The Last Place
Bill did not often talk about his time in the war, not the first time he came home, nor the second. To his surprise, Maura didn't ask him to; nor, when he saw them again, did the children. They were all too busy flying at him, flinging their arms around him and cheering that he was back, back, home again. And, returning their embraces with equally fierce ones of his own, he found his heart singing much the same song.
He did, at one point in between his first return and his second deployment, find himself alone with Peter; Peter did, at that point, look at his father in a way that would have struck Bill as unsuitably adult, had he not seen his own heart's conjecture of what a fine man his boy would one day be. In that moment Bill found he was somehow steeled for the question that his son asked him.
"Dad . . . is it difficult, to shoot a man?"
And Bill had said, quite simply, that it was if you made yourself think about it; that he trusted Peter would be a good enough person to make himself think about it and that, God willing, he would never have cause to force himself to not have to.
"We're going to win this one, Son," he said, "we're going to win it long before it becomes yours." Although he could not have said where the promise came from —Bill and Maura Pevensie didn't lie to their children, nor did they make empty promises— he knew that it was true, and he could see in Peter's face that he knew it, somehow, too. They were going to win it.
As much as anybody could win, in a war like this.
And win it they did, eventually; Bill was spared the return to France, being bogged down somewhere in the desert at the time, but he found that was all right, too. The heat of the sand was somehow familiar to him, and the coolness of the night air, such a welcome breath of relief after the scorching sun of the day, brought back to him that vivid moment he had dreamed, when his oldest daughter was trapped in a desert city but willing to sacrifice herself for the safety of others.
He wrote Susan a lengthy letter that night, looking out the flap of his tent over the expanse of glittering, moonlit sand. He described it to her with a fond familiarity that he did not question, even as his pencil flew over the paper. He knew, somehow, that she would understand what beauties he saw in this place that so many of his company loathed. He knew she would understand the respect in which he held the men who sat in the market place and discussed affairs of the day; he knew she would share the affection he felt for the scruffy children in the bazaar, poor wee things with their eyes gummed up with sickness, whining for coins and chocolate that he dispensed as freely as he could.
Susan would know what it was to love such a place; to feel a draw for a land and people that weren't one's own. How he knew it, he couldn't have said, but know it he did, and when he returned home, and found she had kept that letter and read it aloud to her family two dozen times, weeping over it each time she read it, he knew he had been right to send it.
After the war, it got even easier to be a family again. The post-war rationing was a daily complaint for many of their neighbours, and sometimes he would find Maura staring into the cupboard with a sort of desperate vexation that he ached to take away, but his chief source of delight through all of it was his children. Not once did they complain about having to go without favoured treats. Edmund, especially, he was proud of; indeed, the boy seemed to have gone off sweets altogether. Even when they could get hold of a bar of chocolate or a bit of sugar, Edmund turned down his share. When at last Bill drew his youngest son aside to ask about it, Edmund looked simply sheepish, and offered a careless shrug.
"Oh . . . I dunno, Dad," he said. "I just don't much care for sweets anymore. I do miss real meat, though!" And the impish, freckled grin had assured Bill that it was not merely a brave face —though Edmund could put these on at the worst of times, if he had to— but the plain and simple truth.
And somehow, he knew it was a good thing to hear.
Lucy, of course, was ever the delight of their household, but in a much different way than she had been before. Whereas before the war her simple, childish glee at everything had been cause to smile when nothing else had, she now devoted herself to evoking those smiles in everyone she met. Where once childish innocence had brightened a dreary room, now her simple determination to see everybody as happy as she had much the same effect with twice the brilliance.
If Maura broke one of the precious eggs it was still so hard to find, Lucy would rush to help clean up and offer to help finish the dish Maura had been preparing. If Bill found he was coming home more than usually glum at the end of the day, it would be Lucy who met him, not with ignorance of what caused his gloomy mood, but rather with a will to chase it away by telling him as many amusing stories as she could think of.
The stories themselves were a source of delight, too. They were stories that stirred a deep chord within him, tales of bravery and romance, of chivalrous knights and fierce battles, of clever little animals that could talk and solve problems, of charming Dwarfs, of magical lands . . . and Lions.
Looking back, he would admit he'd never been quite certain when the Lion entered the picture. Once he arrived, it seemed he had always been there, at the back of every story Lucy wove. Her sweet little face would take on a dreamy expression as she spoke, perched on the ottoman at his feet, her dimpled chin propped in chubby hands as she recounted the fantastic tales. And somehow, somewhere, there was always Him.
She never spoke his name. The Lion came in and out of the stories like a strong and silent secret, sometimes stopping to bestow words of wisdom on the protagonists but mostly choosing to watch from afar, weeping for his loved ones when they did not succeed, taking simple joy in them when they did. Lucy never named him, and Bill didn't think it would have been the same if she had. But there, behind every victory, every sorrow, every fear, was the mighty presence of a King who cared.
