boy growled good-naturedly and charged the teenager, grabbing him around the neck and wrestling him down into a headlock. "Who's the king now, huh, Eddie?" he panted, holding on tight as Edmund squirmed and twisted like an eel. "Come on, who's the High King?"
His younger brother elbowed him hard in the stomach, and Peter squeezed a little tighter, laughing breathlessly. "Wrong answer; try again!"
"What in the name of heaven and earth is going on in here?"
The boys froze and then slowly disentangled and turned around sheepishly. Aunt Harriet stood in the doorway in her dressing gown, her graying brown hair sticking out from her braid in wispy clumps. Susan stood behind her with disgust written on her face.
"Sorry, Aunt," Edmund said guiltily, surreptitiously and ruthlessly stepping on Peter's toe to keep his brother's big mouth shut. "I started it."
"Goodness gracious, it sounded like a herd of African elephants was loose!" she said sternly, "Don't you two have better things to do than wake the whole house at this hour?"
"They can't help it, Aunt," Susan said, sending Peter and Edmund a poisonous look. "They don't have very good memories, either of them – you'd think we were on holiday instead of in mourning!"
With one last icy glare, she swept back across the hall and slammed her door. Aunt Harriet looked back at the brothers with a weary sigh. "We've a long and busy day ahead of us tomorrow, boys," she said. "No more midnight brawling, now. It's time you got into bed and went to sleep."
"No, Aunt," they chorused, "Yes, Aunt." She raised her eyebrow with a small smile and gave them each a kiss on the cheek before taking her leave.
They remade their beds, climbed in, and Peter turned off his bedside lamp, plunging the room into darkness.
"Lion's mane, I'd like to give Susan a good poke in the nose," Edmund said, tossing onto his side. "What, she's the only one around here grieving?"
"As much as such an action might relieve you, she is both our sister and a queen, no matter how far she has turned away," Peter replied, feeling that dull ache settle in his chest heavier than ever. "And you are both a knight and a king."
"You don't have to tell me, Pete, I know," his brother said crossly, tossing again. After a short stretch of silence, he spoke again, softer this time. "I miss her. And Lucy. And Mum and Dad."
The older boy turned his face into his pillow, biting his tongue to keep from breaking down. "I do, too," he said thickly.
There was another pause. "Will this ever get better, Peter?" Edmund asked, uncertainty lining his voice, "How can we ever be a family again?"
"We are still a family, Ed," Peter said, sitting and throwing back his blankets. "All three of us, Susan included, even if she doesn't like it. The worst of it is, I'm afraid you're both still stuck with me."
The younger boy sighed in mock horror. "Oh, the humanity."
Peter crossed the space to Edmund's bed and nudged his brother. "Here, you rude little beast, shove over."
Bedclothes rustled. "What, you cold?" Edmund questioned, and the older boy could hear the smile.
"Freezing," he said, and the teenager sat up and made room with a soft chuckle, allowing Peter to drape an arm around his shoulders and draw him close. They sat for a while without saying anything, taking strength and comfort one from the other, listening to the creaks and groans of the old house settling, and remembering.
"We just have to take the high road with Susan and repay evil with good," Peter continued at last, "and hope and pray and pray some more that her heart is softened. God has promised to bring beauty from ashes, you know."
"I know, you're right, and I'll try," Edmund said drowsily, leaning into Peter's warmth. "But I'd still like to poke her one."
"Well, the next time you get the urge, poke me instead," the older boy replied, and Edmund snickered. "I promise I won't slug you back."
"Could I get that in writing?" he asked, and Peter knuckled his head.
"Not a chance," he said, "Good night, Edmund the Just," and gave him a quick kiss on the hair.
Edmund ducked too late and shoved him away, laughing. "Good night, oh, magnificent one," he returned, "Sleep well."
"Yes," Peter said, getting back into his own bed and sinking down into the warmth of his covers, feeling somewhat better at being reminded there was always hope. "Sleep well."
And against all odds, they did.