Author’s Note: No one belongs to me but Hope, and I only have joint custody of her. All characters you recognize belong either to the estate of CS Lewis or to DC Comics. The rest are on loan from DebC and Christina A. Also, this is slightly AU because when I wrote it, I forgot that Professor Kirke’s house had been torn down by the time of The Last Battle. So imagine instead that when Alfred learned it was going to be torn down, he persuaded Bruce to buy it and give it back to the Professor. *g*
“Are you sure it’ll be all right?” Hope asked anxiously as she and Peter made their way down the corridor of the train to the compartment they’d reserved. “I mean, I know your Mom and Dad did invite us, but that’s still an awful lot of people: Dad, Mom, me, not to mention Grace and Bruce–”
Peter laughed, an affectionate smile crinkling the corners of his beautiful blue eyes. “Hope, you mustn’t worry so. It will be fine, I promise. And you’re beginning to sound like Su besides.”
Hope resisted the temptation to make a face at him and settled for scowling fondly instead. “Now that is entirely unfair, both to me and to your sister. It’s just that I’ve seen your parents’ house in Finchley and it’s lovely but it is rather small…”
“But we’re not going to Finchley,” Peter pointed out with a twinkle in his eyes. “Or haven’t you noticed yet that this train isn’t bound for London?”
Hope blushed. Truthfully she’d been so content just to be spending Christmas with both Peter and her family that she’d hardly paid any mind to their tickets. “Oh…then where are we going?”
“An old friend of ours, Professor Kirke, has a grand old house in the country,” Peter revealed. “He invited us all for the holidays and when I told him about you, insisted that we invite your family as well.
“There’ll be heaps of people there–not just Mum and Dad, Susan, Edmund and Lucy but also our cousin, Eustace, and his friend Jill Pole, and of course Miss Polly.” She could hear the excitement in his voice. “It should be a right jolly time, provided Susan is all right about the house.”
“Who’s Miss Polly?” Hope asked next, feeling a little overwhelmed at the great catalogue of people. “And why wouldn’t Susan be all right?”
“It’s a long story, which I promise I’ll tell you one day,” he answered, giving her a brief kiss. “For now, suffice it to say something happened there, something wonderful that changed all our lives–mine, Susan’s, Edmund’s and Lucy’s–and I don’t know why but for some reason Su has chosen to act as though it never happened.”
A shadow crossed his eyes then and Hope felt a pang of sympathy: worry for a sibling was something she understood all too well. She and Grace had given each other cause to worry on more than one occasion, most recently when Grace and Bruce had parted ways for some reason Hope still didn’t understand. They’d reunited about six months ago and were now planning their wedding, but a small part of Hope still resented the man for the pain he’d caused her sister, even if flying himself, Grace, and their parents across the Atlantic to join them for Christmas did help. But then, what was the use of being a millionaire if you couldn’t give lavish gifts to the woman you loved and her family?
“Does this have anything to do with Susan always trying to act as though she’s everyone’s mother?” she asked gently, her thoughts returning from her own sister to Peter’s.
“I think it has everything to do with it,” Peter admitted. “Though I don’t know for certain.”
“Well, I imagine if she doesn’t like to admit this wonderful thing happened, she’s probably not very inclined to talk about it,” Hope deduced with a wry smile.
“That’s true enough,” Peter returned with an equally rueful smile and a soft chuckle. “And I suppose I’m one to talk about fretting over Christmas.”
Hope laughed and laid her head down on his shoulder, threading her arm through his and entwining their gloved hands. “I think it comes with being part of a family, don’t you? And that’s certainly preferable to the alternative.”
“It is,” Peter agreed, leaning his own head on top of hers and squeezing her hand in his. “It’ll be a magnificent Christmas, I promise you. Possibly even the best you’ve ever had.”
* * *
The platform was deserted as Hope and Peter stepped down from the train at Coombe Halt. Of course, this was no great surprise considering the station was quite literally a raised platform beside the tracks, with steps leading down to a road that as yet had never been paved. The rare passenger who embarked on a journey from this lonely depot would have to purchase his ticket from the conductor on the train.
As the train pulled out, Hope pointed to where a sleek black Bentley was parked just the other side of the road. “That must be for us.”
Peter looked dubious. “I suppose it must, but it’s odd: in all the time I’ve known him, I’ve never known Professor Kirke to own an automobile.”
“Then maybe it’s not Professor Kirke’s,” Hope suggested pertly, bouncing down the steps with a suitcase in each hand and Peter following.
As they approached the car, the driver’s side door opened to reveal a dignified older gentleman in a crisp black suit and perfectly pressed white shirt. Hope let out a surprised cry: “Why, it’s Alfred!” Whatever issues Hope may have had with Mr. Wayne himself, they did not extend to his servant, who had never been anything but kind to her and Grace, so she embraced him warmly.