It wasn't long before Bill came to find the Lion as much of a comfort as it seemed that Lucy did, and it wasn't much longer after that —the day the children's holidays ended, and they went back to school— that he began to look for him at the back of every story, whether Lucy was telling it or not.
There is a certain warmth and satisfaction that parents feel when they have the chance to take a break from the weary busyness of their everyday lives and realise that, almost without them having seen it, their children are growing up. Bill and Maura Pevensie didn't get many such times in the precious years following the war, but every time they did, they treasured it, storing it up, and looking to it whenever things weren't as bright.
It was also true that sometimes seeing one's children grow up could be painful, too; Susan, especially, seemed to suffer from a dreadful bout of confusion as she grew older. Watching her push the others away, immersing herself in a world that he would not have chosen for anybody he loved, much less a daughter, Bill wrestled with a concern he found it difficult to voice even to his wife. When he did at last venture to express his fears, however, Maura had hugged him fiercely, and told him not to worry.
"Girls will do these things, darling," she told him affectionately. "Boys have their own types of silliness too, you know; you mustn't deny it. Susan will fuss over lipsticks and nylons, and in a few years Lucy will as well; Peter and Edmund will bury themselves in books or under the bonnet of a motorcar until something pretty walks by in her nylons, and suddenly they'll be quite a pair of idiots for a time as well. You'll see, my dear; it will all come right if we give it time, keep on loving her always, and let the younger ones tell her what an ass she's making of herself."
It had seemed so sane, when she put it that way; so normal and practical. He had been able to see the right of it, then— that Susan, under it all, was still Susan, and she needed them more than ever; it would be the pettiest sort of person who could not look past what she seemed to be and see her for who she always had been, and who she yet was. So he told her how pretty she looked, and said the only thing prettier than his darling daughter with make-up on was his darling daughter without. She looked at him that evening with a sort of expression on her face that was suddenly very much her old self, with tears shining behind her eyes, and he remembered, unbidden, those dreams he had had all those years ago, when there had been nothing bright for him.
He remembered his children, grown and strong and lovely, when everybody was falling, broken, around him . . . a warm body that heaved with the breath of life even after it had been dead . . . and a roar that shook a world. His children, who had seen it all, had thrived and loved one another as he had loved them; as he loved them now.
He kissed his daughter's forehead, whispered that she must always remember how much they loved her, and told her to be home by ten.
And that night, as he joined Maura in bed and let his weary bones sink into the mattress, his wife slipping a welcoming hand across his chest, he found himself praying that Susan might find such dreams as he had known, and that she might find herself as he had known her; as he knew she could yet be.
It was just four days later that Everything Happened.
The day that Everything Happened was foggy, but the days leading up to it Bill would always remember with perfect clarity.
Just two mornings after the night he had seen Susan's eyes shimmer with tears, Peter and Edmund came blazing into the house at a speed reminiscent of their childhood. Bursting with whispered conversation they had quieted almost instantly on seeing him, and when he asked to what he owed this pleasure —with a pointed look at Peter, who ought to have been preparing for his mods— and so early in the morning, too, they both looked suspiciously awkward.
"Oh," said Peter, with an expression of such guilt that he really did look a little boy again, "Dad, please, don't ask. We won't be able to tell you. It's— it's a sort of project we're working on, you see."
"I see," Bill said, in a voice that meant he didn't. "You've woken your mother, you know, boys."
"Oh," this was Edmund, looking distraught. "We didn't mean to wake either of you, Dad."
"Yes," Bill studied them both, "I can see that." For both boys —young men, now, really— were dressed rather like workmen, right down to the heavy gloves they wore on their hands, and were clutching between them a grubby little bag that seemed to be the cause of all the whispering. "Well, now that you've woken your mother, see if you can't get your sister out of bed as well."
Relieved at not being pressured to explain their presence further, both of Bill's sons promised to see what they could do. Apparently, however, they went about it rather badly, because when Bill got home that night he found Susan in a fine temper and speaking only to Edmund and Maura. Deciding it was best left to Peter to explain in his own time what he could have said to his sister to put her in such a state, he instead asked after Lucy, and was assured she was in fine health.
"I am sorry we've missed her," Maura said. "Not that this will be much of a visit, anyhow, I'm afraid. We're going away for a few days, your father and I . . . some friends of ours have asked us to spend tomorrow with them at their home in Chatham, and then travel to Bristol with them the morning after. I do wish you had let us know you were coming, we'd have planned it some other way. Will you be here very long? Perhaps even here after we get back?"
"I . . . can't be sure," Peter said cautiously, and spared an uncertain glance for his brother. "We . . . may be. It's hard to say."
"Well," Bill said, "try, won't you, boys? We miss you."
So Peter nodded, and said they would try.
