I don't own Narnia or the Pevensies.
"I'm not ready to go," Lucy said softly. It was clear that she meant she would anyway. She just didn't want to. Behind them, the professor's house loomed large and friendly and regretful, casting warm, apologetic shadows on the browning autumn grass of the lawn. Peter reached over and squeezed his sister's hand gently, as reassuringly as he could manage – which, to be honest, wasn't all that much. The station creaked beneath their feet.
"Who ever is?" he sighed, picking up his bags, stuffed with the extra things his siblings couldn't bear to leave behind, paintings and knick knacks and things they'd found around the big old mansion. The professor wouldn't mind. They knew.
"Well, it will be nice to see Mother again," Susan offered, trying to sound hopeful. "After all, letters can only do so much. It's been a frightfully long time."
"But it won't be home," said Edmund, echoing all their thoughts. He scuffed his feet on the wood, not angry, just helpless and frustrated, like the little schoolboy he wasn't ready to be again. "It won't be home for me. And I know it won't be for you either, so don't lie."
His older sister sighed. He was right. She told him so.
"But it's no use thinking too much about it," she added. "Home is what you make of it. Perhaps we'll find it's easier to return than we thought."
The four stood again in silence, waiting. Presently, the wind raised a bit, twisting the ends of Susan's long, dark hair, sifting through the tags on their baggage and on their coats. It's embarrassing, thought Edmund darkly. I know how to get on a train. I'm not a package.
Lucy held her stuffed bear awkwardly – somehow, it felt strange to be carrying it. It had been so long since an object had held the same comfort for her as a being, and she felt childish to be clutching it so now. Before, it had reassured her; now, it only made her more insecure in her child-body. She did not need the bear. But she could not leave it, either; it was supposed to be a part of who she was now, even if it wasn't really any longer.
Peter, the watcher, Peter, the guardian, was the first to see the train. He said nothing, but shifted his bags in his hands and took a step forward. His siblings, with a brief glance up out of curiosity, not doubt, copied the motion, and after a moment, a fast rush of air sent their coats billowing about them, their eyes squinted against the inevitability of return. It was too soon, and too real. Too palpable. They weren't ready.
But they stepped onto the train anyway, Peter and Edmund together sliding the glass aside and sending their sisters through. With the awkwardness of young boys but the chivalrous intent of grown men, they hoisted the heavy bags up into the storage, took their seats, and waited in the dull ache of anticipation. At the jerk of the engine, their bodies swaying on their seats, the four children felt a little something give way, like paper gently ripped from a notebook. Though nothing was spoken, they all knew. A chapter had ended. Narnia was over. They were back at the start.
"But we're not ready!" Susan protested, pacing back and forth before her brother and the Lion. She was attempting to look calm, dignified, but her eyes were wide with disbelieving desperation, and her footsteps were quick and faltering. She stopped, pushing a hand through her hair quickly and biting back a sudden wave of emotion. "We…we…I'm not…it's…not fair, it's not…"
"Su," Peter said softly, reaching out his hand to place tenderly on her arm. He said nothing more. But his eyes, his hands, his shoulders, his steady stance, spoke more clearly than his words needed to, as it had been all his life.
"No," she said, shaking her head, tears stinging at her eyes. "No, it's not fair. I'm not ready. We're not ready."
"Who ever is?"
The Lion's voice was quiet but deep, reassuring and terrifying all in one. Rising, he stepped forward and pressed his great muzzle to Susan's trembling hand, which stilled, though not entirely, and after a moment, she found the strength to look into the gentle, fierce green-gold of his eyes. They were too much. She wasn't ready.
"It is time," he said softly and with apology.
Peter already knew. Peter had known he was lucky just to be able to come again this one last time, and had counted every blessed second he had breathed the sweet air and watched the trees dance. Even when the sword had screamed through the air towards his head surely to kill him, he had only thanked the Lion that he had been given the privilege to die in his country, to die in the grassy arms of home. But for Susan, it was not so. Susan was younger, in so many ways. Susan had not yet learned which battles to fight. Susan had not been blessed with enough suffering to know when to let go.
"I am sorry to see you depart," said the Lion, and he truly looked it. His pain was their pain. "But this is how it must be."