“It’s a pleasure to see you again, Miss Hope,” Alfred greeted her formally but with genuine affection.
“Why, what are you doing here?” Hope asked, astonished. “How big of an airplane did Bruce rent? And the car–did he rent that as well, or did he just buy it for the week?”
“I’m afraid those are all questions you must put to Master Bruce,” Alfred answered with a smile. “I myself thought to remain behind at the Manor, but the young Master wouldn’t hear of it.”
“That sounds like Bruce.” Hope snorted in a most unladylike fashion. “I’m surprised he didn’t refuse to travel without the Blaires as well.”
Alfred said nothing, but there was a secretive twinkle in his eyes.
Hope turned back to Peter. “Peter, this is Alfred: valet and all-around indispensable man-at-arms to Bruce Wayne, my sister’s fiancé. Alfred, this is Peter.”
Alfred executed a brief, neat little bow. “It is an honour, Master Peter. Miss Hope has spoken quite highly of you in her letters to Miss Grace.”
He might have dropped to one knee and called him “Your Majesty” for the amazing transformation that Alfred’s words and actions wrought in Peter. It was a change that Hope had seen more than once before–it was, after all, the reason his friends all called him “Sir Peter”–yet it never failed to amaze her. In an instant, Peter ceased to be a student and became a prince instead. He gave the butler a gracious, regal nod. “Thank you, Alfred.”
“May I take your bags, Sir?” Alfred asked next, a gleam of approval in his eyes.
“You may. And thank you again,” Peter answered sincerely. He handed over his own bags, followed by Hope’s, to Alfred who opened the boot of the car and tucked them in securely, then swung around to the side of the car and opened the rear door for his passengers.
* * *
The “grand old house” turned out to be a sprawling sixteenth century red brick manor set in the middle of snow-covered grounds that rolled out in every direction like a white velvet blanket over the earth. It was almost like stepping backwards in time.
“Oh, it’s beautiful,” Hope exclaimed as the Bentley came to a stop in front of the heavy wooden doors.
“And more than room enough for all, don’t you think?” Peter asked, grinning.
“Heavens, yes!” she enthused. “You didn’t say it was a castle!”
An indefinable gleam came into Peter’s eyes at her words and he laughed lightly. “Not quite, but it should suffice for the time being.”
“All right, so it’s not as big or as well appointed as Wayne Manor,” Hope corrected herself, rolling her eyes when he just offered her that same enigmatic smile again. “But yes, it should do quite nicely.”
Alfred let them out and came around to unload their bags before climbing back into the Bentley to drive it around back. Peter offered as he had on the train to take Hope’s larger suitcase for her, but she brushed him off fondly. “Stop being such a gentleman all the time, Peter. I’d rather not give my sister a reason to try to steal you away from me.”
He rolled affectionate eyes, but nevertheless conceded the argument.
They were halfway to the front door when it suddenly flew open and a familiar figure with short golden hair came running out. “Well, it’s about time you two arrived!” Grace exclaimed, throwing both arms around her sister. “It’s absolutely ridiculous that it should take longer to get here from Oxford than from New York!”
Hope returned the embrace with equal fervor, laughing aloud. “You’ve forgotten you all left a bit earlier than we did,” she scolded in return. “How was it, flying all the way across the Atlantic?”
Grace made a face but her eyes were dancing. “Absolutely horrible. Next time, I’ve told Bruce, he’ll simply have to send me on ahead by ship and follow whenever his business concludes. I felt like we were going to fall out of the sky at any moment!”
She next turned a critical but mischievous eye to Hope’s companion. “You must be Peter. I’d say it’s a pleasure to meet you, but there’s one thing I have to know first.”
“Grace!” Hope hid her face in her sister’s shoulder.
Peter merely nodded, appearing completely unfazed. “I shall be happy to tell you anything I can.”
“Give me one reason why I should trust you with my baby sister’s heart,” Grace demanded in a tone that was at once approving and challenging.
Lesser men–in truth, most of Hope’s prior boyfriends–had wilted before that stern gaze, but Peter never dropped his eyes. Instead, she saw him undergo that change once again; he became a man who bowed his knee only to those he deemed worthy of not merely his respect but his allegiance, and that number was few. “While I know that in your eyes, nothing less than a king or prince is worthy of Hope’s hand…I can only promise to love her as best I can and do everything in my power never to hurt her or see her hurt. If that is not enough…well, you have my apologies but I will not step down. I would not leave her side for the remainder of my life unless she wills it.”
Grace’s eyes widened and she glanced over at Hope. “Wow. Are you sure he’s not a prince? He talks like one.”