The next morning Maura had turned the keys over to Susan, warned her to be good to her brothers for as long as they were there, and he had hailed them a cab to the station, where they caught the train to Chatham. John and Alice were good friends, though not close ones, and the time away from home seemed to be just what he and Maura needed. They escaped the supervision of their host and hostess long enough to take a quiet stroll, just the two of them, and revel in the pleasure of not having anything pressing to discuss.
Only once did Maura bring up the topic of the children, wondering if he thought the boys would do all right with only Susan to watch over them. Bill considered the question, and confessed he really couldn't say for sure.
"I like to think," he decided, "that if it came down to it, they would have the tact to restrain themselves from shouting some sense into her, and that Susan would have the grace to keep from needling them to do it. Now," catching her hand, and tugging her into the pleasant seclusion of a small park, "do you think we might forget the children for the space of an afternoon?"
And Maura found, much to their mutual delight, that they could, indeed.
Everything from then on was a haze. The return to the house, the meal with John and Alice, the night spent in a comfortable bed and the early morning rise to catch the train to Bristol . . . it blurred, and was known to him only as something unimportant, compared to what happened next.
They had passed through London and were coming up to a smaller, country station. The train, Bill thought, was travelling fast. Too fast. He felt Maura shift behind him, and one slim, gloved hand reached out, hovering over his leg, as she sat forward.
"Bill—" she said, and there was a single note of alarm in her voice that made him turn, and look into her eyes.
Her little hat sat well back on her head that morning, leaving her face unshadowed. Her eyes, as always, were clear and green, and he saw they were also uncertain. She looked, in fact, as she had on their wedding day, and from the uncertainty they shared now, as he had on the day he promised to be hers until death, he drew his strength. He loved her. She knew it. That was enough.
And then there was a jolt, an awful, grinding, screeching jolt, and . . . sweetly, simply, nothing.
The haze through which Bill floated was somehow familiar to him. It took him a few minutes, however, to realise that it was much the same mist through which he had floated after his final visit to the dream world that he had loved so much and clung to for so long, when there had been nothing brighter or better for him to see.
This time, though, he was not alone; caught safe in his hand, her fingers locked through his, was the hand of his wife. When his feet touched ground again, and the mist lifted to reveal that they stood on a small, green hill beside the train tracks —or at least, beside a much prettier, cleaner, and nicer-smelling version of what looked very much like train tracks, except that there was no train on them— there she stood.
Maura was looking up at him, beaming, her face fresher, her golden hair somehow lighter and looser than it had been in years. The silver threads that had coloured it with such dignity were gone, and so were the lines of worry that had creased her face over the years. The lines of laughter, however, remained, and they crinkled up beautifully around her bottle-green eyes and she smiled at him; really smiled, the way she used to when they were just children, making promises to last forever.
He couldn't help himself; he just had to kiss her. She kissed him back, too, with marked enthusiasm, but when at last he broke the kiss, she blushed, and ducked her head, as she hadn't since they were those same children they once had been
"Bill," she said, and was slightly breathless as she said it, "oh, Bill, do turn around . . . there is a lion watching us."
And so there was.
There is nothing I could say to you that would make you understand what Bill Pevensie felt and thought as he turned, and stood beside his wife to look on that Lion. It was not fear, you may be assured; nor was it joy, exactly, or even awe, but rather a deeper, more terrible, more glorious mixture of everything you have ever felt and wanted or feared to feel again, all mingled together in one great, sweeping breath. And the Lion that made him feel it all was looking at him with such love, and wisdom, and yes, even amusement, that he thought he must weep, except he was so perfectly, incandescently happy that weeping was no longer possible.
The Lion looked at him, and loved him, and Bill, looking on the Lion, found he loved it too; had loved it, in fact, for years. It was only on seeing its face that he realised how very long he had actually known it.
"You sent me my children," he said, and the proclamation was all the thanks he knew how to offer. The Lion inclined its great, shaggy head.
"I also," he said, and there in its rich, deep voice was the amusement, the love and the tenderness Bill had seen in its face, "sent you your wife." And the Lion looked on Maura with the same love it felt for Bill.
"Daughter," it said, and Maura made a small, happy sound, what you might call a sound of joyous recognition, "your children await you."
Then he looked again at Bill, and in that instant Bill realised that what had passed between them all those years ago were not simply dreams, pretty pictures sent to fill a frightened week of nights, but rather something that led him now to an understanding of all that he had seen, and all he would soon see again, only this time for real and forever. When the Lion spoke, Bill almost thought he saw it smile.
"My son. Welcome home."
A.N.: And lo, it ends! Only, if you have read The Last Battle, you will know of course that it is really just beginning. And so I thought it fitting that, as it ends, something else should begin! I have therefore begun what I believe will be a slightly longer fic than this, going by how I've plotted it. It's called Kingdoms Come, and the first chapter will quite shortly (as in, sometime today!) be posted and available for your reading pleasure, if you should choose to take a peek!
Thanks are offered to everybody who took the time to read, review, and let me know what they thought, no matter what that was!