For two such small pieces of metal, the rings weighed heavily in his pocket. Peter found himself touching his jacket every few minutes, an action that caused Edmund to grin at him and joke about the rings disappearing off to ‘certain places’ all by themselves.
By the time the brothers reached the train station, Peter had succumbed to his uncharacteristic nervousness and his fingers were curled in a tight fist about the gold circlets. They walked through the station’s arched brick tunnels, emerging from their dimness onto the platform and into the crisp chill of the early afternoon. Edmund tilted his head back to look at the sparrows huddled along the telephone wire above, and smiled. Peter followed his gaze upward, and then further, into the mist-grey expanse of sky and the distant pale orb illuminating it.
He’d never considered himself a coward, but he could hardly bear to meet those eyes – those great, grave eyes. Not only his failure with Edmund, but every failure, every cheap pettiness and spite he’d ever thought or committed ran through his head in one long litany of shame.
But Aslan said nothing, accused him of nothing. And when he found in himself the courage to look, he saw in Aslan’s face not only forgiveness, but also the promise of worth, if he just took that leap of faith and believed. Not only in Aslan, but also in himself.
They were early, so Edmund went and fetched food from the cafeteria. He returned with tea and sandwiches, and although it was typical poor British Rail fare (for rationing was still very much a part of everyday life), they both ate hungrily, barely noticing the lack of sugar in the bitterly strong black tea, or the tastelessness of the fishpaste between the slices of rough brown bread.
“It should be here soon,” said Edmund.
“Yes,” Peter answered, but said nothing more, for really there was little could be said about it after all.
“Bit of an anticlimax to tamely hand over the rings like this,” Edmund continued.
Peter raised an eyebrow at his younger brother.
“Our little venture into illegal digging wasn’t enough for you?” he enquired.
“I expected to hear a bobby’s whistle every second we were there. And was rather wishing the house and garden had never been sold,” he replied. “I think I’ve lost my nerve for adventures.”
Peter laughed at such an absurdity, and thought of other gardens.
Some unknown emotion rose, swelling to fullness like a river flooding against its banks. Narnia spread below him, a daydream of lush hills and secluded valleys, dancing streams and whispering forests. Before the blue swathe of the western sea, Cair Paravel glistened like a star, and beside him, even more glorious and radiant, glowed the sun.
He felt as though he were on the edge of a precipice, undecided whether to fall into the endless sky and trust he would be caught, or to step backward onto solid ground. Uncertain, he turned to find Aslan’s gaze upon him, patient and yet somehow demanding, unjudging but somehow expectant.
And there sprang up that same sense of belonging he had experienced the first time Aslan had turned that golden regard on him, had first spoken his name in that deep sonorous voice which sounded as church bells, had first laid that heavy velvet paw on his shoulder.
“It’s late,” Edmund said, with an annoyed huff.
Peter smiled at that. Patience, or at least unnecessary patience, would never be one of Edmund’s virtues.
A richness and sparkle to the air announced Aslan’s presence even before the High King saw him.
“Aslan! You’re back!” Peter cried, with great welcome in his voice.
“Greetings, Son of Adam,” replied Aslan, “How fare you?”
”Well, most well, dear friend,” Peter’s brow creased momentarily, “Although the border dispute between the Dwarves of Bredoth and those of Silbury Gorge tries both my patience and my diplomacy most sorely. Their quarrel has escalated to nigh on open conflict this past month, and caused me many a headache.”
He looked hopefully at the Lion, “Might I beg your counsel in this matter?”
”Indeed,” replied Aslan, looking shrewdly at Peter, “But first come show me your new orchard, and speak to me of your plans for it. You look to be in need of less grave thoughts.”
And already his heart was lightening, his mind turning to new life.
A train pulled into the other side of the platform.
“Oh look, Peter, isn’t that one of your chums from Uni?” Edmund declared suddenly.
Peter searched the windows opposite and spotted Matthew even as he himself was noticed. He lifted a hand in greeting, but Matthew turned his head aside. Peter grimaced slightly at the snub.
“Had a falling out, did you?” enquired Edmund.
“Just a bit of a misunderstanding. He’ll come around eventually,” Peter replied, watching as the train opposite closed its doors and steamed away.
When he returned from Narnia the second time, it was as though a door had shut in his heart, or closed only to open onto a different vista, as irrevocably as the door to the wardrobe now opened only onto plain wood and mothballs, rather than magic and adventure.
”Look for me and you will find me in your world,” Aslan had said that last morning, when Susan and Peter had spoken with him that one last time. “Do not be sad, for I am there also.”
And so Peter had not been sad, though it would be untruthful to say he was not a little melancholy every once in a while. But he supposed that was what growing up entailed. And he had looked, and he had found Aslan in the myriad little things that bring people joy in this world.
Time passed, as time must, and the boy became a youth, and the youth became a young man. And Peter’s thoughts turned to love, as those of young men do.
He went down to London and spent many a cheerful day entertaining his sister Susan’s friends, who flitted around him in a bright chattering flock, always happy to meet such a courteous and handsome fellow.
Then he went up to Oxford, where he thoroughly enjoyed not only the punting and rambling and other such activities, but also the academic life (for although Peter was not as bookish as Edmund, he was no slouch intellectually).