Hope’s only reply was a relieved smile and a sheepish little shrug.
A spark of triumph came into Peter’s eyes though, along with that same indefinable something that appeared whenever his princely alter ego was brought up. “Not in this world,” he answered quietly, with a small, almost sad smile of his own.
Grace laughed again. “I suppose you’ll do for now, then.” She gave him a hug as well. “I’d welcome you, but as we’re the guests of your Professor, that seems a bit backwards. So I’ll welcome you to the O’Neil family instead.”
“Wonderful, but can we save the welcome for when we’re not all standing around in the snow?” Hope asked plaintively.
Her attention drawn to the matter, Grace immediately bustled them all inside and out of their coats, which were handed over to a thin, sharp woman whom Peter addressed affectionately as “Mrs. McCready.” The elder O’Neil daughter was acting so much like a mother hen that Hope leaned in to Peter in the front hall and whispered, “And you thought I sounded like Susan.”
He managed to turn a laugh into a polite cough, but not before Grace pinned them with a shrewd look of her own. “Professor Kirke said you would know how to find your room already,” she told Peter.
Peter nodded. “Yes, I do.” He leaned in to give Hope a quick kiss on the cheek. “I’ll see you at dinner, then?”
He disappeared up the stairs and Hope turned to her sister, an expression of absolute mortification on her face. “I can’t believe you did that! Interrogating him like that!”
“Do you really imagine he wouldn’t do the same to any man who came courting his sisters?” Grace responded pointedly, though her eyes were sparkling as she led Hope up the stairs to their own room. What she tactfully didn’t add was that Hope herself had done the same to Grace’s parade of boyfriends in the past, and to Bruce in particular.
“Of course he would, but he’s an older brother,” Hope persisted obliviously. “Not an older sister with her own appallingly bad taste in men.”
Grace cuffed her lightly on the shoulder. “I’ll be sure to tell Bruce you said so.”
“Please do. You know I still haven’t forgiven him for breaking your heart last year.”
Smiling, Grace stopped halfway up the stairs to wrap both arms around her sister. “And what would I do without you to look out for me?” she asked, before pulling back to give Hope a loving smile and tuck a stray lock of hair out of her eyes. “Honestly, though, Hopeful, I just don’t want you to have to deal with the grief that I have. I’m sorry if I come across as a bit of a bear sometimes.”
Hope relented. “I don’t mind, really. Sisters take care of each other; that’s what they’re for. And if anyone’s been a bear this past year, it’s me: I know that. But Grace…I’m so lucky to have found Peter. You have no idea how lucky.”
“I think I’m starting to see that,” Grace acknowledged with a wistful smile. “It looks like you and I have both found finally found our knights.”
Hope scoffed. “Bruce Wayne, a knight? If you’re not having fun with me then you’ve finally gone completely insane.”
A gleam of private humor came into Grace’s eyes, not unlike the same one she’d seen earlier in Alfred’s and Peter’s. For one cross moment, Hope wondered bitterly if everyone here had some secret to hide but her.
The moment passed quickly, though, as Grace slung an arm around her sister’s shoulders and pulled her close. “Bruce is many things that might surprise you. Now, come on. Let’s get you settled in before Courtney descends demanding to know all about Peter.”
Hope stopped dead in the middle of the corridor. “Courtney? You’re not serious? When I told Alfred I didn’t think Bruce would travel without the Blaires, I was joking!”
Grace laughed. “Hopeful, they’re the closest thing he’s got to family. You didn’t really think he would leave them behind, did you?”
“What does Professor Kirke say about all this?” Hope asked with a dubious frown.
Her sister beamed. “He said–and I quote–‘The more the merrier. This house has been far too lonely for far too long; it’s about time it’s filled to the brim with people again.'”
Everyone had arrived by the time dinner was served in the enormous dining room, so the house was awhirl with activity. Hope would reflect afterward that she had probably never hugged so many people in so short a time in her life. There were her parents–who immediately took to Peter, much to her delight–along with Peter’s family and the Blaires. Just about the only people present that she hadn’t met before were the two youngest–Peter’s cousin, Eustace Scrubb, and his friend, Jill Pole–and the two oldest: the woman Peter had called Miss Polly, and their host, Professor Kirke.
After dinner, they all retired en masse to the Professor’s cavernous drawing-room, and Hope found herself studying many of the guests as they mingled, mostly those on “Peter’s side.”
If Susan was the enigma of the Pevensie family, then Lucy was like a little ball of light, illuminating nearly everything she touched. Hope had adored her almost from the moment they met. She’d also known from that exact same moment that it was Lucy’s approval she needed to win if she were to have any hope of a future with Peter. Fortunately that had not been difficult, as Lucy’s heart was as open and generous as it was discerning. They had become fast friends, and while neither had any desire to replace the sister they already had, nor were they averse to acquiring a new one in the form of each other.