"Why?" Susan wanted to know, pleading, taking that great paw in her own pale hands. Peter shook his head and stepped forward, putting his arm about his sister's shoulder. His heart ached silently, just as he knew hers must, but though he could not put into proper words the reason he felt inside him, the reason they must return. He could only pull her close to him and accept once again that the burden would be twice his.
"I am sorry, dear Susan," the Lion said sadly once more. "I will miss you dearly. But you needn't miss me, for I am with you always." He nodded softly to her, her hand touching his soft mane one last time, then he met eyes with Peter a moment. Peter was not a man of words, and so none were passed, but they both understood. Silently, the Lion turned and was gone.
Susan burst into sobs, clutching the scratchy material of Peter's shirt tightly in trembling fingers. Holding her gently to his chest, he looked off into the forest, eyes following the golden figure of his imagination, eyes clouded with sorrow. Even Peter was human. He would not deny himself the right to feel sad this way, but stayed composed on the outside for his sister, so that as her rock, he could hold her and tell her that all would be well in the end. Softly stroking her dark hair, he turned them both towards the path that would lead to the others. There was a time to hold out and a time to give in. This was a time to say goodbye.
"I wasn't ready," said Lucy sadly, her eyes tracing longingly over the painted waves. "I wasn't ready to go back. It just doesn't seem fair."
Edmund said nothing. Sometimes, he could appreciate that the world wasn't fair. If the world was fair, he would have been dead a lifetime ago. But it would be insensitive to tell this to Lucy, so he sighed and put his arms about her as Eustace watched on. (Eustace was the lucky one, and it was always awkward to be the lucky one among the unlucky, so he nervously thumbed the palm of his hand and moved his eyes to the floor.)
"I know, Lu," Edmund said softly. "I wasn't ready either. But I supposed he knows best."
"But how could he?" Lucy protested, fiercely biting her lip to keep herself from crying. She was not a child. She would not be a child. "How could he know what I feel? How could he know what's best for me?"
"Maybe what's best for us isn't about what we feel," Edmund suggested gently, rubbing her back. He did not mean to preach to his sister. Of anyone, he felt least qualified to preach about anything. But he couldn't help but try to offer comfort to her, despite his own feelings. "And just think, Lu. We did get to go back one more time. That's something."
"I suppose," Lucy sighed. Her eyes returned to the picture, her gaze reaching out to touch the wooden head of the ship, the billowing purple sail, her life, suspended in color, unreachable. "But I'm not happy, Ed."
"You don't have to be," Edmund promised, giving her a hug. There was something strangely comforting about her brother's pale, skinny arms around her, that even though they were not browned and strong like they had once been in another place, they still held her just the same, still eased the warmth back into her heart, still tended to her hurts and wounds like always.
"I wasn't ready," Lucy said again, after a long silence. "I'm still not ready."
"Who ever is?" Edmund sighed. "But there isn't much we can do about it. I'm sorry, Lu. I suppose we just have to make do with what we've got."
"I suppose we do," echoed Lucy faintly, her eyes off someplace else.
Edmund's lips curved up nearly imperceptibly as he watched his sister's face. Leave it to Lucy to leave without leaving at all. He squeezed her gently to his side, knowing that Lucy, the smallest of them, was also the strongest, that she would not let go, no matter how hard it became for her. At those times, he would be there to lend her his strength as she had lent him hers so many times before.
Edmund closed his eyes and let his mind follow his sister's back through the painting, to the home they would never see again. He could not deny the sorrow he felt, the desperate reluctance to give it up, but as he felt his heart beat against the back of his Lucy's shoulder, he knew home was what he carried inside him. As long as he lived, as long as his family lived, he would find Narnia. And if it wasn't to be found, then he and Lucy would just have to make it, wouldn't they?
"Are you ready?" asked Peter to his brother, the box tucked under his arm as he bent down to tighten the laces on his shoes. He looked up in expectation. A moment later, Edmund hopped into the room on one foot, a piece of toast held between his teeth a sock half on his foot; he was trying to pull it on as he went, and it wasn't working very well. Peter sighed and shook his head hopelessly.
