MFB30: What Is Love?

The next morning, Faril took his leave of the royal children to head back to Anvard as soon as he had finished his breakfast, and a flurry of activity in preparation for the Archenlandian state visit began. It was decided that Per should be given the room next to Edmund’s after all, so while his things were moved into it, Lucy’s things were moved out, with the promise that she could later use the room that Per had just vacated, which was being appointed splendidly to serve King Lune and Queen Primela for their stay. Prince Corin and his Nurse would have the room next to that, with the rest of their retinue in the ones beyond, until they ran out of rooms on the ocean side of that floor and switched to the western side, overlooking the hills and forests of Narnia.

At least Faril had given them a rough count of the guests, so they knew how many rooms to air out and set fresh linens in. Per busied himself with helping Mrs. Dumplesugar and the other laundresses, while King Edmund and King Peter could be found upstairs, moving dressers and mirrors around under the direction of Queen Susan (who had an eye for such things). The heavier furniture was left to the Minotaurs to move, the Dwarfs built some last-minute items, and the Ravens did their part by spreading word of the royal visit. The Narnians who lived along the road to Archenland made certain that the path was swept and clean, while some of the Dryads planted flowers that would bloom in time for the procession. Many of the generous Narnian Creatures brought baskets of early-ripening fruits to the castle, as well as sacks of wheat and other grains, so that there would be nothing lacking to welcome their neighbors from the South.

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That evening when Peter stepped into his room after his bath, he found Edmund and Per already setting a little table by the window, next to his easy chair.

“Ah, there you are,” Edmund greeted him. “Felicity thought it might be too warm for a fire tonight, let alone a hot cup of tea, so she brewed this and had it cooling in the cellar all afternoon. It’s not exactly iced tea, but it’s quite well chilled.”

“That does sound more appealing than hot tea, especially in this heat,” Peter replied, sitting down. “Bless her for thinking of it!”

The flagon and glass goblets were already glistening with condensation from the warm, southeasterly wind that was blowing in from the ocean. Per filled his own goblet and set it on a separate tray, along with a turnover, before bidding the kings goodnight and retiring to his new room via the balcony.

“What kind are these?” Peter asked, picking up one of the turnovers.

“Cherry almond with some custard,” Edmund told him while settling on the ottoman. “She asked me what kind you liked best, but I had to admit I didn’t know.”

“Well, if she asks again,” Peter mumbled with his mouth half full, then swallowed, “tell her that whatever she makes is fine by me. She’s a most excellent cook!”

“Mmm-hmm!” Edmund agreed, and for a few moments they devoured the turnovers in silence. The chamomile tea had a dash of lemon in it, which slaked their thirst and left them feeling refreshed. While sipping it, the younger boy noticed that his brother’s gaze had wandered out over the sea again, with that far-off, wistful expression that seemed to denote Peter’s heartache over his unnamed love.

I wonder who it is… and why Peter’s so sure that she won’t love him back. Maybe she’s someone who couldn’t possibly marry him, like the Mermaid — which could be any number of people, I suppose, including the Talking Beasts. Although they say King Frank and Queen Helen’s children married Nymphs and Dryads, so she must not be one of those… unless she’s already married?

Wondering got him no closer to an answer, so Edmund set his goblet on the table and dragged the ottoman closer to Peter’s chair.

“I say, do you suppose it’s too warm to… you know?”

“I’m sorry?” Peter asked in confusion, snapping his attention back to his brother (although, in a way, it had never left him).

Edmund could not help blushing as he rambled, “It’s all right if you’re too hot and would rather not, since we’ve had a long day and I’m sure you’re just as tired as I am after moving all that stuff around, but if it’s all the same to you — that is, if you don’t think it would wear you out any more, I just thought it would be nice to… you know… if I could sit on your lap for a bit.”

The manner in which he presented his request would have taxed Peter’s patience beyond endurance just a few years ago, but now the older boy listened with a placidity that would have amazed his parents (could they have seen it). Although he had grown to have more forbearance as the High King, his calm was due in large part to the fact that Edmund’s cheeks were a lovely shade of rose, his lips bright and dewy from drinking the cold tea, mesmerizing Peter while he spoke.