She only wished connecting with Susan had been so easy.
In contrast to the rest of the merry party, Susan stood apart, trying to look mature and aloof in her fashionable dress and silk stockings–now to be had again since the war had ended–and succeeding only in looking rather ridiculous. The bright red lipstick and elaborate hairstyle might have worked for a woman five to ten years older (Grace, for example, carried it off beautifully), but on Susan it only served to accentuate how young she really was.
Edmund, on the other hand, though he had the same dark hair as his sister, was otherwise in every way her opposite. At first glance he seemed like quite the typical adolescent boy, jovial and energetic with a taste for mischief. But he had moments of quiet, thoughtful seriousness that made him seem much older and wiser than his years. Once you’d seen him in those moments, you began to notice things about him at other times as well: that he never teased unkindly or at another’s expense, or that he rarely argued, but when he did it was not from the injured pride of a boy but rather a rational well-thought position that even the adults were often forced to concede.
Perhaps most peculiarly of all, it was to Edmund that those around him often went to mediate their own disputes, for if not quite Solomon he had at the very least a gift for seeing both sides of a debate and judging between them fairly. Peter’s father had once remarked off-hand that Edmund seemed meant for the Bar, and she had no doubt he’d make a fine barrister indeed.
He didn’t have Peter’s natural authority, but there were times when she saw a different sort of nobility descend like a fine cloak around Edmund’s shoulders as well, and even Lucy’s. In an unguarded moment, she’d once even seen Susan drop her false maturity and assume instead the mantle of a gracious, graceful queen. The difference lay in how quick Susan had been to discard it once she’d realized.
They were an extraordinary family, at any rate. The oddest thing, though, was that as dearly as she loved Peter’s parents, there was nothing about them to explain their children. They were wonderful parents, but they were so clearly of this earth while their offspring seemed to have been dropped in from another world or another age.
As for the others: Jill and Eustace were there because, in Jill’s words, “Our families wouldn’t know a proper Christmas if it dropped out of the sky right on top of them.” Miss Polly Plummer, it turned out, was a childhood friend of the Professor’s with whom he’d recently reconnected largely thanks to the efforts of Lucy. There was something unearthly about these four too, but it was something of a different sort entirely from the Pevensies; she’d not yet pinned down what sort of people they reminded her of, but it wasn’t quite royalty.
Hope was lost in contemplation of this particular mystery of the universe when a newly-familiar voice spoke at her elbow: “You seem to have left the rest of us behind, my dear.”
She looked up into the twinkling eyes of an elderly gentleman with wonderfully bushy sideburns and an elfin beard, whom she instantly recognized as their host, Professor Kirke.
Hope flushed a deep shade of red not dissimilar to the color of her skirt. “I’m sorry. I just–”
“No need to apologize,” the Professor interrupted cheerfully, giving her a warm smile. “Quite a few of my guests have been known to wander out of the world on occasion: not to mention myself. I’d be a poor host indeed if I made a fuss.”
His manner was so engaging that Hope couldn’t help but smile in return. “Thank you, Sir.”
“Are you having a pleasant time?” he asked next.
“I am,” she answered, quite possibly more sincerely than she’d ever done before. “Having my family out…even Mr. Wayne and all his entourage, it’s really very good of you.”
“Not at all,” he reassured her, eyes still sparkling with kindly mischief. “I rather foolishly persuaded myself for a great deal of my life that I preferred to live alone. Now that I’ve discovered I was quite mistaken, I’ve a great deal of lost time to make up for. So you see, my dear, my reasons for inviting you all were not entirely selfless.”
“Don’t listen to him,” Peter teased fondly, returning to her side from where he’d been speaking with Lucy. “The Professor’s always been most kind to us, and never asked a thing in return.”
“Be that as it may,” Kirke conceded. “This old house can still be quite lonely with no one knocking about in it but myself and Mrs. McCready and the servants.”
“It’s such a beautiful house, though,” Hope gushed quite shamelessly. “There’s something almost magical about it. Why, it almost seems like the sort of place where you could turn a corner and find yourself in a whole other world.”
She’d never been more startled in her life than by the reaction that greeted this rash pronouncement. Susan, who had been standing almost directly in her line of sight, flushed a deep, almost angry red and left the room in a huff. Professor Kirke exchanged a knowing glance with someone Hope couldn’t see, but sensed somehow was Miss Polly. Edmund hid a smile and Peter looked at her with an expression that could only be described as pride.
