A/N: (At the beginning this time!) This was originally the much shorter "Nylons and Lipstick," but I found that it needed to be expanded and retitled. It was written as the final piece in a three-part arc, following "More Dimly in Hell" and "Every Desperate Retreat"; I think they're best in that order but I'm not sure it matters (which is fitting for this fandom!). Criticism is, of course, appreciated.
It's come to my attention (12/21/08) that there's been a new chapter alert on this. I'm very sorry about that! I don't know what happened, but I think that replacing the old chapter with this version somehow triggered an alert? Anyway, this is longer than the original story but it's still a one-shot; sorry for the confusion!
All She Knows of Heaven
After the war ends the world slowly goes back to normal, and Susan goes every Thursday to visit the vets still in the hospital. They smile at her, the ones who still can, and she reads them poetry and letters and newspaper articles. Mostly, though, she listens to their horror stories without flinching, and holds their hands when they talk about losing best friends in the trenches, about the eyes of the dead and the men who fell from their bullets. They ask her if she knows where they can find the Fountain of Youth, a miracle, anything that might save them, and Susan blinks back tears because she doesn't know how to tell them that the only thing that could help are fire-flowers from the mountains of the sun, but it's a sun from a different world, a different universe, and they can't get there.
They call her gentle and marvel that she can stand to hear their stories; she smiles sadly and doesn't tell them that sometimes even gentle people must go to battle, must command armies, must kill people. Susan doesn't tell them that once, she was called the Gentle Queen, and that she fought next to a girl who was barely eight years old, who would later be called Valiant.
They smile shyly at her, ask if a pretty girl like Susan would ever consider maybe going to a film with one of them, a man missing an arm or a leg or part of his soul, and she blushes and doesn't tell them that, once upon a time, kings fought each other just to dance with her.
After a while, the vets go home to recuperate and the hospital shuts down. Susan's parents take her to America, but she can't get their faces out of her mind, their screams, their nightmares. She wishes she could help more, somehow, and at first she writes every week and sits in the hard pews in church and prays—to God, to Jesus, to Aslan, someone, only no one responds. She doesn't think it's fair, really, that Lucy and Edmund can go back, have gone back, when she can't—they've had more time, both of them, and it was her horn that brought them to Narnia to help Caspian in the first place. It's like there's a hole in her heart, where Narnia used to be, and she throws herself into school and music and dancing, to try to fill it. The girls from school aren't as nice as the naiads, and the boys are nothing like the knights who used to carry her favors into battle, but they help a little bit, and when she dresses up she feels a little more like a queen, a little more like the woman she can barely remember becoming.
And then she meets Thomas – Tommy to her, when they're alone, stolen moments in his car or in the garden. He walks her home the first night they meet, shakes her father's hand and asks Peter's permission to take her out, and then kisses her fingers, softly, as he leaves.
She laughs, giggling as she sips her champagne, and pretends not to notice as his hand moves lightly upwards from its place on her knee. Her dress is silk patterned, and even though it's a New Year's party, she's wearing white. She has a hat to match.
She stands and takes Tommy's hand to prevent it from touching anything it shouldn't. "Let's dance," she murmurs in his ear, and he takes her in his arms.
"For you, anything," he slurs into her hair.
Tommy calls her Princess and Susan doesn't argue, even though it sounds wrong to her ears. She's never been a princess: princesses are born, not chosen, and Susan was chosen by a great lion, once upon a time…
She tries to explain it, one night, after a long party and a little too much wine. Tommy is too kind to tell her she's crazy, but his eyes say it anyway before they slide away from hers, and for the first time Susan is embarrassed about Narnia. "It was just a game," she finishes lamely, brushing Narnia away with her hand and hating herself. "When we were children."
He nods, and tells her of his own imaginary world – he called it Charis, and he and his cousin were knights and comrades-at-arms and fought off countless dragons and monsters. Susan smiles politely, and since he didn't get up to leave, she doesn't either.
When she looks up again, Thomas has vanished and Prince Cor of Archenland is opposite her. "What do you think, Your Majesty?" he asks.
"You can call me Susan," she chides gently. "You call Lucy by her first name."
"Yes," he replies, "but Lucy is Lucy. You're different."
Susan smiles at the compliment. "I think Aravis will love it," is all she says, and then, as the music ends – "You are much improved, Cor."
He blushes deep red and bows to her as the music stops, and the King of Terebinthia steps forward to ask if the queen will dance with him.
Tommy comes home for dinner one night, and Susan feels magical again, sitting across from him, holding hands under the table. He compliments her mother on her cooking and talks politics with her father, and he and Peter talk a little bit about university life. He tells Lucy her hair looks pretty, combed back the way she wears it, and jokes with Edmund about the muscle he's gained, and when he calls her "princess," Susan doesn't protest. She can barely remember why it ever bothered her.
The next morning, as they clear the breakfast dishes, Lucy asks Susan if she remembers Narnia. It takes her a moment to register what Lucy is asking, and then Susan laughs at the memory. "Of course, Lu. How could I forget the games we played? The battles we won? And the lion—what was his name?"
