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Mill Lane Halt, Box, Wiltshire

Six months after the end of Prince Caspian

Peter went to the luggage office to check their school trunk labels one final time, and Susan edged away from the other two to study the elegant women on the newsagents' magazine covers. Edmund divided his time between the railway clock, its black hand ticking away each precise second with a sharp jolt, and contemplating the distant bend in the track where their train would eventually come into view - a J69 locomotive, nothing special, he'd been on them plenty of times before - but he liked that moment of arrival, of possibility. It took him a few minutes to realise Lucy was crying.

She was sitting on the wooden platform seat, hugging her satchel in her lap, and tears were rolling down her face and soaking into her white uniform blouse. A year ago, Edmund would have pretended not to notice.

"Oh Lu." Edmund dug in his pocket and produced an almost clean handkerchief. "Here."

Lucy took it, muttering incoherent thanks, and mopped at her face. Edmund shot one last glance at the track and the clock - three more minutes, assuming everything was on time - and sat down next to her, bumping shoulders amicably.

"I know it wouldn't be the same, even if it did happen now," Lucy said, as if carrying on a previous conversation. "Not without the other two. And He did say it would happen. Someday."

Edmund knew. He tried not to think about it too often. He loved Narnia and wanted desperately to return, he'd had some of the best times of his life there. He'd also made a terrible mistake, and sometimes he had a sickening, stomach-dropping feeling that he would make one again, with what he would tell himself were the best of intentions.

Peter was uncomplicated, he knew he wasn't going back and that was that. And Lucy was desperate to return and felt guilty about it; which was also uncomplicated. Edmund had caught her pausing for a moment before opening unfamiliar doors, sometimes even half-shutting her eyes before turning the handle.

From here he could see Susan's intent face in profile as she flipped steadily through glossy pages. Lucy sniffed.

"It will happen," Edmund said. "Before you're old and grey, and we have to push you around in a bath chair."

The corners of Lucy's mouth twitched a little. "You're older than me."

"I'll be faster, though. We can have races."

A more purposeful twitch. Lucy held out Edmund's soggy handkerchief. "Thanks."

Edmund took it with the tips of his fingers and a full body shudder, and got a definite smile.

He looked back at the track just as the engine came into view, a solid gleaming presence backed by puffs of white steam, and he felt a kick of excitement. Not the same as being snatched by magic, but something of the same feeling, going somewhere. He could hear Peter's fast-paced stride coming along the platform, and the station master was already at the edge, whistle around his neck and a half-furled flag in one hand. Edmund shoved the handkerchief into his pocket and stood up.

Susan turned the last few pages of her magazine, unhurried, and returned it to the rack, sliding it in smoothly. For a moment the thought was in Edmund's mind that she was both more upset than Lucy and less easily consoled; but then the train was right next to them and Peter was opening the door, calling to them, and Susan was taking Lucy's satchel and helping her up, as capable as ever. The moment passed.

***

Leiston, Suffolk, East Anglia

The term after The Silver Chair

Experiment House's new head believed in team sports, and Edmund's lower school fifteen were invited over for a friendly game that first week of November. They romped to a easy win, the Experiment team enthusiastic but hopelessly undisciplined, and when Edmund, who'd had a particularly good game as scrum half, caught up with Eustace (a valiant but defeated flanker) on the sidelines and held out his hand to shake, he found it hard to stop smiling.

"Good game," he said, and shook enthusiastically.

Eustace, face streaked in mud, grimaced. "If we were two-year olds," he said, but then he grinned too.

"You did your best," Edmund said, meaning it. Eustace nodded, their hands parted, and then it was on to the next team member.

They had scones in the refectory, thick yellow ones split and lined generously with butter and cream ("The natural child learns best from nature," Eustace intoned, deliberately pompous, when Edmund, curious, asked about rationing. "The school keeps six cows, all named after appropriately worthy people. This is either from Bertrand Russell or Wittgenstein."), all washed down with mugs of tea. Jill slipped in among them quietly, and the three of them retreated to the fringes of the crowd with their spoils and talked in low voices.

The pale winter sun dipped down below the trees lining the sports field outside, and the games master and prefect in charge from Edmund's school began rounding everyone up and thanking their hosts.