Lucy’s entire face lit up with a brilliant smile and she almost skipped over to where Hope was standing. Giving her a quick but enthusiastic embrace and a brief peck on the cheek, she proclaimed, “Yes, you’ll do nicely!” before skipping away again.
“Why, what did I say?” Hope asked, bewildered. Glancing around the room, she saw that neither her family nor Bruce and the Blaires seemed to comprehend any better.
Peter wrapped both arms around her waist and leaned in close to murmur, “I’ll tell you one day, I promise. For now, suffice it to say it was exactly the right thing.”
“It didn’t seem like the right thing to say to Susan,” she pointed out, worried.
Peter’s expression sobered for a moment. “No, it wasn’t. I probably ought to go after her.”
Hope laid a hand over his. “Let me. It was my doing after all, whatever I did.”
* * *
After searching what felt like the entire house, Hope finally found Susan in an upstairs room that was quite empty except for a large, beautifully carved wardrobe. She was sitting in one of the narrow windows with her back to the door, and began speaking the moment she heard it open without turning round.
“So you’ve got her in on the act now too, have you?” There was a hint of scornfulness in both her words and her tone that was extremely off-putting, but it only made Hope all the more determined. She’d be hanged before she’d let Susan spoil Christmas for the rest of them.
“Really, Peter,” Susan persisted in the same vein. “Of all of them, I would’ve thought you at least would have a little more–” She finally swung round to face the door in the midst of this diatribe, and the rest of it died on her lips as she recognized Hope. “–oh.”
All plans to be conciliatory went quite quickly awry as Hope’s temper got the better of her, and made the first words out of her mouth far more sharp and facetious than she’d intended. “And what act might that be? I’ve apparently said something to offend you, but I find it awfully difficult to apologize when I have no idea what that was.”
“You really expect me to believe you don’t know?” Susan answered just as sharply. “I’m sure Peter’s told you the entire story by now. I doubt you would have got this far with him without him being sure you would believe the fairy tale in its entirety.”
“Well, you’re wrong,” Hope shot back. “Whatever the big secret is, all I’ve heard from Peter about it is that he’ll tell me one day, and that he hoped you wouldn’t ruin Christmas by being a beast about it.”
That was far more strongly than Peter had worded it, but at the moment Hope was too angry to care.
“He really said that?” Susan asked in a small, stunned voice as if she’d been struck.
Hope immediately felt terrible, not so much for what she’d said as for putting the words in Peter’s mouth when she knew as well as anyone that he could never be that deliberately cruel. “No. No, he didn’t and I’m sorry I did. What he said was that he hoped being here wouldn’t spoil Christmas for you.”
A weak but relieved smile crossed Susan’s face, and Hope couldn’t help but wonder what on Earth could be so important that she would rather alienate the family she adored–who also still clearly adored her–rather than face it. She was still angry, but other emotions had already begun to crowd it out. “Honestly, I don’t think such a thing would even cross Peter’s mind; he’s far too good. I only wish I were, but Grace and I fight all the time. Mostly about men.”
Susan’s smile strengthened a little then, as if they were stepping once more onto ground she felt comfortable with. “He wasn’t always so perfect,” she confided. “You should have seen some of the rows he and Edmund used to get into when we were children.”
“Peter and Edmund? Really?” Hope crossed the floor to stand by the window where Susan sat. “I would never have suspected. Honestly, there are times when I feel certain Peter must be too good to be true, and I’m going to wake up one morning to find he’s been expelled from Oxford for cheating on his exams or something even more terrible. But other times I just look at him and I know…I’ve done it. I’ve done the impossible. I’ve really found my prince.”
“Yes,” Susan agreed in a hollow voice, turning again to stare inexplicably at the wardrobe. “There was a time I thought the same.”
In an instant, her demeanor changed and hardened as the mask was pulled firmly back into place. “It turned out to be all a dream,” was the curt answer. “A fantasy.”
Oh, not again. How was she supposed to avoid saying the wrong thing to Susan if she didn’t even know what the wrong thing was? Honestly, once Christmas was over she was simply going to have to tell Peter that, as much as she loved him, if he expected her to have any further dealings with his family, he’d have to at least warn her which subjects were likely to be sensitive.
“Look, Susan, I’m sorry. For whatever I said earlier and whatever I said just now. I’d promise I won’t do it again, but since I still have no idea what I said that’s upset you and no one will tell me, I can’t.”
The smile Susan turned to her would have been benevolent if it hadn’t been so completely false. “It’s all right. I’m not upset, really.”
Hope sighed, the old impatience rising again, but she deliberately quashed it. Then, as unexpectedly as if a passing breeze had whispered it in her ear, she had a sudden insight. “No one’s looking to replace you, Susan. Least of all me: the last thing I want to be to Peter is his sister.”