"Aslan," Lucy grinds out. Her teeth are clenched. "And he wasn't a game."
Susan is tempted to chide Lucy for still pretending that animals can talk and imaginary universes exist, but she's too content; the memory of Tommy's arms around her and his lips against hers is too recent. She laughs instead.
Tommy asks her if maybe she'll marry him one afternoon in the park. He's pulled the thorns off a rose and threaded the stem through a sapphire ring and Susan stares at it, speechless, for a long time before she can even think to say yes. Then she throws her arms around Tommy and tackles him, and they kiss for a long time. She doesn't notice, later, that the rose wound up squashed underneath them somehow.
She dashes home afterwards as fast as she can in her high-heeled shoes, already planning on how to tell Alice that she's engaged. The ring feels oddly heavy on her finger, and she has to look down every few steps to see it glittering in the sunlight.
She walks into the house to see her sister and cousin and his friend sitting around the kitchen table looking worried. Lucy and Eustace are both clutching mugs of peppermint tea, and the girl – Jess? Jill? Jane? – is pacing the floor. "…If they can get the rings," she's saying as Susan opens the door, and for a moment her heart freezes, because she's sure they've found out about her, about Tommy—
"Susan," Eustace says, breaking into her frantic thoughts, and then Lucy is standing, her voice low and earnest.
"Su, there's trouble in Narnia—we don't know what's happened—the boys are getting the Professor's rings from London, we're going to meet them. We've got an extra ticket for you—"
"Narnia?" Susan repeats, taken aback. She rubs her thumb across the ring band, staring at her sister. "Lucy, you're nearly seventeen years old—"
"I knew it," the other girl snaps, her voice full of disdain, and Lucy turns away in disgust.
"You're all too old for this," Susan tries again, but they ignore her as if she doesn't exist. Susan keeps her head held high as she walks out, but there's a bitter taste in her mouth.
The dancing has ended, and Susan is standing in a green field. There are poppies there, and in the center a boy and girl are playing chess. "Greetings, Queen," the girl says, and the boy stands up and bows.
"Who are you?" she asks.
"Don't you recognize them, Su?" The voice belongs to Edmund, and when she turns around, he's standing there, his head crowned with a daisy crown that looks like Jill's work. "It's the professor, and Aunt Polly."
Now that she knows, it's easy to see that the young chess players are Professor Kirke and Polly Plummer, minus the white hair and worry lines; Diggory Kirke and Polly Plummer as they must have looked fifty or sixty years ago. "You're younger," she says, stupidly.
"It's the air," Diggory replies, as if her question wasn't strange or rude.
"Where are the others?" she asks, and Edmund answers.
"Jill's with Peter, and Eustace is with Aslan" – Susan feels the familiar thrill go through her at the mention of his name – "Lucy could tell you where," Edmund adds, and Susan looks past him to see Lucy.
Her sister is sitting on a rock in the lake, leaning over the water. "Sea people," Ed explains
"You're all dead," Susan finally replies.
"Not here," Diggory answers calmly.
"You could stay," Edmund tells her suddenly. "He'd let you if you asked."
She shakes her head. "But this is only a dream. I can't sleep forever."
"You're still queen here," Polly insists, but when Susan turns to reply, her face is old again, and covered in blood, as if from a terrible accident; the field turns to tracks, and blood and fire cover them, and looking around, everyone is dead –
Susan wakes up screaming. Of course that's only natural, given what's happened; the dreams are just her subconscious trying to work through her grief. Nothing real. It's all in Freud, it's what the doctors keep telling her. After a while the memories will fade, the grief will pass; she'll be able to sleep again.
But in the meantime she tries every solution she can find. She's been to doctors, tried pills and concoctions and breathing exercises. Tommy's grandmother suggested a kind of bitter almond tea, and she's tried that, too.
She returns the ring Thomas gave her, the sapphires glittering mutedly in the sunlight. She can't promise anything right now. He nods and holds her as if he understands, but she knows he can't, not really, because he hasn't lost an entire family to a train crash, he isn't having nightmares about a world that never existed.
She tries going to church, because Peter always said it helped, but the pews are hard and the silence hangs heavy. She doesn't go back. She goes through the Professor's papers instead, through Aunt Polly's photographs, and she tries to find answers or comfort, anything. People ask her, sometimes, if she knows why they were all on the train, and she hears the question they don't ask: Why weren't you there? Susan doesn't respond, because she doesn't really know.
It feels like decades before she can get on a train again—not because she's afraid it will crash, but because she almost wishes it would. Susan thinks she would give anything to have her family back, and she cannot help but hate the world that ruined all their lives and stole them from her.
She takes an afternoon train to Bristol and stands at the station, looking over the tracks. The platform is deserted, but Susan imagines she can see her brothers standing just out of her line of sight; she imagines a train rushing in, and she imagines Lucy waving at her through the window.
"I'm sorry to intrude, it's just—did you lose someone too?" a woman asks, and Susan whirls around to see Peter's girl, her eyes red from crying. In a moment she realizes it has been three years, and then she remembers the plain ring in a box in Peter's pocket, and she understands.