It had been late one evening, after a lazy few hours reading by the dormitory fire, that Matthew had kissed him. It was unanticipated and confusing and not the pleasant thing that Susan’s friends’ kisses were. It was raw, and exciting, and touched an unrealised dormant need. When Matthew at long last lifted his head, something resembling triumph in his eyes, Peter was thirsty and aching and aroused, and hardly knew where to look.
”I want you.” Matthew said to him, his voice thick and forceful.
A little unfurling tendril inside Peter died at those words.
“No.” he said, and his siblings and any number of long past subjects in a long distant land would have recognised the implacability in his tone.
“Come on, it’s just a little fun,” Matthew cajoled, “You want to, you know you do,” and to prove his point ran his hands down Peter’s body, touching where he shouldn’t, and stroking where Peter responded as he shouldn’t. Peter fought to control his breathing.
“No,” he repeated, and this time Matthew looked at his face and comprehended the resolution in it. He flung himself away from Peter angrily.
“Why not?” he demanded.
”I’m sorry, it just isn’t right.”
”Is it because I’m male? Or is it because it’s illegal? Please! Everyone does it. Oh sorry, you’re ‘not like that’, are you?” he laughed nastily, “Don’t fool yourself, Peter. You’re about as interested in women as a Catholic priest. You’re just scared of getting caught.”
“Matthew, don’t be childish. We’re friends, and I’m fond of you but I can’t ju… “
“Friends?” Matthew looked furious now, “Well, maybe I’m not interested in being your friend anymore,” he snarled, striding from the room.
“Matthew, I just meant I didn’t want t… “ Peter’s explanation tailed off as the door slammed.
“Finally! Here it is!” said Edmund, startling him from his thoughts.
Peter looked down the track to see Eustace and Jill’s train heading towards them.
“I say, it’s coming in rather fast, isn’t it?” asked Edmund.
The next few minutes were rather blurred in Peter’s memory.
Even though it had happened hours ago, and various joyful reunions and subsequent merriments (some of which were still continuing in the Great Hall) had occurred since, Peter’s hands still felt cold from shutting the Door.
He leant forward and stretched his palms out toward the small fire someone had lit in his private chambers, feeling the heat seep into them. Inhaling the rich scent of cedar smoke, he stared into the flames, reflecting on all that had passed since that moment, hours – or was it years? - ago on the station platform.
When they had spoken of it, it had emerged that when Aslan transformed they had all beheld something different. Peter had perceived a young man some few years older than himself; with hair like a golden mane, and an aspect as luminously beautiful and eyes as sombrely joyful as those of the Lion.
It had all fallen into place.
The reason why he had loved those fair ladies of Cair Paravel and charming girls of lively London – but only as subjects or as friends. For he had loved them without true desire, without the need to press their soft bodies into his arms or satiate his body in their compliant warmth. His longings were reserved for the harder and stronger. For that which would contest, not yield; be equalled, not conquered. But although Peter had truly desired Matthew, he hadn’t loved him. And for Peter to pledge his body without his heart was an impossible thing.
This was another.
Peter had once before set aside his heart’s desire and yet been content. He had placed Narnia and all that came with it in his memory’s box of past treasures. Something to be taken out occasionally; learnt from and reminisced over with bittersweet joy, but never to be expected again.
And this would be no different.
He rose, and was walking towards his bedchamber when the outer door opened. He stopped, frozen, but for the sudden flock of butterflies in his stomach as the man that Aslan now was entered and shut the door.
Peter had seen nothing of Aslan after the feast and saw he was now dressed in a long red silk tunic, decorated with a ramped lion embroidered in exquisite goldwork. The fineness of his garb was insignificant before the beauty of its wearer however. Peter’s breath caught and when he looked into Aslan’s eyes, so serene yet with that touch of otherworldly wildness they held whatever Aslan’s shape, he knew that Aslan knew. He flushed, shamed, and glanced away.
“Peter,” even as a man, Aslan’s voice was deep and rich and soothing, “Peter, look at me.”
Peter did as Aslan bid him, standing steadfastly as Aslan came to him and placed his hands upon Peter’s shoulders.
“In the Shadowlands,” said Aslan, “Men try to place laws and restrictions on that which has no boundaries. Love is love, no matter what form it takes. Do you not love me as your Lord?”
“Yes,” Peter answered, something of reverence in his voice.
“And as your friend?”
“And do you not love me as your heart’s desire?”
Peter met his gaze resolutely.
“You know I do,” he replied.
“Then how could I not love you as Narnia’s High King?” Aslan said gravely, and kissed Peter’s brow.
“And as my comrade?” and he kissed first one cheek and then the other.
“And as my Beloved?” and Aslan bent forward and pressed his lips against Peter’s.
Peter shut his eyes, not so much against the gentle glow of Aslan’s face, as against the disbelief that this was happening. But belief was something he had always held in Aslan, and so warmth slowly crept from the firm mouth moving on his, and travelled down through his chest to ease that quiet sadness in his heart he had always turned his eyes aside from.
The kiss ended, and when he looked, Aslan’s face swam in a golden haze before him.
“Do not weep, Peter,” Aslan smiled at him, “Unless it be for joy,” and taking Peter’s hand, he led him towards the bedchamber.
Peter gladly followed.