Rat Race, Peter
A/N: Love you guys. All those lovely reviews. Yum!
Rat Race, Peter
Some of the men weren’t happy with what was going on. They were foot soldiers only, true, but nobility tended to forget that even foot soldiers and simple workers had functioning minds and opinions.
There had been enough people around on the night Caspian – or rather, Asmira as Caspian – had ridden hell for leather out of the castle. They knew that their prince had not been kidnapped. In the light of the war Miraz was so obviously planning, the news of that little detail travelled fast.
It wasn’t much. It wasn’t loud. It wasn’t enough. But the discontent, the quiet questioning, they were there. Some people wondered if their Lord Protector was truly protecting them as well as he should. Why go to war against an almost extinct people? No-one had even seen any Narnians in centuries. And suddenly they were a threat?
After ten years of campaign after campaign, Telmar was tired of burying sons.
It would not lead to a revolt, or indeed any sort of protest. But if, say, the leadership of Telmar were to change, the people were less likely to rebel against it.
So the soldiers whispered in the hallways and barracks and whenever Glozelle came upon a hastily dropped conversation he made a point of turning his back and walking the other way.
She found the sulking High King a ways up the path, sitting on a boulder by the wayside, glaring moodily at the surrounding trees. She took a moment to watch him sit there, very still, arms and legs crossed, refusing to acknowledge her presence. How many times had she sat in a similar pose on the porch roof in front of her window back in… a long time ago? She knew the way he held himself, the glint in his eyes, the desperate rage, knew that most of it was turned inside and just the barest edges of it reached up into the outside world. Something was eating Peter Pevensie alive.
Lucky for him, she had experience with that, too.
“D’you know how to use that?” she asked, tapping the sheath of his sword with a delicate finger.
“No, seriously. Do you? Or is it just a big boy’s toy you carry around while playing soldier?”
Boy. Playing. Toy. She was pushing all his buttons and as he turned his head to glare at her out of the corner of his eye, she saw that he knew it, too. He knew what she wanted. The question was, was he going to give it to her or not?
For a moment he didn’t seem too sure himself. Then he slid down from his perch and drew his sword, stepping onto the path that, while not exactly spacey, would give them more freedom of movement than the surrounding forest.
She reached for her swords and when he didn’t complain, drew both of them. She liked fighting two bladed. It allowed for more efficiency on the battle field and when one was as fast as her, more blades were actually an asset rather than a hindrance. She flipped one of the weapons immediately to a backwards grip, using the blade as a sort of shield.
Peter, trying to turn that game around, refused to be the first to attack until she flitted behind him and struck suddenly and at a totally unexpected angle, swatting him on the butt with the flat of her sword. He yelped, glowered and threw himself at her with a move intended to take off people’s heads.
She bent backwards out of reach and kicked out at his knee before flipping over and waiting for the next attack. He evaded her feet and came at her again rather nimbly, feinting left and striking right. She parried with one sword and swiped at his stomach with the other, almost drawing first blood.
Then they both drew back and assessed each other. Peter was a good fighter. If he had space and enough opponents, he was probably a fearsome thing. Fast, precise and powerful in his strokes. It was a style that allowed well for a shield to use as a battering ram, but he’d left his at the foot of the boulder, apparently feeling a bit cocky. Or eager for pain. But there was also a distinct weakness in his fighting style. It was designed for a bigger body, longer arms, broader shoulders. For the man he had once been, not the boy he now was.
He overbalanced a bit, pulled back further than he had to to evade an attack. It cost time and strength. Still, fighting him was fun.
So she raced at him, going for his neck and guts at the same time and managing to nick his arm as he blocked. First blood was hers. She grinned fiercely and wasn’t surprised to find Peter returning it.
Edmund didn’t like letting his brother out of his sight. He never had. When they got separated, one of them tended to get almost killed. But he knew – painfully – that he wouldn’t get through to Peter. Not this time. Not after the other boy had spent the past year pushing his once best friend away.
So he agreed to let Asmira go after him. It hurt and it was a hard decision to make, but it was the best. Edmund could do that, put his feelings aside and think logically, rationally. Coldly. He was the strategist. The judge. Emotion had no place.
But somehow being fourteen again didn’t make it any easier.
He led the others down Lucy’s path, across the river and back up the other side. And as soon as they found a place to camp for the night, he’d turn around and go back for the others.