That confession startled Susan into laughter, and the mood in the room warmed by several degrees as a result. “That’s a bold thing to say,” Susan scolded, but there was a playfulness to it that was usually missing from her interactions. “And not really a thought I want to entertain about my brother, thanks.”
“Why Susan Pevensie, what can you be thinking?” Hope returned, pretending to be appalled. “I implied nothing of the sort!”
“You did and you very well know it,” was Susan’s pert reply.
The two girls simply grinned at each other for a moment, before Hope offered tentatively, “Can we be friends at least? It is Christmas, after all.”
Susan considered her for a moment before finally offering the first truly sincere, truly happy smile Hope had ever seen from her. “Yes…I think I should be glad to have a friend in this house again.”
It wasn’t until they were nearly back to the drawing-room to join in the carol sing that the true significance of Susan’s words finally struck Hope. The key, of course, was the off-hand comment that she’d once thought she’d found her prince too, but there were other signs as well now that she knew to look for them. The drastic change in Susan’s appearance–Peter had often insisted that she hadn’t always been quite so keen to look glamourous–the paper-thin mask of wellbeing that she clung to, the way she distanced herself from those closest to her…Hope had seen the same signs before, all too recently.
Grace had once cut off all her hair and refused to leave her flat in Gotham for days at a time for much the same reason after Bruce had left her: Susan was nursing a broken heart. And no one in her family–not Peter, not Lucy, not Edmund, not even her parents–appeared to have noticed.
Not even Peter. It was a bit jarring to realize that Peter was not, in fact, perfect, that he could be thoughtless and miss the obvious reason for his sister’s peculiar behavior, but at the same time it was strangely comforting too. After all, if even Peter could make bad choices sometimes, then perhaps she wasn’t quite so undeserving of him after all. And it changed not one whit of how she felt for him.
She thought of approaching Peter with this new information when they were back amongst the others, but soon tucked the idea away. When she told him, it would be when there was far less company about to accidentally overhear. And besides, there would be plenty of time for that after Christmas.
For now, what mattered most was that Susan seemed in better spirits, at least for the time being.
The morning of Christmas Eve dawned clear and bright: a perfect blue sky without a hint of snow clouds and the distant winter sun shining like a bright diamond in the center of it. Nevertheless, it remained cold enough that the snow that had already fallen still lay on the ground, reflecting the light of the sun like ten million more diamonds and making the countryside nearly too dazzling to look at.
In the bed opposite Hope’s, Grace was still sound asleep; she rarely rose before ten o’clock. Never having had the patience to wait for her sister, Hope got up quietly instead, dressed with as little noise as possible and wandered downstairs in search of Peter, breakfast or both.
The house was a-clatter with the sound of people stirring. Just on her way down to the dining-room, Hope encountered Courtney Blaire, Susan and Lucy, all of whom had already eaten but promised that Margaret, the cook, still had plenty of breakfast spread out for the late risers. “We don’t keep schedules before twelve when we’re on holiday,” Lucy explained cheerfully.
This, as far as Hope was concerned, was a welcome change from back at school, where one had to rise early to take breakfast when it was served, or else miss it altogether. “Is Peter there, by any chance?” she asked.
Lucy nodded. “He was when I left, along with your Mum and Dad.”
That only made Hope hurry all the more: not because she was afraid to leave them alone together, as she had been with some of her earlier beaux, but rather because it would afford her a rare opportunity to spend time with all of them. She’d reached the door of the breakfast room and had her hand on the doorknob when she heard Peter say something through the door that stopped her in her tracks.
“…was hoping I might be able to speak with you about something, Sir, before Hope comes down to breakfast.”
There was a considerable pause in which Hope could only imagine the look her father was giving her boyfriend. “Certainly, son,” she heard him say in a tone of cautious reserve. “What is it you’d like to discuss?”
“Your daughter has become very important to me over the past year,” Peter stated earnestly. “I’ll be frank, when I started at Baliol I wasn’t looking to get involved with someone, at least not until after graduation. But Hope took me by surprise…the best sort of surprise.” Hope could almost hear the fond smile in his voice and an answering smile crept onto her face.
The small, pleased sound Hope heard next was her mother, clearly impressed by “Sir Peter.” The polite cough which followed was her father. “Our little girl means a great deal to us, too, son.” Hope could hear her father’s approval of what Peter had said, which was never given lightly. She was glad, too, because she wanted her parents to love him as much as she did.
“I love everything about her,” he continued with complete sincerity. “Her heart, her spirit, her mind…even her temper.”
At the door, Hope flushed bright scarlet with embarrassment. The first time she’d lost her temper in front of Peter, after she’d found out that Grace had taken Bruce back, she’d been sure she’d lost him. But no, he’d just waited for her to calm down and pulled her into his arms and just held her until the world seemed right again.
