I reined in my conflicted emotions, struggling to maintain some semblance of calm as I raised my eyes to my opponent. To my surprise, Aden Yates was standing the wrong way, his hands empty and an expression of pure shock written across his masked face. Confused, I glanced over Aden's shoulder and saw that my brother was currently frozen halfway between his boundaries and mine. Peter was struggling to keep his features calm, but I could see concern, surprise, and – for just a moment – a hint of panic in his eyes.
My first instinct was to go to him, to ask him what was wrong. A moment later I clamped down on that feeling – Aslan, I seemed to be doing that a lot lately – and tried to look at the situation logically.
Then I noticed that Mr. Heynes was staring at me. And because the teacher was staring at me, I was naturally attracting the attention of a good percentage of the class.
"What d'you think you're doing?" the boy in front of me finally managed to splutter, looking uncharacteristically wary. "I – you – you completely broke the rules!" Aden stammered wildly, unconsciously backing up from me half a step. I found it rather bizarre to be lectured on rules by one who had such a low regard for rules himself. "That wasn't even a fencing move, was it? I – where did you learn that?"
Wasn't a fencing…what was he talking about?
I decided to briefly ignore Aden's demands, searching past his shoulder for my brother. Peter had made his way across the room and was talking quickly to Mr. Heynes, making nervous hand gestures that told me he hadn't a very good idea of what he was saying. I frowned, wondering what in Narnia he was doing, before it finally hit home to me that Aden wasn't standing in the incorrect place – I was.
Somehow, I was standing on the other side of my partner, which was outside our taped boundaries and quite outside the guidelines of fencing. Even worse, I saw Aden's sword lying ten feet away to my left…where it definitely should not be.
With a flash of understanding, I realized what must have happened. I didn't remember using a Narnian move, of course…but that was the only explanation for the switched positions, Aden's nervousness, and the peculiar looks I was now receiving from the rest of my classmates. Aslan, what had I executed on the unsuspecting pest in front of me? I mentally groaned, regretting the set of emotionally unbalancing circumstances that had led me to become so engrossed in my memories of Narnia…
"Edmund?" Peter's voice asked, soft but with a hint of that listen-to-me-now-so-we-can-get-out-of-this-quickly tone he'd used on me many times before, "Come outside for a moment." He had appeared on my left, his gloved hand reaching across to gently pry the sword from my grip. As he straightened up, he passed instructions quietly through my mask. "I told Mr. Heynes we needed to leave. Take off your fencing gear and meet me outside the gym."
Still confused – and a little bit in denial – about what I suspected I had just done, and not entirely sure I could trust myself to think straight through the emotions still bouncing about my head, I did the natural thing. I nodded, faked a calm expression, and followed my brother out the door as serenely as I could manage. I must have looked quite strange to the students left in the gym, but I couldn't help but think that if this were Narnia, I would have done a fine job of assuring my subjects that I was fine…
"Edmund?" Peter said, his voice just above a whisper as I slipped quietly out of the gym. We were standing in the hallway between the gym doors and the storage room, where virtually anyone could walk by and overhear our conversation.
"I'm fine, Peter," I tried to reassure my brother. "I just…had a hard time staying focused." Which naturally set off the alarm bells in my brother's head; I rarely lost focus, unless something life-threatening had happened to my siblings. Peter eyed me doubtfully.
"You were fine when we practiced yesterday. And don't you think it would be easier to lose focus while sparring with me – as opposed to someone else – because we've been practicing together for the last…number of years? I would think you'd be on your guard around someone you don't know very well." I was beginning to understand that "staying focused" meant not slipping into Narnia. Peter was eyeing me worriedly, clearly trying to figure out what was wrong without asking very many questions.
"I suppose…" I agreed half-heartedly. He had me, but I was strangely reluctant to acknowledge my feelings. I hedged a bit. "Except…well, when we practice together, it doesn't matter as much if we 'lose focus,' does it? If I start to imagine we're at the training grounds, it's as if we both imagine together. If I let myself be Narnian, nothing seems wrong when I'm with you, because you're Narnian, too. I haven't had to stay focused in our practices."
"The lines blur," Peter sighed, more to himself than to me. "Only you normally have so much control, regardless. What happened? Was Yates trying to provoke you? He seemed like the sort who would."
Of course he had, but he was only one of the reasons why I'd 'lost focus' – and a minor one, at that. He did not yet deserve to be put on my overprotective brother's "I-need-to-shield-Edmund-from-these-people" list, and I tried to evade the question. I shrugged, feeling a little bit helpless as I tried to sort my confused thoughts.
"It's hard to…"
I trailed off there, suddenly stumped. I had been about to confess to Peter just how hard it was to maintain the schoolboy demeanor, only I had vowed to myself months ago not to burden my brother with the full weight of my problems. While it was true that we had shared much of our feelings in Narnia, it was also true that I had hidden a portion – a very small portion – of those feelings, as well. It was my first instinct to shield Peter from some of my deepest emotions; while I knew they were often difficult to deal with alone, somehow my initial thought was that it would be even worse to share them. To know I was inflicting them on another person…especially if that person was Peter…
"Ed?" Peter prompted gently, worry in his voice. He could tell I was torn over telling him something. I looked up to meet his eyes, my mind flashing briefly to earlier this afternoon as I searched for a way to answer him.
The harsh wail of the telephone startled me, causing the book I was reading to slip out of my hands as I reached automatically for Shafelm. A split-second later, I realized that I was not about to be attacked – and that Shafelm was quite out of my reach – and dived for the phone.