It was stupid and unnecessary and wouldn’t help anything because Peter would think he wasn’t being trusted, but he had to.
Edmund followed Peter. That’s just how it was.
Peter had been itching to know if she could fight with those swords she carried ever since she had first turned her back to him and he had seen them. But that was not why he let her goad him into this mock mock fight - a fight pretending to be a spar, rage pretending to be the joy of battle.
No, he fought her because earlier, at the edge of that gorge he had listened to Lucy’s words and he had wanted to scream at her until his voice snapped to shut up, just shut up
and stop telling him how to do things, where to go and what to see. To stop rubbing his nose in the fact that she could see Aslan as she always had and he couldn’t because he was lost, wasn’t good enough, hadn’t kept his siblings safe, hadn’t kept his kingdom safe.
And then Susan had agreed with her younger siblings and the urge to scream had turned into a physical beast, demanding that he push her into the ground and shake her, shake her until she took it back, until she said she didn’t believe because if he couldn’t, how could she, how could logical Susan believe when he had lost all faith?
He’d run. Run as fast as he could away from them, away from his beloved, siblings, the ones he would die for, do anything for. Not hurt them. Never hurt them. He was supposed to protect them from harm and instead he wanted to cause it himself. Great Lion, could he be any more of a failure?
So he ran. And he sat on that boulder, trying to kill the anger in himself, to smother it into ashes and soot and failing like he had failed for the past year. And then she’d come and offered and fight and yes, oh yes, maybe this would be enough. Maybe blood would drown out the fire and let him have some peace.
After the initial attacks they both pulled back for a moment to assess the other but not for long. He couldn’t wait. Couldn’t stand there and hold still. He needed… he needed.
He rushed her, sword held high and barely avoided losing his head by ducking and slashing at her knees. She jumped over the blade, used her own against him, parried, ducked, swung, slid to the side and around him. He fell to his knees, blocking with his sword above his head, just barely, feeling his pulse thud in his veins, his heart in his ears, feeling the burn of where she’d nicked his arm and he knew, he knew that it wasn’t enough.
With a mighty heave he pushed to his feet and twisted, taking one of her blades from her, sending it flying through the air. No more blocking. Then he went at her again and again and again, until he thought the next breath would make his lungs catch on fire, until his knees shook and refused to hold him properly, until the burn of the shallow cuts she inflicted on him faded to a dull throb as they stopped bleeding.
And she let him. All the while she kept pace with him, letting him burn off his rage. She was humouring him. She could have gone faster, hit stronger, defeated him within moments. But she let him have his fight.
That, more than anything she could have done short of sacrificing herself for his siblings, proved to him that she was trustworthy. Because she understood.
In the end he ducked below a head swipe and stayed there, on his knees, unable to move another muscle. He felt like he had just gone to battle and fought all day long. And in a way he had. Only this time the enemy hadn’t been visible and tangible.
He let his sword fall into the soft moss beside him - they had long since left the path and fought their way between trees and brushes - and fell backwards, aching all over.
He didn’t need to see her to feel her collect her lost sword and then lay both of her weapons down beside his, sinking to the soft forest floor with far more grace than he could manage at the moment, muscles shaking and protesting.
They stayed like that, silent, staring at the patches of sky visible through the trees, until he had caught his breath and put his heart back where it belonged. Then she said, “You’re an idiot.”
He stiffened. “How so?”
“You’re hurting your entire family because of whatever guilt trip you’re on.”
He kept his gaze fixed straight ahead, not trusting himself to look at her without the fire returning. “I am not-“
“Wallowing in childish self pity? I think you are.”
Maybe it was the accusation of self pity. Maybe it was being called childish after fighting for the past year to get used to this gangly, weak, small, pathetic body, but the fire returned with a vengeance and he threw himself on top of her, pinning her hands and pushing her into the ground.
“How dare you,” he snarled, “It is not self pity. I failed them. I failed – “ He cut himself off abruptly, realizing what he was saying. No-one was supposed to ever hear those words. The High King of Narnia didn’t doubt and he didn’t fail.
But he did.
And it burned.
“What could you have done?” she snarled right back, twisting her hands until the choice was between letting go and breaking his own wrists. She rolled them over until she was sitting on his chest, her face inches from his, spitting, “What. Could. You. Have. Done?”