George chuckled. “My little girl can be a bit of a spitfire at times, that she can,” he admitted ruefully. “Both of them, for that matter. Get it from their mom.” This last was said in a conspiring manner that made Hope smile and Janet launch into a good-natured berating of her husband. “And my point has been made for me,” George responded, not to his wife, but to Peter, and not without another good natured laugh. “Son, if you can love these women when they’re giving you the devil…”
He may have trailed off, but Hope could easily supply the rest in her mind. Her father liked Peter.
“I do, Sir,” Peter answered honestly. “I love Hope with all my heart, and that is why it would mean the world to me if you would grant me your daughter’s hand in marriage.”
Hope’s breath caught in her throat and the world seemed to drop out from under her. If she hadn’t known better, she would’ve sworn she was floating inches above the floor. She leaned in closer, desperate to catch Dad’s reply.
“Hope Elizabeth O’Neil, I have a bone to pick with you!”
Hope sprang away from the door at the sound of her sister’s voice, pivoting around to glare at her. Grace was standing a few feet away in the hall, still in her pyjamas and dressing-gown with her hair looking as if she’d just crawled out of bed. She was frowning at Hope, who frowned right back, annoyed that her sister’s impeccable timing had prevented her from hearing the most important part of the conversation going on inside the room. “Shouldn’t you still to be in bed for another hour or so?” she asked peevishly.
“I would have been,” Grace agreed, glaring at her sister. “If *someone* hadn’t told Courtney that I was still asleep: something she felt the need to correct.”
So she’d brought this on herself, then. Hope grimaced. “Well, how was I to know she’d do that? You forget, we only met once. Honestly, if I had known, I wouldn’t have said a word.”
“Because then I wouldn’t have caught you eavesdropping on whoever is in that room?” Grace asked astutely, her eyes twinkling.
Hope blushed again and looked away. “You did have to come in just when they got to the important part,” she grumbled in reluctant admission.
Her sister raised both eyebrows in query. “The important part of what?” She pushed past Hope, ignoring her cry of protest, and threw open the breakfast room doors.
“Gracie,” George greeted his elder daughter with a smile over the rim of his coffee cup. “You’re up early, pumpkin.”
Grace glanced back at her sister, her lips curling up into a sly smile. Hope just glared back at her, but joined Grace in the doorway with a sigh.
“Am I really that predictable?” Grace teased, breezing into the room and giving her father a kiss on the cheek. “Good morning, Daddy. Mom.” She embraced Janet, then turned to the third party at the table, who was calmly spreading marmalade on cold toast. “Peter.”
“Good morning,” Peter greeted in return before turning his eyes to Hope. “And good morning to you too, sleepyhead.”
“We’re not at school, I don’t have to be awake at six o’clock if I want to eat before my first lecture,” Hope pointed out with the same affection, crossing to his side and giving him a quick kiss on the lips before turning to hug her parents.
She then shot her sister one last glare–inspiring her to have to cough quite suddenly–and took a seat between Peter and Grace at the table. “What’s for breakfast?”
* * *
Christmas Eve day passed in a flurry, as it nearly always did, leaving Hope little time to wonder if her father had given his blessing or held off until Peter was finished with school and able to support a wife. She had no doubt he’d consent eventually; it was simply a matter of what he thought would best serve the needs of his little girl. Peter might seem a prince more often than not, but even Hope acknowledged he didn’t have the means of one.
Almost from the moment breakfast was cleared, Margaret had started preparations for Christmas Dinner. Most of the cooking would have to be done tomorrow whilst all the guests were at morning services, but there were vegetables to be peeled and cut and a goose to slaughter and wassail and posset already brewing as well. About mid-afternoon, Grace and Courtney took Alfred and the car out to the village to pick up any last minute Christmas post, Eustace and Jill ventured out to play in the snow, and Bruce surprised everyone except perhaps Grace and the Blaires by volunteering to chop wood for the fire.
Peter and Edmund went out with him, which left Hope, Susan and Lucy to their own devices inside the house. They got chased out of the kitchen twice whilst trying to help with the Christmas pudding and instead “getting under foot” according to Margaret (though it was said with as much affection as exasperation). The house was already decorated as well–every doorway and banister draped with greenery, and the tree up and ornamented–so after trying and failing to find some means to be useful, the three finally settled down to have a wrapping party.
While one of Hope’s suitcases had been entirely filled with gifts, she hadn’t yet had an opportunity to wrap them, for fear the ribbon might get flattened in transit. Upon discovering that Susan and Lucy were in a similar position, it seemed only natural to pool their resources, pull out every gift they had except those for each other, and secret themselves away in one of the larger upstairs rooms where no one would find them unless they were looking. Against that eventuality, they had also bolted the door behind them.