"Not yet, I take it," he commented with a gently mocking smile Edmund shot him a look and finally managed his sock, proceeding to drop to his knees before the closet and rummage through it for his shoes, the rejects flying out behind him. Peter stepped aside to dodge one of Susan's, which was probably a good thing, given the height of the heel.
"Sorry," mumbled Edmund around a mouthful of toast before stuffing it back in. He emerged with one shoe and nodded his thanks to his older brother when he was handed the other, then sat on the entryway bench to put them on. Peter glanced at his watch and then out the window.
"The train will be in in a half hour, Ed," he reminded him quietly. "We ought to get moving."
"I know," Edmund said, swallowing the last bit of his toast as his fingers flew over his laces. "Sorry. Overslept."
Peter chuckled softly and shook his head again. A second later, Ed was pulling on his coat, and the two of them stepped outside their old London home and into the yard, both their eyes passing over the old bomb shelter. It had fallen into relative disuse since the war had ended, but they and their sisters – eventually just their sister, thought Peter with a sorrowful twinge – had often retreated to it to be together, without fear of being overheard or misunderstood.
Peter was too careful a driver for Edmund's taste, or perhaps it was just that the younger of the two was awfully fidgety at that moment. He held the box in his lap, long fingers moving into the creases of its carvings, gliding across its smooth top as he watched the grey world move through the window. More than once, Peter asked him calmly to stop tapping his fingers on the wood when he hadn't even realized he was doing it. The trip to the station had never seemed this long before. And Peter's calm hands on the steering wheel were perhaps even more infuriating than the tick-tick-ticking of his watch as it beat out the ceaseless seconds of time passing too slowly.
When the car was secured and parked, the brothers stepped up into the station together. Peter did not ask to have the box back, because he trusted Edmund with it. They checked the time again, though Peter had made sure they could not have been too late, and then the two stood to wait, the younger watching the people around them with sharp, nervous brown eyes, and the elder watching the track with steady blue.
"Peter?" said Edmund after a moment. He seemed unable to stand still, though not out of a simplistic impatience, but more out of an anxious need to distract himself.
"You…you don't suppose that we…we could also…" Edmund began, trailing off as his eyes dropped to the box, but Peter did not have to say anything. Edmund had known the answer before he'd even opened his mouth. Both understood he simply needed his brother's reassurance.
"Not this time," Peter said with a smile that was far more sad than it was happy, though it was a distant, silent sort of pain, the kind Edmund wished he could dig up and fix, but knew he wouldn't. His brother had always been like this.
"I know," sighed Ed. They both knew. They had accepted the truth when they were ready, and they had grown ready long ago.
Lucy clasped Jill's hand with a brilliantly sincere smile, kissing her cheeks in a Narnian greeting as the two stepped onto the train together, Aunt Polly and Eustace exchanging pleasantries behind them.
"I must say, I'm terribly excited for you," said Lucy, her cheeks already rather flushed with it. "I won't lie and tell you I'm not jealous, though."
Jill laughed just the way Susan had told her not to, loud and unashamed as she nodded her thanks to Eustace (who was stowing her bag up above).
"Well I'm only sorry you couldn't go too," she told Lucy, then quickly to Aunt Polly, "And you as well, of course, m'am."
"As long as Narnia is safe," said Aunt Polly practically, taking her seat slowly, as if her knees pained her. Soon the four were seated around the compartment, talking animatedly as the train gave a little heave and set into motion. Polly sat back, watching the three young people interact, and smiled faintly. Such promising lives.
"We told Peter and Edmund nine o'clock, right?" Lucy wanted to be sure.
"I told them eight fifty," said Eustace with a proud smile. "To be sure they wouldn't miss us."
"Well that's all fine, but I don't think Peter would have missed us anyway," said Lucy fairly. Her brother had a habit of fierce punctuality.
"Probably true," laughed Jill.
"And they have the rings," Lucy checked yet again.
"That's what the wire said," said Eustace. "They said they'd meet us at the station, and they confirmed eight fifty. They'll be there. Ed would make sure of it."
"And are you ready to go back?" asked Lucy, a strange gleam in her eyes, anxious and longing and happy and sad all at once.
