So all of them passed in through the golden gates, into the delicious smell that blew toward them out of that garden and into the cool mixture of sunlight and shadow under the trees, walking on springy turf that was all dotted with white flowers. The very first thing which struck everyone was that the place was far larger than it had seemed from the outside. But no one had time to think about that for people were coming up to meet the newcomers from every direction.
– The Last Battle, Chapter 16: “Farewell to the Shadowlands.”
Peter, High King over all Kings in Narnia, Emperor of the Lone Islands and Lord of Cair Paravel, was home at last. From every direction he and his party were being greeted by friends, old and new, and the joy he felt when he embraced his long-lost Narnian family, the brave Beavers, simply bubbled up and could not be contained: more carefree than his beloved siblings had seen him in years, the noble youth set aside his “adult” decorum and pulled Mrs. Beaver in for a dance, laughing heartily and looking very foolish, no doubt, as Beavers are a good deal shorter than humans, but no one stopped him and no one chided him. There was only happiness. “Peter, dear, I'm getting dizzy!” Mrs. Beaver giggled as the king swirled her around, to which he saucily replied, “But Mother Beaver, we used to dance ever so much faster than this!”
Yes, it was good to be home.
Although Peter would later deny this, it was not until he found himself face-to-face with the famed King Rilian that his euphoria dimmed long enough to notice that there was one particular person he very much desired to see not amongst the crowd of well-wishers and revelers. His brow furrowed pensively as he studied the handsome lad Eustace and Jill had so-anxiously insisted he meet, heart beating erratically as, with a softly lilting “Your Majesty,” the strangely familiar young man executed one of those graceful Telemarine bows Peter had so admired once upon a time. As the youth's dark locks fell forward, Peter's breath caught in his throat. Looking at this boy, so cocksure and lovely, was like looking at a ghost.
“Where,” Peter started, dazed and just a little confused at the strange rush of something tingling through his veins, “is Prince—er, King Caspian?” Now, this was hardly a greeting worthy of a king, and Eustace and Jill both hissed at this perceived slight towards their friend, but Peter had eyes only for Rilian, who met his gaze with something akin to understanding, lips quirking into a queer sort of smile, mischievous and secretive.
“Oh, he'll be along, sire,” Rilian said. “No one would dare stand in his way.” And with that cryptic statement, King Rilian excused himself, leaving Peter staring after him with a baffled frown and a couple of boxed ears courtesy of his cousin, who was gearing up to give him a thorough tongue-lashing just as Corin Thunder-Fist appeared (and, my, the little scamp had grown!) to usher the High King away for a little reminiscing. Fantastic timing.
Still, Peter's mind lingered on the son of his one-time friend and comrade-in-arms, numbly wondering when he would have the honor of meeting his mother, the star's daughter, whose beauty was so great that she managed to ensnare a king with just one glance. Perhaps she was the reason Caspian had not yet arrived. Maybe they had both been delayed because she was busy making herself beautiful, like Susan.
Now was not the time to be thinking of the sister who had lost her way. Nor should he be harboring such uncharitable thoughts for someone he had never met. She was probably a perfectly charming girl.
Determined to shake off the dour mood that had fallen over him, Peter threw himself into his conversation with Corin and allowed himself to be drawn back to a time when everything was so much simpler and more straightforward – back to the Golden Age. Soon he was laughing again, and if his eyes occasionally drifted, well, who could blame him? There were so many beloved faces, so many words yet unspoken, and the day was yet young – assuming days in this world were anything like an ordinary world, that is.
His affected peace of mind, of course, could not last.
Just as Corin was finishing a most spectacular (and shamelessly exaggerated) account of how he had performed his exploit against the Lapsed Bear of Stormness and knocked some sense into one fiercely foolish talking bear that had fallen into some deplorable wild bear habits, an eerie hush began to settle over the crowd. People were whispering and pointing, their smiles waning to be replaced with a shocking show of solemnity. By the Lion's mane, what was going on?
Peter frowned, following their gazes over the Prince's shoulder, and was all the more alarmed to realize that something – or someone – was drawing near, the crowd parting before him. “Aslan?” he murmured quizzically, but Corin was already shaking his head, his smile rueful and wry as he moved to stand at the High King's side. “Sorry,” he said, patting Peter's shoulder, “but there are forces here even more fearsome than the Great Lion himself – when it comes to you, at any rate.”
Peter blinked. “Wha—?”
