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an orchestra of bones

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When it all starts, Peter is on an errand for one of his professors about six hours drive from home. It takes him almost two days to get back, through fields and hedges, avoiding the burning roads. He goes to Susan’s house, where Edmund had been staying as he recuperated, but it’s empty. From the look of the apartment and the missing clothes and bags, he thinks they were still alive when they left here.

His next step is Lucy’s apartment, over by the hospital. It’s a mess, blood all over, and he kneels beside the fresh turned earth in the apartment outside for a long time before he picks up the cast aside shovel and begins to dig. There’s silver over his little sister’s eyes, her body wrapped in linen, and he kisses her forehead. He looks away from her neck as soon as he can. The cut’s a distinctive one, a specialty of Edmund’s in close quarter fighting, learned from a Natarene assassin. His hands shake as he shovels the dirt back in.

“I couldn’t have done it,” he tells her grave, later. “I’m sorry. I know you would have wanted me to, but I just couldn’t have done it.”

He stays in Lucy’s apartment for the first while. Part of it is hope that Edmund and Susan will return, though he knows they won’t, not to here. Part of it is that he cannot bear to leave his sister’s body behind. He hides in her apartment, going through her diary and books, tossing out broken crockery, washing bloody curtains, organizing and cleaning until her apartment is spotless again. Lucy always hated an unnecessary mess. He thinks he can feel her, laughing at him, but when he turns around she is never there.

When October comes around, he starts collecting supplies. He leaves when the leaves are beginning to fall, placing a flower over Lucy’s grave.

“I love you,” he tells her one last time, and then turns and walks away down the block. Behind him, wolves start howling. He imagines its Lucy’s honor guard, bidding their queen farewell for the last time. When he turns to look back, there’s a wolf standing at the head of the street. He bows to it. It turns and vanishes.

+

Somewhere in the countryside deep in winter, he stumbles upon a camp, the fence bristling with sharpened points and the inside quiet and dull. They ask him if he’s planning on staying, and if so what his skills are.

“I don’t have anywhere else to go,” he says.

“Skills?” the man prompts him again.

“I’m excellent at hand to hand combat, strategy, tactics. I was army.”

“As it happens, we have an empty hut,” the man says after staring at Peter critically for a long moment. “You’ll have it to yourself all winter I imagine, but after that you’ll probably get roommates.”

“Fine with me,” Peter says, and follows the man to turn his food into the center. He keeps a few tins back for himself, in case he decides to move on again, and goes and settles into his new home.

+

It’s not long before he gets roped into being the combat instructor. Their hands shake, but people didn’t make it to the camps unless they were tough. He starts small, teaches them how to defend themselves so they can run away.

The next week, he starts in on offensive tactics, the most effective ways to use a sword. Afterwards, he finds a young woman named Jane crouched behind a building, throwing up. He holds her golden hair back and awkwardly pats her back. He was never very good at the comforting bit. Lucy had once told him that if he didn’t leave the room right now and send someone better at it in, she would bite him.

“It gets better,” he says quietly. She takes deep, heaving gulps of air. He’s seen the look on her face before. It’s not horror at what she’s being told to do. It’s horror at something she’s already done, something she’s been reminded of.

Later, she knocks on his door and stalks in.

“How can you say that?” she demands. “How can you say that it gets better?” She looks so much like Lucy in her fury that his heart aches.

“Was it a family member?” he says quietly, and she falters and then sits down, covering her face in her hands.

“My mother and father,” she says. “I couldn’t have done it if I’d been thinking straight, but I was terrified and-” she breaks off and looks up at him, dropping her hands. “And I killed them both.” Her eyes are full of tears, but she stares him down like she’s daring him to say she’s done wrong.

“I can say that it gets better,” Peter says, putting down his notebook and pen and leaning forward, “because it does. Because I have lost count of how many people I have killed, and it is better now than it was before.”

“You were in the war,” she says softly, sympathetically. It is a small miracle, he thinks, that in the midst of this constant battle for survival she can still have compassion for what a former soldier had gone through.

“I was in a few,” Peter says dryly. There’s a long pause. She folds her hands in her lap and watches him steadily, and he watches her back.

“You said better, not easy,” she says eventually.

“Yes,” Peter says.

“I see,” she says. “Thank you for not lying.” The door closes gently behind her.

+

At dinner that night she sits down beside him, something comfortable and easy in her voice as she swings into a conversation like they’d already been talking. He’s become unused to being talked to like this, like the other person understands him. Like they give a damn about what happens to him.

“They don’t teach you sword fighting in the army,” she remarks a few days later, sitting beside him in the late afternoon sun.

“Not really,” Peter says.

“So where’d you learn?” she asks.