There was much oohing and ahhing and exclamations of approval all round. Lucy was particularly enchanted by the antique copy of Tennyson’s Idylls of the King, in near-perfect condition, that Hope had purchased for Peter. “You don’t think it’s too…girly or something?” Hope asked nervously when she pulled it out. “Nonsense!” Lucy insisted. “Peter will love it.”
They displayed their own gifts for Peter then. Susan had bought him a fine wool scarf in Baliol’s traditional hues of blue and scarlet, while Lucy had selected a small, silver ornament for him to set upon the mantelpiece: a noble stag with a great spread of antlers.
Many of the gifts for the rest of the household were simple pleasures: Hope was relieved to discover that she wasn’t the only one who’d bought gifts of chocolate and cake and marzipan and other treats that had been rare during the war, when sugar and butter were rationed. Others were rational: warm socks and sturdy leather gloves for the younger boys from Susan and a beautiful pocket-watch for the Professor from Lucy, which had a scene of an apple tree engraved upon the cover.
Still others were frivolous, because frivolous gifts too had been scarce in recent years. For her sister, Hope had bought a little purple-bound book of love poetry, of the sort she knew Grace loved, along with an ornate picture frame for her to hang her wedding photo in. For Edmund, Lucy had purchased a letter-opener in the shape of a miniature sword, for Eustace a Viking ship in a bottle, and for Miss Polly, a gold pin to wear on her coat that was the face of a majestic lion. Susan eyed some of these gifts dubiously, but only sighed softly and moved on to the next one rather than making a row.
By the end of the afternoon, they had all realized that they weren’t quite yet ready for it to end, so by mutual agreement each of the three covered her own eyes in turn so that the remaining two could share what they’d bought for her in furtive whispers.
When there were finally no more gifts to exclaim over or wrap, they trooped back out of the room in high spirits to find that the boys and Jill had long ago come back inside and were seated around a roaring fire in the drawing-room with Mr. and Mrs. Pevensie, Mr. and Mrs. Blaire, Hope’s parents, Miss Polly and the Professor, telling stories and sipping cocoa. The three girls were immediately invited to join them and prevailed upon to reveal where they’d disappeared to.
“Oh, I wish I’d known; I might’ve joined you,” Jill exclaimed. “I’ve wrapping of my own to do, and now I think of it, there’s nearly not time.”
“Well, we didn’t finish off the paper and ribbon; there’s something,” Lucy returned cheerfully.
Despite the concern for her own unwrapped gifts, though, Jill seemed not the least bit eager to leave the gathering around the fire. Once Grace and Courtney returned with their arms full of packages to lay beneath the tree, Miss Polly took a seat at the ancient, upright piano and after a moment of tuning led the entire party in several rousing Christmas carols.
Hope watched thoughtfully as her sister settled down into Bruce’s arms, letting out a contented sigh as he softly kissed her hair. Truthfully, she’d been watching them since yesterday, looking–she was ashamed to admit–for some sign that Bruce was going to break her heart again, so she could murder him before he had the chance. But Bruce, all unknowing, had nevertheless refused to cooperate with her bleak expectation of him, instead doting on Grace as though she were the only woman in the world.
If she was honest with herself, Hope had to admit they had more than once reminded her of another young couple in love; herself and Peter. Maybe Grace was right that Bruce Wayne too had it in him to be a sort of knight. Regardless, what was painfully obvious was that he loved her as much as she loved him, and whatever had driven them apart had long ago ceased to have any import. Perhaps if she had seen them together all those months ago, instead of having to rely on Grace’s letters, it wouldn’t have taken Hope so long to realize that she too had forgiven him.
“What are you thinking?” Peter murmured in her ear, his own arms tightening ever so slightly around her.
It took a moment for Hope to answer, as she pondered the mix of emotions that she’d run through only since arriving yesterday. It wasn’t even Christmas yet, but already Hope felt as though she’d been given the finest Christmas gift of all. She and Susan had become friends at last, and though she knew that alone wouldn’t be enough to heal the other girl’s wounded heart, it was a beginning at least. She’d at last reconciled herself to Bruce Wayne and everything he represented in her sister’s life. She knew, even if it was knowledge illicitly gained, that Peter intended to make her his wife. And above all these, she was surrounded by friends and family: spending Christmas with not just some but all of the people she loved most.
In the face of that, all the other emotions–the worry, the anger, the fear–had faded into a quiet, contented joy that warmed her heart as much as the fire warmed the great room. “I’m thinking that you were right,” she answered at last, snuggling deeper into his embrace. “This really will be the best Christmas I’ve ever had.”