“Good luck!” Corin murmured impishly. “I'd say I was routing for you, but lets face it: you don't stand a chance against him.”
“Against who? And why does this fellow have it out for me? Hey, Corin! Corin!” But the Archenlander Prince was gone, swallowed by the crowd around him – the very same crowd that seemed to have formed an impenetrable ring around him, fencing him in. There was no escape. “Nice,” Peter grumbled under his breath. “The afterlife has apparently driven everyone batty.” Taking a deep calming breath, he straightened and turned to face his appending doom with some semblance of dignity.
The crowd parted to reveal none other than—
“Caspian!” he cried, letting loose the breath he'd been holding with a relieved whoosh. This was the “fearsome force” Corin had been so concerned about? He chuckled lightly, taking in the slightly older but no less handsome visage of the headstrong and feisty noble to whom he had entrusted his precious Narnia with fond eyes. Sure, Caspian could be a real handful when he set his mind to it, but he wasn't the bogyman – and he certainly wasn't planing on striking out at Peter for some perceived slight. In fact, the ebony-crowned youth was looking positively friendly.
Maybe a little too friendly, come to think of it.
Actually, he looked almost hungry – as if Caspian was starving and Peter was a tasty feast spread out before him, just waiting to be devoured. Wasn't that a disturbing thought? What do dead people eat, anyway?
Peter shifted under the Navigator King's intense gaze, some of his earlier unease returning. “It's good to see you again. I was looking for you earlier.”
“Were you?” Caspian said, stepping forward to allow the ring of curious onlookers to close behind him. “I apologize for keeping you waiting. I had some last minute business that simply couldn't wait.”
“Last minute business?”
“Nothing you need concern yourself with.” Caspian was unnervingly close now – with barely a foot between them, Peter was all too aware of how easy it would be to bridge that gap, though for what purpose he dare not guess. If Peter had known what the Twilight Zone was, he would have been convinced he'd stepped into it. Laughing nervously, he tried to step back, to put a little space between them, but Caspian had other ideas.
In an instant, Caspian's hands were on him, one pressing insistently at the small of his back and the other firmly cradling the curve of his neck – effectively preventing him from escaping the talented mouth that was suddenly attacking his own with lips and teeth and tongue. Poor, unsuspecting Peter was frozen – with horror, with shock, or with pleasure not even he could say, though it was not long before he was melting under the onslaught, knees weakening as his body trembled in ecstasy. It was only the sound of the crowd's amused murmur filtering through his daze that permitted Peter to return to himself.
With a furious groan, Peter pressed his hands against his assailant's solid chest and shoved with all this might, staggering back on unsteady feet upon gaining his unexpected freedom. “Hey!” he growled furiously, blinking back hot tears of shame and humiliation. “What do you think you're doing?”
Caspian blinked, brows furrowed worriedly. “I—”
“I'm not Susan!”
“No,” Caspian nodded, raking his dark gaze over the High King's tense figure, lips curling smugly, “that you are not.”
Peter scowled. “If you're not blind,” he demanded, “then why the blazes did you kiss me?”
But Caspian's attention was no longer on him, his eyes having come to rest on one brave young man who had parted from the hovering masses to offer his had in greeting to his (obviously crazy) fellow ruler. “King Edmund,” Caspian greeting, shaking his hand with enthusiasm, “we meet again!” And then, tossing a pointed nod in Peter's direction: “Tell me, has your brother always been this dense?”
“I'm afraid so,” Edmund responded with a grin.
Peter gritted his teeth and simmered. “Edmund? Don't tell me you're in on this insanity too!”
“In fact,” Edmund continued amicably, ignoring his brother completely, “I'm fairly certain he hasn't even realized why he could never quite forget you. Or, for that matter, why he always wakes with your name on his lips and an urgent need to wash some soiled sheets!”
“So, you have my blessing, but please go easy on him.”
“—dreaming—” Peter was muttering wildly, “—just a terrible nightmare—”
“You have my word as a gentleman,” Caspian vowed solemnly, “I won't push any harder than absolutely necessary.”
“—doesn't mean anything!”
Edmund nodded, then strolled over to his brother to clap him roughly on the back: “Well, chap, congratulations appear to be in order. But – just so you know – I refuse to be the maid of honor at your wedding.”
“Oh, don't be ridiculous!” Caspian laughed. “You'll be my best man, of course!”
“Right-oh!” Edmund replied.