“Nowhere you’d know,” Peter says, and then hastily covers for himself, “It was a tiny town. My great-uncle lived there. He was a bit of a sword enthusiast.”

“Historian?” she asks.

“Yes,” Peter says.

“Sounds like my great-uncle a bit,” Jane says. “But then, it was never really swords for him, was it?”

+

The winter moves unbearably slowly, even with Jane around. She’s a beam of light in the dark, but she is not his siblings and Peter cannot stop the loneliness, the crushing weight that is the absence of his family. He wants to believe that they’re safe. He wishes he had Jane’s easy faith. She speaks sometimes of her brothers with such certainty, as if she knows they are alive and out there somewhere, coming to find her.

“How can you know?” he says, and Jane frowns.

“Because they’re being kept safe,” she says. “There’s a friend of ours – they were visiting him when it all started, I was going to meet up with them in a few days. He’ll keep them safe for me.” She watches him, as he sits there hunched over and tired, and leans over to drop a kiss on his forehead. “Don’t worry,” she murmurs. “Your siblings will be all right.”

“That sounds like a promise,” Peter says. “Those are dangerous to make.”

“I know,” she says. “I don’t make them lightly.”

“How would you know?” Peter asks. “You’ve never met them.”

“It’s an instinct,” she says. “My instincts are never wrong.”

Sometime in March the snow begins to melt. It feels like a promise the world is making, the end of something. Perhaps the start of something. Peter takes deep breaths of fresh air and thinks of moving on again. Jane beats him to it, four young men walking into the compound in early April, still wet from the rain that had just fallen. She flings herself into their arms and they envelop her, her brothers exuberant with relief and the other two young men beaming just as widely.

“I did say,” one of them keeps saying, and the white-haired one hits him on the arm and then lifts Jane and spins her around.

“My brothers Simon and Barney,” Jane says when they finally let her down. “And our friends Will and Bran. Boys, this is Peter Pevensie. He’s been teaching me how to use a sword.” Will’s eyebrows go up, and Bran grins.

“You could have waited for me,” he says. “I’m excellent with swords.”

“You’ll have to show me,” she says, and she’s radiant with joy in a way she hasn’t been before. “Where are we going?”

“To the mountains,” Will says. “Where we were before.” He turns to Peter. “Thank you for being her friend. We hated to think of her alone.”

“Leaving already?” he says, surprised, and Will just nods, abruptly serious.

“We have our own safe place.”

“And work to be done,” Bran adds, watching Peter closely. “I think perhaps you can understand that.” Will’s eyebrows raise and he turns to scan Peter more closely.

“I can,” Peter says, and Will tilts his head curiously. It feels uncomfortably like layers are being peeled away in Will’s gaze. Jane leans up to Will’s side and whispers something in his ear, and Barney grins suddenly.

“Your two siblings are well,” Will says. “You should head south next.”

Peter doesn’t ask how he knows to say that. He suspects the answer would not be one easily understandable.

Jane hugs him a last time and tucks something into his hand.

“Sometimes she grants wishes,” she whispers in his ear, and then she’s waving furiously as she walks away, already laughing and easy in their presence, like together they can be untouched by all of this. He looks down at the doll she’d given him, woven out of greenery. There’s a look of Old Magic to it, he thinks.

+

He packs the next day and starts walking, unsure of where he’s going, just that he’s heading south, searching.

In his dreams, he is sitting on the bed of the ocean next to a huge version of the doll Jane had given him, the weight of the water pushing down, and he knows that it is the Green Witch. He can hear her murmuring to him.

“And what is it you want, once a king?” she says.

He cannot swim away. He can never swim away.

“I want my siblings back,” he whispers.

“You know I cannot give that, not entirely.”

“I know.”

“Be at peace,” the voice says, from everywhere and nowhere. Those are the good dreams.

+

Sometimes he dreams of Lucy.

He tries not to remember those dreams, but they crawl through his mind even in his waking hours, poisonous and tired.

He dreams of Edmund and Susan once, smoking together in silence, and holds on to it as tightly as he can, sure somehow that it is not a dream but a vision.

+

He falls in with another group of travelers, briefly. They talk and talk and talk, all of them, trying so hard to push away the encroaching dark with their words. They’re heading to London, they say. They heard there’s a cure. What if, they keep saying, what if there is. They reminiscence about before endlessly.

He leaves them within a few days. He does not think there is a cure. There never has been before.

Either way, he cannot listen to them talking for one more minute.

+

It’s high summer in the south when he comes to an empty town.

“Peter!” someone yells, and he turns around to see Susan and Edmund running towards him.

“Thank you,” he whispers, fingers brushing the tiny Green Witch in his pack, and breaks into a run.

This is not the end, of course. It is the beginning, but it is the first beginning with hope in it that he has had in a long time.