“Of course,” he answered, shifting in the chair to get more comfortable. “Why didn’t you just say so? I’ve told you not to worry — you might be gaining on me in weight, but it’s not like you’ll crush me. Here, we can both put our feet up, so if you lie back a little, it’ll be just fine…”

It was more than just fine, Peter realised, tucking his arms around Edmund’s slim torso. Having his brother’s curly hair tickling his chin, with the boy’s soft buttocks pressed against his sensitive male organ, felt more like a luxurious sin. When his body responded to the close contact, he hoped that the added pressure would not be noticeable to Edmund; but he need not have worried. The younger king was not only comfortable and content, but also distracted by a puzzle which he had posed to himself: namely, how to ask Peter more about his mysterious, one-sided love without breaking his promise to not ask directly about the (supposed) maiden.

As Edmund pondered this, Peter reveled in holding him close. For a while the older boy was almost beside himself with joy just to have his brother in his arms, but as their sleepy silence lengthened, he began to question why Edmund had asked for this privilege again — especially when it was quite warm, and their contact only increased the heat.

“Ed,” he murmured, “you’ve not been having nightmares, have you?”

“No. Not lately,” Edmund answered, then paused. It had just occurred to him, a moment too late, that an evasive answer on this point might have served him better. But he played with Peter’s fingers, threading his own through them, and merely added, “Why do you ask?”

“Well, it seemed rather odd, that’s all… that you’d want to sit so close, when it’s sweltering hot.”

“It’s not that hot,” he objected, placing his brother’s hands flat against his ribs once more. “Besides, it’s… tradition, now.”

“Oh, is it?” Peter said with a helpless smile. “I wasn’t aware.”

Edmund twisted to look up at him, having decided on the simplest, most direct question of all.

“Say, Pete… What’s it like to be in love?”

Peter’s face fell, his amusement snuffed out like a candle. His first thought was how to answer without alerting Edmund to the true object of his affection; his second was how to describe the condition to someone who did not have any frame of reference. As he wracked his brain for ideas, Edmund saw the anguish in his expression and regretted having asked it at all.

“I’m sorry… I didn’t mean to remind you,” he began, but Peter shook his head and gave him a reassuring squeeze.

“It’s all right — I just had to think about it for a moment. It’s like… It’s a lot like being in a candy store, but not having any money to buy anything,” he finally decided, considering how much he would have liked to kiss Edmund (and not on his forehead) just now.

“That’s horrible! I think I’d rather not go into the store if I couldn’t buy anything,” Edmund reflected.

“Exactly. But once you’re there, you can’t help looking.”

The little sigh with which Peter delivered that last remark went straight to his brother’s heart.

“Oh, Peter!” he cried, turning around to wrap his arms around his older sibling’s neck, never realising that he was, in effect, bringing the candy store to him — waving the candy right under his nose. Peter ruefully accepted the embrace, scolding himself for wanting more when his brother already cared for him so much. But still he could not bring himself to release Edmund, who (thankfully) seemed happy enough to stay clasped in his arms, despite the near-stifling warmth.

“I do wish she would — or could — like you,” Edmund whispered in Peter’s ear, his brows drawn in deep concern.

“Thanks,” Peter replied, not knowing how else to respond. For a moment, each boy contemplated his own thoughts, and Edmund noticed the slight stubble on Peter’s jaw as he pressed his cheek against it.

“How did you know you were in love?”

While straightforward enough, Edmund’s next query also gave Peter pause. He gathered his thoughts and chose his words carefully.

“It’s hard to explain, but at first… you just like someone. You notice what they’re doing, and then you realise that you’re watching them a lot — maybe even all the time. You can’t not notice them, even if you try. And you want them to like you, too, and don’t want to do anything foolish in case it makes them think less of you, so you get nervous when you’re around them — like before an important examination at school,” Peter described, warming to his subject as he found that in this manner he was able to avoid using female pronouns. For he was a very truthful person, and did not wish to deceive his brother again as he had about the Mermaid. “Sometimes I actually get butterflies in my stomach when I know I’ll be doing something in front of… this person,” he stated.

“Butterflies?” Edmund echoed, startled.

Peter nodded. “Like when you’re in a hurry to get something over with, but have to wait. That’s the worst! But then, sometimes, you can be so incredibly happy just because you’re with them, even if you aren’t doing anything special — even if you’re doing something so ordinary that you’d otherwise be bored about it.” He was thinking, of course, of when they had been moving furniture together earlier that day. “Just a smile or a laugh from that person can make you feel warm and cozy, right down to your toes. You want to be with them all the time because it feels so wonderful. And sometimes, when you see them having a good time with someone else, it can make you awfully jealous — even though you know jolly well that you shouldn’t be, and ought to be happy for them.”

