A/N: This is meant to be the second in a three-part arc, between "More Dimly in Hell" and "All She Knows of Heaven" (which were once titled Never Forget Her Face and Nylons and Lipstick, but have been edited and re-titled); I don't think they need to be read in that order but I think that's how they're best.
Every Desperate Retreat
Peter doesn't expect to love university, but somehow he does. He wants to be fighting, he enlisted the morning he turned eighteen, but the doctors found a heart murmur. "Can't take the strain," they'd said, and Peter had stormed home to yell that his heart had served him bloody well in Narnia, hadn't it? So now he rereads Malory with a map of England and Wales; his classmates wonder that he needs a map of his homeland, and Peter doesn't tell them that Narnia has been his homeland since he was thirteen. Narnia he knows like the back of his hand; Narnia's legends he can recite from memory.
Narnia still understands what chivalry means.
They spend a day in class hitting each other clumsily with wooden swords, and Peter has to be coaxed to pick one up. He longs for Rhindon; the wood feels too light in his hands, the balance off. He gives it a few experimental swings anyway, and when he looks up again, the whole room is staring.
"Where'd you learn that?" one of the boys demands, and Peter can only shrug.
He meets her during the end of Michaelmas term at a tiny used bookshop. He's browsing for a Christmas present for Lucy, who hasn't quite been the same since she came back from visiting with Caspian. He's looking for something that might cheer her up.
"Can I help you with something?" she asks, and Peter notices first the way her hair curls around her face and her smile lights up the room.
"I'm looking for something for my sister," he explains. "For Christmas."
"Oh, how nice," she says. "What do you think she would like?"
"It's hard to say," Peter says, but his hands go unerringly to a large book, bound in dark leather. When he pulls it out, it's a book of fairy tales, illustrated in beautiful watercolors. The book falls open in his hands to a painted picture: a mermaid sitting on a rock, her tail in the water, while the clouds darken over her head.
"It's a beautiful book," she offers over his shoulder. "Looks like new. How old is she?"
"I'm sure she'd love it," she says with a smile. If she's thinking that a girl Lucy's age is too old for fairy tales, Peter can't tell. He wonders if she knows that there comes a time when you get old enough to love fairy tales again, or if she would laugh at the idea of a woman and a girl all rolled into one, of a decade and a half worth of memories and experiences and feelings in an eight-year-old girl.
"I hope so," is all he says, and they're silent as she wraps up the book against the rain and takes his money.
But Peter goes back again, the next week, and the week after that, and when he comes back from Christmas holidays, he asks her to tea.
He misses Narnia more than anything, but the Narnia he misses is the Narnia of the Golden Age: the tournaments and the courtiers, Cair Paravel shining like a beacon, and Narnia stretching from the mountains north of Archenland to the river south of Ettinsmoor, and that Narnia is dead. He resolves to learn to love England again, but it feels too cold, too fast where it should be slow, too slow where it should be fast, and Peter has the distinct feeling he has outlived himself.
At first, Peter doesn't expect to like her. He has known hundreds of women in his life—beautiful women, accomplished women, regal women, women who danced like trees and women who moved like water. Melanie has freckles and glasses and laughs too much; she moves like she's wading through eight inches of mud, and she shakes his hand off when he steadies her. But she is all alone in the world except for her little brother, and Peter understands what that's like.
"How can you," she asks, "when you have parents and cousins and everything?"
"I didn't always," he tells her finally, because that's as close as he can come to explaining about growing up with only King Lune to turn to for advice, because there were some things a king couldn't ask his courtiers and Edmund knew even less than he did. He expects her to protest, because his answer doesn't make sense, but she merely tilts her head to one side, as if she's studying him.
He thinks, I could stay with her forever. He thinks, She will make everything worthwhile.
He wonders if she will mind when he teaches their sons to use a sword.
"He doesn't believe me about Narnia," Susan whispers miserably into her cup of tea, her makeup smudged where she's been crying and wiping at it.
"Then he doesn't deserve you," Peter replies automatically, but Susan only shakes her head.
"I sounded half mad," she says in a voice that breaks his heart. "We all do. We're ruined for everything here, Peter, so long as we can't forget."
"Oh, Su," he whispers, but when he reaches to touch her arm she shrinks away.
He brings Melanie home to meet everyone in January. His parents don't understand why he needs to invite the Professor and Miss Plummer and Eustace and Jill to meet her when they do, and Peter can't explain that their approval means more to him than his parents'. In the end he lets Edmund explain it to them.
Dinner is delicious, conversation is light, and his parents are taken with Melanie. "I think she's a lovely girl," his mother whispers when she passes him the sugar.
Susan asks for his help clearing the dishes and murmurs, "I'm glad you're starting to act your age," as he runs the hot water.
When he returns to the dining room, Edmund and Lucy shoot him identical looks of disappointment, and Peter grabs Melanie's coat and insists on walking her home.
"Do they like me, do you think?" she asks when he kisses her goodnight.