"Of course!" said Jill and Eustace as one. Lucy nodded and sat back in her seat. Of course they were ready. It was so much easier to be ready to go back than to be ready to accept that you never would.
"There's the train," said Peter, straightening up. Edmund jerked to attention and held the box up, as if someone was there to take it already. But something was awfully funny about the train, about how quick it was flying around that bend…
"Peter?" Edmund asked uncertainly, stepping a little closer to his brother's side.
Peter's gaze darkened in concern, then brightened with fear as he caught what was going on. His first instinct was to command Edmund to run, but he knew it was too late for that, and that his brother would never obeyed in any case. So as the great metal beast came charging in, came flying off the track, came screaming towards them with jaws of death, gaping wide to swallow them both up and rip them apart from one another, Peter only clasped his brother's hand in his and closed his eyes.
There was a screech and a clatter and a scream and a long, long silence.
Silence, save for the tick-tick-ticking of Edmund's watch as it grew cold on his broken body, the time obscured by a scarlet smear of his brother's blood.
Susan lay beneath the thick, heavy covers of her comforter with her eyes closed and her white hair fanned out across her pillow. Each breath was slow and labored, as if the inevitable truth of her death was too thick for her body to take in, but she was not yet gone. Beside her bed knelt a young woman, fair-haired like Lucy had been, her hands folded in earnest prayer.
"Elizabeth," Susan sighed after a long, long while, and her voice was but a hoarse shadow of what it had once been. "Why do you pray for me?"
The girl looked startled, uncertain of how to answer. She folded her hands in her lap and the black of her dress contrasted starkly with the pale white of her skin.
"Miss Pevensie…you have said yourself you are near death," she answered at last, uncomfortable with this fact as her hands fidgeted with the fabric. "The pastor has sent me to guide you on."
"And what is it that makes you think I need guiding?" asked Susan with a very tired sigh. Her wrinkled face was bare of makeup, and somehow more human in the dim light of the humming electric lamp, and the shadow of what was to come soon.
"I don't know, m'am," said Elizabeth, turning her face towards the carpet to hide her embarrassment. "But the good Lord might like to hear you say you accept him before you…you move on."
"Before I die," said Susan, her voice perhaps a little harsher than she'd intended.
"Before you die," Elizabeth agreed in a frightened whisper. There was a very long moment of nothing, then the old woman, the old woman who had gained everything in the world only to lose it again, who had loved and lost a family, who in penance had dressed like a widow until they said she was too old to dress like a queen again, the old woman spoke.
"And if I cannot find it in myself to accept him?" she asked. Susan's voice was not scared, but neither was it haughty or vain. Listening to it made Elizabeth feel as if she was hearing someone sob in the most heart-wrenching way, but from very far away, when there was nothing she could do to help. She was frightened, and bowed her head in solemnity.
"Then…I suppose you could let him accept you instead," she reasoned, without looking at the dying woman.
"How can he accept me if I cannot accept him?" Susan probed.
"And now these three remain: hope, faith and love. But love is the greatest of these," quoted Elizabeth softly.
There was another moment, in which Susan's rattling breaths filled the silence.
"Love is the greatest of these," she repeated at last, as if some great weight had been lifted from her breast. Even as she spoke, it seemed to Elizabeth that something about her was fading while something else about her was brightening, as though the wrinkles were growing deeper but had ceased to matter, as though she was growing older and yet so much younger all at once.
"Miss Pevensie?" she asked uncertainly, reaching for the old woman's hand.
"I am ready," whispered Susan.
And peace found her.
She stepped forward into the light with a smile on her youthful face. Silently threading her fingers into the softness of the Lion's mane, she walked alongside him, forward through the nothingness and towards the somethingness.
"It is good to see you," he said finally, his voice deep and pleased.
"And you as well," said Susan, with a sincere smile. "It's been a long time."
"For you, perhaps," Aslan mused. "But not such a long time for myself."
Susan's slippered foot touched green grass, and blue sky exploded overhead.
"I wasn't ready," she said at last, paused on the hilltop. The Lion's eyes glittered sagely and he gently nudged his daughter towards the others. As she nodded in gratitude and picked up her skirts, he settled back to watch the happy reunion.
"No," he agreed in a rumbling murmur. "Not then. But who ever is?"