"Oh bother," Eustace said, glancing round. "You're walking to the station?"

"The 5.22," Edmund agreed. They'd come on a T26 and he expected it would be the same going back; nothing special, but there was always hope.

"Maybe we can walk with you? I'll ask." Eustace slipped away.

Jill collected up the crockery and paused, arms full. "Your sisters are at Arlinghurst, aren't they? Might I write to them?"

"Lucy would love that," Edmund said. He hadn't intended it, but it made the omission more obvious, and Jill looked questioning. "Susan's not at school anymore," he said awkwardly. "She works in a shop."

Perhaps it didn't sound as blunt to Jill as it did in Edmund's head. She nodded.

"I'd love to talk to her," Jill said. "I'm trying to get my parents to let me visit Scrubb, but I think they'd feel better if he were a girl."

Eustace, returning, overheard and looked appalled. The other two burst out laughing.

"We can go," Eustace said, once they'd recovered. "Pole, give me those crocks, you'll drop them."

Jill's flourish of triumph stopped just in time.

Edmund did have to explain their presence, but he hung back long enough that the games master was out of sight.

"Enough," the prefect said, waving a thin hand in a lordly fashion at Edmund. "The sacred bonds of friendship, the eternal ties - they can follow you to the railway station. But no further. We must maintain standards, or at least the illusion that we might have some, and the school already possesses more than enough scruffy youths."

"Thanks, Smith," Edmund said, having extricated the important approval from all of that. He turned back to the others, ignoring the pained sigh that drifted after him.

It was a short walk in the gathering dark. As they turned into the little lane behind the station, a tangle of black bramble on one side and a rickety wooden fence on the other, there was a pause in conversation. In the distance, Edmund could hear his teammates chatting on the platform.

"Your sister Susan - " Jill said, sounding cautious.

"She won't talk about Narnia," Edmund said. He'd tried, they all had, but it slipped off Susan's bland, faintly amused, exterior. "She says she doesn't believe in it."

Peter had told her if she wanted to be silly he couldn't stop her, and left it. Lucy still tried, but Susan had always been able to resist Lucy. Edmund - when he thought about it, about what to say, he swung between a desperate sadness and a boiling fury, and couldn't find words for either.

"I hate knowing I won't get to go back," Jill said. "It makes me a bit stupid with it."

Eustace did not take the obvious bait. "It's tough, but pretending it didn't happen, lying about it - that's much worse. I've done more than my share of stupid things, but I wouldn't do that."

"I made mistakes in Narnia, too." Jill's voice was quiet in the dark. "The signs - "

Edmund swallowed. There was a sickly, too-sweet taste in his mouth. "I, too."

A low thrumming noise, felt more than heard. For a moment Edmund thought, Yes, at last, and then he realised. "The train," he said. "Come on!"

They left the dark lane behind, scrambling up the steps to the overbridge, then down to the station platform in a clattering rush. The train (the expected T26) was already waiting - Edmund grabbed the handle of the nearest door and swung himself up, turning to wave. Eustace and Jill stood on the platform, both now about equally dishevelled, waving back.

***

King's Cross, Camden, London

After the start of The Last Battle

Once out of the garden Peter and Edmund started walking faster and faster, not daring to speak or even look at each other. By the time they were at the corner they were almost running. The fizzing inside Edmund felt barely contained, liable to explode into whoops and leaps of excitement at any moment.

"So," Peter said, and by the wobble in his voice Edmund was pretty sure he was feeling the same thing. "The post office won't be open yet. Breakfast?"

The greasy little cafe's eggs were powdered and the toast covered with only a thin layer of scrape, but both were hot and the tea was strong. The waitress was obviously confused by the combination of their workman-like clothes and their unworkmanlike accents; Edmund tried to think of an explanation for her, but each possibility was more ridiculous than the last.

When they left the cafe, a returned soldier was outside selling pencils, a sign on his tray outlining his service. The quiet desperation on his face reminded Edmund of the ghostly Narnian visitor they'd had two nights before, and he slipped the man a shilling in exchange for a cheerful yellow pencil.

Peter was feeling in his pocket again for the rings.

"Wouldn't it be fun if we could still use them," Edmund said. He didn't mean anything more than that, but Peter actually glared, and for a second Edmund felt the full force of the High King's disapproval.