"Melanie," she says, and Melanie throws her arms around Susan and sobs.
Tommy places the sapphire ring on her saucer one afternoon. He doesn't say anything until she picks it up, and then he clears his throat and tells her he is being transferred to America for business. "I want you to come, Su," he says.
Her silence hangs in the air. Susan thinks that leaving England will mean leaving them behind, and for a moment she does not think she can stand it. But she will be leaving them behind for the rest of her life, and Tommy is the only one who has stayed with her. "Yes," she says finally. "Yes, but there's something I have to do first."
She visits the row of houses in London where Professor Kirke once lived, and she rests her hand on the stump of an apple tree, and she thinks there has to be something better.
"I hope you got there in the end," she says finally, not because she believes but because she knows they did, and because she doesn't know if she can bear it if Lucy died knowing what was happening.
Years pass, and then there's a package waiting for her when she gets up. It's accompanied by a perfunctory letter, apologizing, reminding her that these things do happen, and reassuring her that now all of her brother's effects are in her possession. Intrigued, anxious, Susan opens the small cardboard box to find twenty pairs of green and yellow rings nestled against cotton. Her mouth goes dry, and for a moment she can only stare. She shuts the box, finally, and shoves it as far back in her closet as she can reach, behind the out-of-season wool sweaters and faded hatboxes, as if it might burn her. She feels foolish, afterwards; the rings are nothing more than rings. She could touch them without ever leaving the world.
She does not touch them.
They have a daughter, a blond-haired, bright-eyed girl Susan names Polly, and Tommy calls her Princess. It doesn't bother Susan—after all, princesses are born, not made.
When she's old enough, Polly takes her thumb out of her mouth long enough to ask why he calls her Princess, and Tommy laughs and says it's because her mummy is a queen. Susan has to turn away so he can't see the tears stinging her eyes.
Tommy tells her fairy tales and overrides Susan's objections until she finally stops protesting. She does not think she will ever be used to "Cinderella", but she allows herself to be persuaded, finally, to read "The Little Mermaid", and when she has read the final sentence she tucks Polly in and sits in the rocking chair by her bed, watching her daughter dream of mermaids and witches.
Susan hasn't dreamt in a long time, not since she and Tommy started sleeping in one bed with a large gray cat between them, but that night she dreams about a castle overlooking the sea, and four children on four thrones, and she dreams of a beautiful woman riding toward the water on a white horse. She has a quiver over her shoulder and a hunting horn at her side, and the animals all bow as she passes.
"I didn't mean to forget," Susan confesses to her sister. She dismounts, splashing in the waves, and Lucy swims up next to her.
"I know," she says.
"I'm dreaming again," Susan says suddenly, and Lucy nods. "Do you think I'll ever come back? Really come back?"
Lucy considers it for a moment. "I think He understands," she says finally. "And anyway, 'Once a king or queen in Narnia, always a king or queen', right?"
"But I have not born it well," Susan whispers.
"Perhaps you've born it as well as you could," Lucy suggests. "And besides, you bore it well enough in Narnia, and I think you are bearing it well enough now. And you still have time."
"Yes," Susan agrees, letting out a breath she didn't know she was holding.
"But Susan?" Lucy says again, and this time she sounds younger, as young as she sounded when they left Caspian.
"We miss you."
She's looking for an old sweater of Lucy's when she comes across the box again. Susan leans against the shelves and opens it, staring at the rings in wonder, as if she's never seen them before. There's a humming sound, very loud in the quiet of her room.
"If I had gone," she whispers, and she realizes in a flash that perhaps then she would be with her siblings, now, and the Professor and Aunt Polly, and Jill and Eustace, and her parents. It's such a painful realization that she staggers back and sits on her bed, clutching at her heart. "If I had gone," she repeats to herself, and she thinks, practically, that she would have died, same as them, and that she and Tommy would never have moved into this house where their daughter can fingerpaint on the walls. And though she would give anything to be with her family, she does not think she could give up this family.
"Silly goose," she chides herself, but gently. "You're too old for this magical nonsense." But she wonders if maybe she is finally old enough.
That night, when she tucks her daughter in, Polly asks for a story. "Not Goldilocks," she instructs. "Something true." Susan swallows. She's silent for so long that Polly has to prompt her again: "Mummy?" she asks. "My story?"
"Once upon a time," Susan finally begins, wondering why it has taken her so long, "there were two brothers and two sisters, and they lived in a beautiful castle by the sea…"
A/N: Of course, I don't own Narnia. This was edited first by brood saint and then by Ill Ame, and they are both amazing and wonderful. CampanionWanderer offered a lovely and extensive critique of this story the first time it was posted (as Nylons and Lipstick), and she has my eternal thanks for helping me see how to expand this. The title for this comes from the Emily Dickinson poem "My life closed twice before its close".
Any constructive criticism is appreciated! This was extensively revised mostly for the ending, which was too fast the first time I posted it--I'm interested to see if it's working now.