To keep his siblings in Narnia? Nothing. To keep this country save more than a thousand years after he would have died a natural death, had he stayed? Nothing. In his head, he knew that. But his heart had never communicated very well with the rest of him, always so sure it knew the way, knew what was best.
His temper wasn’t legend because he was a head person. Peter loved and lived and thought and fought with his heart and that was a violent, loud and all encompassing beast.
He looked away from her green gaze.
She sat up straighter, releasing her hold on him and said, her voice once more its usual lacklustre blankness, “Thought so.”
“I should have – “
“Nothing,” she called, smacking her hands into his chest with a loud cracking sound. He winced. “You could have done nothing. If you want to spread the blame, put it on your damn lion!”
“Aslan isn’t to blame!”
She glared at him with more ferocity he had ever seen in a human being. In savage and hurt animals, yes, in the fell beasts of the White Witch, yes. But not in human eyes. That expression, that green fire, that was hate. But then it flickered and wavered, like a candle flame in the wind, before resettling over her features.
“Yes, your precious, all knowing uber-king is never to blame, is he? Here’s a thought: If he’s as wise and powerful as you all seem to think he is, then he must have known what would happen when you hunted that stag, right? He must have known what would happen. What you would lose. Right?”
Unwilling to do it but knowing she was right, Peter nodded with a small jerk of the head, refusing to meet her gaze but unable to get away as she wouldn’t budge from her seat on his chest.
“Then why didn’t he stop you?”
“Aslan knows what he’s doing.”
“Yeah. Obviously. Forcing children to fight his war, taking away fifteen years of their lives and then having the gall to call them back. Some god you’ve got there, kid.”
“Don’t call me a kid.” When had he lost control of the situation so completely?
“That’s right, you’re not, are you? How old are you? Over thirty? And yet you look like a teenager. How’s that feel?” She didn’t give him a chance to answer, knowing very well how he felt from the grinding of his teeth. “And whose fault is that?”
He bit his lip, refusing to vocalize the name she wanted to hear. Refusing to believe what she was saying. Instead he met her gaze levely, calm in a way he had not been for a long time. “Why do you hate Aslan so much? You never even met him.”
Just like the fight had left him, it now left her. She slumped. “I have my reasons,” she finally muttered and made to stand.
He grabbed her around the waist and anchored her to his lap, keeping her there. She had dragged all his horrible secret truths out of him. She owed him.
But while she didn’t resist his hold on her, for almost five minutes she also refused to speak. Then, apparently reaching some sort of decision, she sighed and said, “I guess it’s only fair I tell you some of my story after Lucy told me yours.”
Susan was not used to Narnian soil anymore. The feel of rocks under thin slippers, the treachery of wet stones and loose earth. She had forgotten them. For fifteen years she had been Queen Susan of the southern sun, ruler over the south, the very region they were now wandering in and her feet had never stumbled, her steps never faltered. She’d walked the land like she was one with it.
And now she kept slipping on wet rocks like a toddler on her first outing.
It put tears of frustration into her eyes.
She had tried so hard. When Aslan had thought it best to send them back to England – which was only England and never home – she had tried so hard it hurt. She had painted her face with English make-up, had worn the scratchy English dresses, eaten the bland and tasteless English food.
And now, here, back where she belonged, she felt tainted. Tainted by that other country. Her feet knew only asphalt now, her hair had lost its shine without the products she used to care for it. Her face felt strangely empty and mobile without make-up and her feet ached from walking so long.
It wasn’t right.
She’d done what Aslan wanted, hadn’t she? She’d taken her exile without complaint, without resistance. The lion knows best. But now…
Now everything was wrong and her own skin didn’t fit anymore.
Lucy, always the most perceptive of her sibling’s feelings, was there suddenly, at her side, taking her sister’s hands and leading her across the stones as she had once led her into a wardrobe in a spare room.
And Susan, too proud to wipe the tears from her eyes, followed blindly and prayed for her feet to remember their old grace.
He watched silently as she looked around for a long time, gaze sliding past trees and rocks, into the sky and down again, looking for something to fix on, to hold on to. She found it in a gnarled tree just past his shoulder and stared at it almost unblinkingly until, suddenly, she was staring right through
“Where I come from we didn’t have centaurs or minotaurs or dwarves. We had vampires, demons and pissed off hell gods.”