"They are not for us," Peter said. His gaze moved over Edmund as if discarding him, and he strode off quickly down the street. Edmund felt as if he'd been kicked.

He caught up with Peter easily, but they didn't speak. At the Post Office Peter went to the counter to write the wire to the Professor. Edmund, hands in his pockets, studied the walls and their exhortations to Use Few Words and Save A Penny.

When Peter came back over he was less formal, his duty now partially discharged. "Right," he said. "Do you want to meet at the station? I've a chap to see in town." It was an apology of sorts.

"Yes please," said Edmund, with alacrity. He'd never had a day to himself in London. They'd booked seats back on the last train possible, the 7.05, just in case there was trouble getting into the garden. They would overnight at Father and Mother's, and then on to the others in the morning.

He took a bus to the British Museum and looked at the Assyrian reliefs, caught by the similarity of the ornate, dramatic scenes to his memories; but the lion hunt made him uneasy, and he slipped out beneath the stony gaze of the giant gate guardians. The Egyptian rooms held him for longer, and the Greek vases were oddly fascinating, but in the end he wanted open air. He ate a sandwich in Russell Square, scattering the crumbs to a gang of expectant sparrows who'd assembled as soon as he sat down, and then decided to do what he really wanted, and went to Kings' Cross station to watch the trains.

Some of the other boys at school collected trains, jotting down their numbers in notebooks, and Edmund had his own list on the unused X, Y and Z pages of a small leather-bound address book. His family teased him about it gently. Edmund didn't care. The numbers were a way to remember, not an end in themselves. It was something he had found that wasn't Narnia but still a sort of magic.

The afternoon hours slipped by, a fragile summer blue sky overhead, and just as Edmund was beginning to think about going to meet Peter he was rewarded with the Flying Scotsman express coming out of the Gas Works tunnel and into the station, slowing at the end of its non-stop run from Edinburgh. Blue livery with red and white, the curved streamlining that gave it the look of some great heraldic beast, more than a mere machine - Edmund wrote "6009 A4 FS 6.25" hurriedly in the narrowing space in his notebook and went back to staring.

The engine cut out with a final hiss, the guard jumped down from the van and the doors began to open along the line of carriages stretching away from him, letting out the passengers. Some set off at a brisk walk, obviously people with places to go - others milled around, collecting up the rest of their party, arguing over who would get the luggage. Edmund checked his watch. He really ought to leave now.

Families meeting up again, with hugs and handshakes -

They would be at Father and Mother's tonight, which meant Susan - not that she would be there, for she almost never chose to visit at the same time unless it was unavoidable - but tiptoeing around her absence with polite enquiries and best wishes for her health. Edmund chewed the end of his pencil. He couldn't deny Narnia, but for the first time, he saw it as not a battle between belief and disbelief, but a reconciliation between worlds. He could love something completely non-Narnian like a steam train, a human-made mechanical construction unlike anything there, and still not betray Narnia.

The postage stamp machine on the platform provided him with a sixpenny book of stamps, and he had a battered envelope in his bag. With a last farewell glance to the platforms, he headed down to the underground and caught the Metropolitan line to Liverpool Street Station. Crammed into a corner seat, knees swaying, the noise of the train and the people a solid wall around him, Edmund opened his address book to Q and got out the soldier's yellow pencil. He dropped the letter into the brick postbox in the station foyer and headed for his platform, putting the whole thing out of his mind.

***

Edmund's letter was most of the way down the pile of unopened post on the hall table next to a vase of lilies that were beginning to droop unwatered, two more obligations on an ever-lengthening list. Susan found it the day after the funerals. The mirror above the table gave her back the reflection of a poised young woman in a black silk dress, one corner of her mouth turning down as she smoothed out the crumpled paper.

Dear Susan, I made an awful mistake once, and then I made it worse by lying about it. Sometimes I wonder if I would ever have owned up if I hadn't had to. I don't think anything anyone said to me would have changed my mind. I didn't want to be that sort of person, but the truth is that I was. I still am.

I keep trying to make you be the girl I remember, and it's not fair to who you are now. Are you free to come over next Saturday half? I'll be at the station. I'd like to meet you.

Yours,

Edmund.

 

THE END