Edmund swallowed hard and did not respond. While Peter reminisced how he had felt when he had seen his younger brother leaving the castle with Per and Felicity, Edmund was reminded of how he had felt when he had seen Peter and Susan walking together in the garden. The hornets’ angry stings, he was certain, had been pangs of jealousy; might not the bees’ buzzing be similar to the butterflies which Peter had just described? But Peter droned on, not realising that his brother was on the cusp of an epiphany.

“In some ways it changes your whole world… or at least how you see it. The sun shines brighter, flowers smell sweeter, and even water tastes better — or they seem to, anyhow… and you want your love to experience it all. You want to give them everything that’s good and pleasant, and protect them from everything that’s bad. You’d do anything to keep them from getting hurt—”

Here he stopped abruptly, halted by the memory of the one time that he had been powerless to do anything to save his brother from harm; of how Aslan had paid the ransom for Edmund with his own life; and how, that very day, he had thought that Edmund had been killed on the battlefield, in front of his very eyes, and he had been helpless to prevent it. Without realising it, he gripped Edmund so tightly that the smaller boy gasped.

“Peter! Ow!” he protested, and Peter suddenly recollected himself and released him.

“Sorry… Are you all right?”

“Yes, I’m fine,” Edmund panted, drawing in a deep breath and settling more comfortably against Peter’s shoulder. “But you really feel all that — all those different emotions, just from being in love?”

“I think so. That is, I didn’t feel any of them before,” Peter replied in a hushed voice. “I know it seems like a lot, but you don’t think about it all when you’re feeling it — you couldn’t. But it’s hard to describe… And as far as knowing if you’re in love, you just know. After all, there’s really nothing else quite like it.”

Edmund pondered this for a while. There was so much that he did not understand, and much of it he had never cared to understand before, but he was curious about his brother’s condition. It certainly seemed like a confusing and exhausting state to be in. But he was most concerned now with the parallels he was drawing to certain things he himself had been feeling in recent weeks.

I only get bothered by the bees when I’m around Peter, he thought, feeling rather nervous and prickly-stomached now at the realisation. And I do get jealous when other people are with him and I’m not… He makes me feel warm and happy, especially when he’s smiling, and I want to be with him — which is only natural, I suppose… I want him to have nice things, of course, and I’d hate it if anything bad were to happen to him… but of course I wouldn’t want anything bad to happen to him! He’s my brother, after all… Oh! Of course! How stupid I am to not see it! Of course I feel this way about Peter, since I love him as my brother. And even if I don’t love him romantically — and how could I, anyway, when we’re both boys! — they’re both a kind of love, so naturally they’d be rather similar.

Much relieved, he smiled at himself and almost chuckled out loud at his own flight of fancy.

And here I was, ready to believe that I was in love with my own brother! What a mercy I didn’t say anything to Peter — I would’ve never lived it down!

He snuggled closer to Peter, resting his forehead against his brother’s neck. Peter, on his part, felt surprisingly better for having made a confession of sorts to the very one who had inspired these feelings in him.

It’s the next best thing to telling him how I feel about him, I suppose, Peter contemplated with a melancholy smile on his lips. At least he cares about how I feel, even if he doesn’t know it’s for him.

They half-sat, half-lay there for a few minutes more until Edmund broke into a yawn.

“Hey-ho! Time to turn in, I guess,” he admitted, although he did not move to leave.

“Not here, though,” Peter chided, gently sitting up and forcing him into a more vertical position. “I know it’s too warm for the woolen blankets, but you should still get under the light coverlets at least. The wind will turn cool before dawn.”

“I suppose you’re right,” Edmund sighed, finally standing up and stretching. Peter also stretched his cramped muscles, only now aware of how long they had stayed in the chair.

“I just hope Susan doesn’t have us moving more furniture again tomorrow,” Edmund groused, pausing as he headed out the open balcony door. “I think even the Minotaurs were getting tired.”

“Let’s hope she starts in on decorating,” Peter suggested. “Vases and cushions are rather easier to move about.”

Edmund nodded, but instead of leaving, he came back to fling his arms around his startled brother.

“I’m sorry you can’t get any candy,” he confided, “but I’m glad you can talk to me about such things. Goodness knows I could never bring myself to ask Susan!”

Peter found his arms wrapping around Edmund’s shoulders as well.

“Well, uh… of course,” he muttered in reply. Then he placed a tender kiss on the top of Edmund’s head. “Good night, Ed. Sweet dreams.”

“G’night, Peter.”

And with that mutual benediction, they both found peaceful repose as they lay in their separate beds, the warm salt breezes washing over them.

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