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Nine Years in the Summer Country

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Charles misses the Archipelago, with a profound sense of homesickness that is entirely irrational. And entirely overwhelming.

He misses the sunlight on the water, the smell of salt in the breeze, new lands appearing over every horizon. He misses Tummeler and his certain animal logic, his loyalty and his wit.

He misses John and Jack.

They’ve agreed not to contact each other except in the case of something urgent related to the Archipelago. Charles understands the need for secrecy, but he had not realized that spring day at the docks in London how much he could miss the men he had known for mere days.

Life goes on, unchanged on the surface.

Charles starts eating more blueberries. He becomes briefly fascinated by clockwork mechanisms. He flinches when he hears dogs howling.

He tries going back to the club at Baker Street, but there’s something missing from it.

He writes letters to John and Jack, and then burns them.

He writes letters to Tummeler, and tucks them into the cookbook he keeps in his bag, wrapped in brown paper to hide the title: Mr B. Tummeler, Esq. Presents Exotik Foods of the Lands and How They Is Cookt.

When he goes back to the Archipelago, he can give them to the badger. 

He is certain that he is going back.

He hopes he doesn’t have to wait too long.

It turns out he has to wait nearly a decade. The ache of missing the archipelago ebbs and flows. There are some days when he nearly forgets it ever existed, and then there are others that he feels the loss like a fresh wound. His memories get that glow around them that comes with time, and he wonders if he dreamt the whole thing. He wonders if he’s remembering the archipelago as it is, or as he would like it to be.

He nearly whoops for joy when he receives Jack’s telegram. It wasn’t a dream. He’s finally going to see the archipelago again.

As he gets closer to Oxford, closer to John and Jack, he feels as though he is going home.


 

Jack comes back to the Summer Country full of hope. He’s restored life to the shadowborn, to the shadowed lands, he resisted the Winter King’s power, he is young and full of infinite potential.

And if there’s a dark place in the back of his mind that whispers Nemo… well, he pays it no heed.

He’s lived through war and triumphed, so when he leaves behind the dull life of a scholar for life in the trenches, he is again ready to take the world by storm.

Until the shell.

If only it had been an enemy shell, Jack thinks afterwards, that might have made it better in a way.

But again Jack watches as friend is killed right next to him by a shell that was supposed to save them. The dark place in the back of his mind swells and engulfs him. He isn’t breathing, and he thinks he is dead. He finds he doesn’t care much.

Later, when it turns out he isn’t dead, he languishes in a strange country, wishing he was home, wishing he was not left with his thoughts which are all dark now and have none of that hope he’d found in Pandora’s Kettle. Paddy and Nemo blend together in his mind, France and Terminus becoming the same place. He imagines he can hear the roaring of the sea draining away into nothing forever. He sees Nemo, or is it Paddy? their misplaced trust in him. He has failed; he could not protect them.

He returns to England changed again. He takes up his role as a scholar with less youthful resentment. He looks after Paddy’s family, keeping his promise. He wonders if Nemo had any family. He wonders how Aven is doing.

His brother looks after him in turn. It’s clear to Warnie that Jack is not the same person who had gone off to war in 1917, and he is right, although he does not know about the other war Jack fought in first, young and brash and shadowless.

He is able to force the dark place further back in his mind over time, until it only slips out at night. He cannot see his shadow in the dark, blending in with the greater shadows. He turns on lights to make sure it’s still there. He likes to keep the sun behind him, so he can glance down every now and again to check.

Just to be sure.


 

 

John thinks about names. There’s a different cast to his homeland since he’s come back from the archipelago, a kind of filter that makes it The Summer Country now, not just England. As if the name has altered his perception of the place.

People call him Ronald, Professor Tolkien, and he thinks about the name he’d given Jack and Charles. His Archipelago name. A name for a different version of himself. Or so he hoped.

With Jack and Charles in the Archipelago he’d had the chance at a clean slate, a new place with people who didn’t know him. He could be John, caveo principia, not second lieutenant Tolkien, the shadow of the professor who’d gone off to war.

He hadn’t been able to leave that part of him entirely behind.

(His cheeks heat as he thinks of Jack’s snide distain for him. Jack, who doesn’t go by his given names. Jack, who’s chosen name suits him so perfectly.)

So what was the point then, John thinks. Renaming himself did not change who he was. So names don’t have power then. A rose by any other name and all that.

But there’s something new about the Summer Country.

And there’s something new about John. Edith tells him so, a few months after he’s come back from the Archipelago.

John doesn’t really feel it.

“Of course you don’t,” she says. “It’s like trying to look at your own nose. But I can see it. You’ve got something more to you.”

The years go by, and John feels more and more comfortable in the skin of Professor Tolkien. The Summer Country blends back into England until John has forgotten the strangeness that greeted him upon his return. He sometimes catches glimpses of it, trees that look as though they could move, animals who he expects to talk. But this is his normal now, and he doesn’t put much thought into it.

It’s nine years before someone calls him John again, and he is very nearly confused, because John is his son.

But he recognizes Jack’s voice, distorted though it is through the phone, as though he had talked to the younger man only yesterday.

“Hullo John,” Jack says, and John feels professor Tolkien take a step back, as John, Caveo Principia looks up eagerly, ready to go on another adventure.