“Would somebody please explain what's going on?” Peter pleaded helplessly. His mind was spinning. Nothing made sense anymore.
“Well, naturally, we'll have to get married,” Caspian replied simply, as if explaining the most obvious thing in the world. “We wouldn't want to live in sin, now would we? Aslan might have a thing or two to say about that!”
“Married? Living in sin?” Peter shook his head despairingly. “And just what does your wife have to say about this madness?” And just where was this illusive half-star, anyway?
“Well, I say!” Caspian exclaimed, affronted. “Just what kind of man do you take me for? Estella and I ended our marriage ages ago. I would have never insulted her or you by approaching you were I still attached.” Wait a minute – what?
“I had wondered about that,” Lucy piped up from Peter's right, nearly startling the wits right out of him. Where had she come from? “Is there divorce in the afterlife?”
“Oh, no,” Caspian said. “Not as you know it, anyway. Merely, some people are simply meant to be together – and you know it. Estella and I were both meant for different people – and, in fact, what held me up earlier was that she was bidding me farewell. She's decided to be reborn that she might meet her True Love in the next life. I wish her luck.”
“Oh, how romantic!” Lucy sighed.
“Yes,” Peter ground out, “very romantic. There's just one problem: you all seem to be under the bizarre misconception that Caspian is my True Love or some such nonsense.”
“Peter?” Caspian whispered, expression pained.
“Well, what if I don't want to be your True Love?”
“You don't mean that...”
Peter looked into his friend's eyes, mournful and adoring all at once, and his heart throbbed. Would it really be so bad to be loved by this man? Would it be so hard to love him back?
Caspian reached out tentatively and, heartened when Peter did not pull away, gently caressed his cheek. “I love you,” he stated firmly, in a tone that permitted no argument. “I have always loved you, though I was too cowardly to admit it when I should have.” He smiled wryly. “Susan was a convenient cover, but she was never the one I was really looking at.”
“I don't know what to say.”
“Don't say anything,” Caspian scolded. “Just, please, let me finish.” Peter nodded. He had wanted answers. Could he really complain just because they weren't the ones he expected? Because they confused his clear-cut life with hopes and ideas he'd never dared to explore except in vaguely-remembered dreams and half-formed fantasies? “I spent my life wondering what might have happened had I revealed my feelings. I vowed I would not make the same mistake twice. I'm not going to let you leave me this time – not without a fight.”
“But you're dead,” Peter sighed, sadly. “You're dead and me and Ed and Lu and all the other's will be sent home soon...”
“You mean...” Caspian started, surprised. “You mean you don't know?”
“You've not guessed?” a deep and ancient voice called out – and the crowd parted to reveal none other that Aslan. “There is no need to fear being sent back any longer.”
Peter's heart leaped and a wild hope rose within him, shared by his joyous siblings.
“There was a real railway accident,” Aslan said softly. “Your father and mother and all of you are – as they say in the Shadowlands – dead. The term is over: the holidays have begun. The dream is ended: this is the morning.”
“So, you see,” Caspian finished, taking Peter's hand and intertwining their fingers, “there is no real reason why we shouldn't be together.” Then, hesitantly: “Unless you really don't want me.” His grip tightened. “If that's the case, I'll have you know that I won't give up. You'll be wooed as no man has been wooed before!”
And there he was: the determined, but uncertain, young prince Peter remembered. The one he'd wanted to throttle and (yes, there was no denying it now) kiss by turns. By God, they would drive each other up the wall, wouldn't they? Heaven, or whatever this place was – Aslan's Country – would be a very interesting place, indeed, in the years to come.
Edmund was snickering.
Peter squeezed Caspian's fingers reassuringly, blushing under the weight of so many expectant gazes, and said, “I think I could learn to – love you, that is.” He smiled shyly. “It's just that I've never done anything like this before. I don't know what to do.”
“Then we'll go slow,” his jubilant suitor promised. “After all, we have an eternity to figure things out.” And so Caspian leaned in for another (this time, hopefully, more mutual) kiss, only to find himself thwarted by a hand against his mouth. “What is it this time?”
Peter's eyes darted to their expectant audience. “Please, can't we go somewhere more private?” He'd had quite enough of the peeping Toms, thank you very much! His life (or unlife) wasn't a theatrical drama!
“Oh,” Caspian said, and opened his mouth to tell everyone to scram, only to think better of it at the last minute. He grinned wickedly. “Say, why don't I show you my very private chambers in Cair Paravel...?”