"Yes," Peter lies, because he will make them like her if that's what it takes; he is still High King, and they still answer to him.
He asks Melanie to dinner at the nicest place he can afford, and when he tells Aunt Polly she smiles and asks him to join her for tea. After he's eaten half the plate of scones, she reaches into her pocket and pulls out a tiny box. Inside is a ring—nothing fancy, nothing expensive. "What is it?" Peter asks.
"Frank bought this for his wife on her birthday before they were married," Aunt Polly answers quietly, "and I took it from the kitchen where she had been doing the washing-up. I know it isn't much, but it seemed appropriate."
Peter knows he could buy a nicer ring; he knows his parents have one waiting. But he also knows that nothing could be more fitting than a ring King Frank had once given to Queen Helen. "Thank you," he tells her.
He thinks, sometimes, that it's almost a good thing everyone he knew has died. He cannot imagine letting Lune see them now—broken and trying to pull the pieces back together where they no longer fit. He cannot imagine letting Tumnus see how Queen Susan the Gentle denies them all—or has forgotten, which is worse. He doesn't think he could bear it if Corradin saw Edmund and Peter now, out of shape and out of practice, barely able to lift a broadsword, unable to remember the best way to plan an attack or a retreat, and he wonders what his advisers would think of Melanie, who is the world to Peter but who could never be a queen.
And then, sometimes he thinks it would be worth it all if he could see Lucy smile again, because he cannot remember the last time she laughed, and sometimes he thinks it would be worth anything just to breathe in the Narnian air once more.
Sometimes, he thinks that if he only knew they might go back to Narnia, he could die happy.
The phone rings at four o'clock in the afternoon. "Peter," the Professor's voice says, raspy from decades of tobacco, "Miss Plummer and I wanted to ask you to dinner tonight."
"I'm sorry," Peter says, "but I have plans."
Professor Kirke is silent for a moment, and then he says, "I've had a bad feeling about Narnia for a week or so now, and it's only getting stronger."
There is never the option of refusing the invitation, after that; he calls Melanie and explains that something's come up. "Can we meet next week, instead?" he asks, and then—because he wants to marry this woman, and because he is a knight and a high king, and because he imagines it's what Aslan would want—"I can explain everything then."
"You sound so old," she whispers into the receiver, and he hangs up without saying goodbye.
"We can't go back," Edmund says. "It'll have to be Eustace and Jill."
Peter feels his hands clench back into fists, and he thinks he cannot bear to trust the fate of Narnia to these two—a boy who can barely use a sword and a girl whose only training has consisted of whatever they can cram at her in the time snatched from her schoolwork. How can he trust them to listen to Aslan, how can he trust them to teach this king all he needs to learn, when they don't know it themselves?
Peter thinks that if he had not sworn to obey Aslan in all things, he would go himself; he would take down Rhindon and they would patch the land back together, the three of them. And he thinks to himself that he is neither fish nor fowl, because he is no longer Narnian and yet he isn't British either; his priorities are still Narnian and his thoughts are still Narnian and his family is still Narnian.
"We'll get the rings," he says finally, and it is a statement and not an offer.
They find the rings buried in a ring around the stump of an apple tree, and Peter ties them into his handkerchief and puts them into his right-hand pocket. In the left is Queen Helen's ring, and he spares a moment to think about how he will explain it to Melanie. He wonders for a split second what he will do if she refuses to believe him, like Thomas refused to believe Susan.
She will not refuse, he thinks, and he knows it is true: Melanie will understand about Narnia even though she's never been there, and she will become High Queen over a land only Jill and Eustace will ever see again.
He sends two telegrams: We have them to Lucy, and First in every desperate attack to Susan.
The one that says, Meet me in Bristol nine o'clock he crumples up and drops in the nearest dustbin.
The morning is quiet and the platform mostly deserted, and Peter wonders what happens after this trip. Will Eustace and Jill be forbidden to enter Narnia? And then what will they do, those long nights when the Professor feels Narnia tearing itself apart? Peter does not know that he will have the strength to sit quietly by and let his country die, but he resolves that he will bring Melanie to the next of these dinners, so that they will have eight again.
He wonders if Susan read his telegram, and if she even remembers what it means.
The rings in his right pocket are terribly heavy, and the ring in his left is not much lighter; he wishes he had thought to ask Lune what it means to marry a queen, and if it still matters when one is in exile.
It's funny, he thinks, that his parents are on this train and yet have no idea where their children are going, or why. "I say," he says to Edmund in a desperate attempt at light-heartedness as the train screeches its way toward the station, "it's taking the corner awfully fast, don't you think?"
And then the worlds explode.
A/N: I don't own the Narnia books, of course. This was beta'd by Ill Ame, who is awesome and brilliant.
This is the second in a three-part arc (in what will someday be a five-part 'verse); it follows "More Dimly in Hell" and precedes "All She Knows of Heaven". Criticism is, of course, appreciated.