His mouth opened of its own volition, but he remained silent. There were many worlds out there. In one of them, magic was as real as air and water. How could he doubt what was real in hers?
“I was a regular girl. Just, make-up, boys, clothes. The usual stuff. And then this guy walked up to me and told me that from now on, protecting the world from the hordes of hell was my job. I was the only one between earth and destruction. Hated it, of course. I didn’t want to be a hero. I wanted to go to the movies.”
She shrugged. “But it didn’t go that way. I fought. I won. I died. Friend resuscitated me. I lived. I fought. I won. I jumped off a tower to save the world . Found peace. Was brought back by magic and greedy friends. I lived. I fought. I won. I flat lined on the operation table. I lived. I fought. I won. I was twenty one, that’s four years past the average life expectancy of someone like me, and I was done. Two lovers sacrificed, two major buildings burned down, countless friends dead, a dozen apocalypses averted, the armies of evil beaten and one town fallen literally into hell. I was done. Finished. Over. No more fighting for me. I had this plan where I drink disgusting tea until the end of my long, boring life and die when I fall asleep while watching jeopardy reruns on TV.”
She quirked a sad little smile and Peter mirrored the expression, even though he didn’t get the joke.
“Instead I suddenly find myself in this place beyond the worlds, where the gods of my world reside and they say, we got a job for you. I didn’t want to. I was finished. Sacrificed all there was to be sacrificed. But they convinced me. There was this guy who was a bit like me. All alone, supposed to save the world. I agreed to one last job. And I did it. And I landed back in that place afterwards and they told me, there’s another world that needs you.
“I’m too good at what I do. More powerful than I was ever meant to be, stronger, faster, smarter. I’m too good for them to let me go. So I get handed off from deity to deity, from world to world. Whenever the shit hits the fan, I’m there. One last job.”
She finally met his eyes and they were blazing. “It never is. Always another, always more. For almost fifty years. I’m a glorified attack dog, a weapon to be used. All I want is to die and have my peace but they won’t even let me have that. They won’t even let me die. And your great Aslan is just like the last…I don’t even know how many. He needed someone to save his little experiment so he shoved the necessary information in my head, pointed me in the right direction and dumped me in this world.”
She slid backwards into his lap as Peter sat up and they were perfectly at eye level when she asked, “Have you ever wondered why we exist? What the purpose of this all is?” She waved a hand around to make ‘this all’ clear.
He shrugged and then nodded. Hadn’t everyone?
“I’ll tell you what it is. The gods build worlds and they put all sorts of creatures into them and then they settle back with a cold drink and they watch what happens. The universe is a giant, damn rat race, Peter. And I’m their favourite rat.”
She was sitting fully in his lap, staring at him from only inches away and Peter had a single stray thought about kissing her. He didn’t. because he thought he was bitter and he had nothing on this woman who seemed so far beyond hope, she’d forgotten what it felt like. The hatred he’d seen blazing in her flickered again, guttered and stuttered, and then died.
So instead he wrapped his second arm around her waist, too and said quietly, “I understand.”
She looked surprised. “You do?”
He nodded as he stood, pulling her with him and setting her on her feet. “I do. You’re wrong about Aslan, but I understand why you hate him.”
He smiled down at her stunned expression and couldn’t quite resist brushing a stray strand of hair out of her face and grinning. Then he let go of her abruptly and bent to collect their weapons, handing hers back to her. “Time to go. Ed is probably about ready to mount a search.”
Edmund waited the two hours he had promised their new companion and then he exchanged a look with Trumpkin that clearly said, “Look after my sisters, or else.”
The dwarf accepted the burden with a serious nod and a sardonic grin and watched as the younger king took off back down into the gorge like they hadn’t just spent the past hour climbing the slippery path. There was one thing Trumpkin was quickly learning about the Kings and Queens. They loved Narnia more than life itself, but they loved each other even more. And if Edmund had to cross that bloody gorge twice in one day, then that’s exactly what he would do.
Shaking his head, he brushed past Lucy with an almost involuntary smile and started scouting ahead for a good camping place while behind them, the Just King cursed violently but didn’t slow his pace.
He reached the river in record time and glared balefully at the cliff he had to climb, yet again. The things he did to make sure his sulking brother did not get jumped by Telmarine scouts and killed unawares. He made his way up faster than they had come down, this time not slowed down by short legs and dresses and spent five minutes at the top catching his breath. Then he picked up Peter’s tracks and followed them, silently amazed that Asmira seemed to hover over the ground, as she left practically no foot prints. But then she seemed to not be much heavier or bigger than Lucy, so that wasn’t really a surprise.
Lucky for him, the blonde seemed to have at least some sense of time because he found them not five minutes later, heading his way. And because he could and was pissed at Peter and feeling a bit vindictive, not to mention curious, Ed threw himself behind some conveniently placed shrubs and watched his brother’s approach.
The first thing he noticed was that Peter looked like he’d taken a sound beating from Oreius on the training grounds. Since both Oreius and the training grounds had been gone for over a thousand years, that was a bit worrisome. But under a fringe of sweat soaked hair, Peter’s eyes were almost calm. They had lost their diamond edge and seemed almost…mellow? It was an expression Edmund hadn’t seen since they had chased the White Stag through the Western Woods so long ago. His brother seemed, for the first time in a year, almost at peace.
Asmira walked by his side, not looking much worse for the wear, except for a few scratches and stray forest debris caught in her hair and dress. They seemed content to walk in peace and quiet until Peter asked, “Say, Asmira is a Telmarine name, isn’t it?”
The blonde nodded. “Yup.”
“Then it’s not your real one.”
“No more real than the last dozen names I used,” she agreed, surprisingly willing to give the information away.
Peter, registering her willingness to talk, stopped and asked, “Then what’s your real name?”
A moment of silence before she turned her gaze away into the trees and said, “I don’t remember.”
She was lying.
Ed stood from his hiding place then and demanded, “Pete, what the hell happened to you?”
His brother jumped at his sudden appearance but didn’t answer as he watched his companion silently trudge ahead. They both watched her go and then Peter turned to his little brother and opened his mouth, about to brush him off. Edmund knew that’s what it was because Peter never quite managed to meet his eyes when he did. It was a small mercy that he couldn’t look when he hurt Edmund.
Ed thought it was the only reason he had been able to forgive it for so long. But this time Peter met his gaze and admitted with a sigh, “We sparred. She bloody killed me, Ed.”
It was a gift, that confession, because Peter hated to appear weak and helpless and here he was, stripping down in front of his brother.
Things weren’t alright, the past year wasn’t forgotten and their troubles were not over, but Peter understood now, it seemed, the pain he caused.
Ed grinned and took the wordless invitation for merciless ribbing and for a moment, all was well in the world.
“Okay,” she said, as soon as the boys caught up with her at the beginning of the steep downward path. “There’s no way I’m going down there.”
Edmund snorted, “I did the whole thing twice already. It’s not that bad.”
Peter added, “There’s no other way, you said it yourself.”
She looked at them, noting how they stood almost shoulder to shoulder and glad that at least something of her little intervention had gotten through and corrected, “I said I’m not going
Then she stepped back in the wall, made sure her swords would hold and took a deep breath. “See ya,” she chirped and with a wicked grin, threw herself over the edge.
Above her, she could hear twin screams of fear as she twisted in mid-air and thought idly that she was getting too attached to those kids. But she couldn’t really help it. They reminded her so much of things she’d rather forget. They were brave and stubborn and strong and still children in ways, and adults in others and they were… they were brilliant. They shone like nothing she’d seen in this world before.
And she wanted to… she’d wanted to tell Peter her name, the name of the girl that still lived somewhere inside of her. A name she hadn’t used in fifty years. That was bad. That was very, very bad because she was setting herself up for so much more pain when Caspian finally sat on the throne and that blasted lion kicked her out of his playground.
She didn’t need that kind of pain.
Curse Aslan, curse Narnia, curse the dirt under her feet for sucking the fight from her.
Her landing was automatic, almost mechanic, feet first, bend in the knee, arms spread to keep the balance, she came out of her forty feet fall like it had been five, spinning on her heel to grin up at two gobsmacked kings and then quickly starting to scale the other side of the gorge. She needed to get away for a while.
To clear her head.
To sort things out.
Buffy may have lived somewhere inside Asmira, screaming for human contact, for friends, for someone to hold on to, but Asmira had a lot of practice in ignoring her.
Feed me? I'm, like, totally starving. Seriously.