"Hello?" I asked in a slightly breathless voice, my feet still trying to catch up with the upper half of my body. I tripped over the book on the floor and nearly dropped the phone.
"Edmund?" a familiar voice answered, causing a wide grin to spread across my face.
"Su!" I exclaimed, kicking the book out of the way and perching on the edge of my bed. "Aslan, where've you been? I was going to call you this Friday if I hadn't heard from you by then."
"I'm sorry," she said, sounding contrite. Her next words spilled out in a rush. "It's just that it's been so hard to find a moment to write, and I tried calling on Saturday but no one answered the phone and my roommate wanted to use it to call her boyfriend, so I thought I'd try calling later but I didn't realize she had about five other people to call as well, and I don't think she really likes me much so she took a very long time, and when she finally finished I had to go to this meeting for –"
"Lion's mane, slow down!" I pleaded, my head reeling from her sudden avalanche of information. "Who is it that won't let you use the phone?"
"It's not that she won't let me use it," Susan corrected, making an effort to speak clearly for my benefit, "She just makes it very hard for me to have a decent conversation in a decent amount of time."
"And who is this?" I asked, still trying to put the pieces together.
"My roommate," Susan supplied. "She's quite bothersome, really; I hardly ever get a moment to myself. She's very territorial, and she tends to spend a lot of time in our room, which means that she's almost always here before I am, so…well, it's not like I can sit down and start writing a letter in plain sight, can I? Not if I want to mention Narnia."
I noticed that her voice broke slightly on Narnia.
"It would be hard to have a conversation with any of us if she were in the room," I said carefully, trying to gauge her mood. "I assume she's not with you now, considering that you just told me a few things she might not care to hear?"
"She's not," Susan confirmed, which wasn't very helpful. Two-word answers didn't give me enough voice to tell what she was thinking.
There was a faint sniff.
"Su, are you crying?" I asked in alarm, automatically looking around for a tissue or handkerchief before realizing that I couldn't even give one to her.
"I'm sorry!" Susan cried, sniffing again. "I didn't mean to…I didn't want to worry you, only…it's been so hard, not having you or Lucy or Peter around. It's like…it's like I can't focus throughout the day, and I can't stop thinking about Narnia or what might be happening there, or where we might be if we hadn't gone back through the wardrobe, and I…I don't like being away from us," she mumbled, her voice creeping down in pitch. "It's like I can't function on my own anymore, and there's no one here that I can talk to and I feel so different from all the other girls in my class because I can't understand the way they think, and they can't understand me and I…I want Aslan," she confessed in a whisper, her voice cracking on His name. There was another sniff, louder this time.
"Su…" I said helplessly, unsure how to comfort her. I wanted so deeply to help, but I wasn't prepared. How could I be, when I was having the same problems…?
"I'm sorry," Susan repeated, her voice a little muffled. "I didn't mean to…to tell you all that. I know you have a lot to deal with, too, and none of us are feeling quite like ourselves, and Lucy mentioned that you said Peter wasn't adjusting well either, so – "
"Susan." I interrupted her calmly but firmly, trying to clamp down on my scattered thoughts. "You should not be sorry for sharing your feelings. In fact, if you ever say something like that again, I will personally visit your school, drag you out to lunch, and have a nice long conversation about Narnia in plain earshot of anyone within twenty feet. I'll bring Peter, too. And Lucy."
There was a half-hearted snort of laughter from the other end. (If I ever told Susan that she'd just snorted, she would promptly deny it. And in any case, I didn't think it a wise thing to say at the moment).
"As for Peter…" I hesitated, wondering how to phrase my thoughts. "He's not...well, he's not as bad as he was when we first came back. But sometimes, when he thinks that no one's looking, or when something reminds him of Narnia…he gets this look in his eyes…" I paused, unsure how to explain it.
"He gets the same fire behind his eyes that sparked in Narnia, whenever he did something that made him truly Magnificent," Susan filled in, much to my astonishment. "Only now it seems as though the fire has been clouded by a shadow, and the result is heartbreaking because you know that he's not the same, and it reflects in his eyes. And it scares you, because you realize that if Peter doesn't feel the same anymore…"
She let the sentence hang, though I was unwilling to finish it.
"How do you know that?" I spluttered instead, impressed and a little surprised that she could read our brother so well, even though she hadn't seen him since the end of summer.
"Aslan, Ed, I thought that would be obvious; you get the same look. Lucy, too. And it's scared me, because if the three of you can be so lost, then I must be even more so, because I've never been as…well, as strong," Susan admitted, her voice wavering slightly. "I'm not the same without all of you, and you're not the same without Narnia and Aslan. I just…I wish Lucy were here with me, at least…"
"I know it's hard," I said bracingly, wondering if my words would be of any help, "But you're right, though. You can't cope on your own. Listen, Susan, I'm not sure what you need to do to get your fair share of the telephone, but you have to make contact with us more often. We've always functioned better when we're together, but since we're…well, not…we're going to have to work around the distance." I paused, struck by a sudden idea. "We can develop a schedule to keep in touch, if you'd like; I know you're good with schedules and such. I haven't talked with you since the beginning of the school year, and that needs to change, because how else are we to work together? We should write or talk at least once a week…"
"…if I can get my roommate off the telephone," Susan mumbled under her breath. Fortunately, I heard her.
"Susan Pevensie, this is not like you," I told her bluntly. I'd been in similar periods of self-doubt before, and often Peter had had to slam me out of them. I had done the same for him, but never for a lady, so I hoped I was going about this correctly. "You are a Queen, regardless of the fact that only three other people on Earth know it. I've seen you reach the hardest, most remote souls and turn them into something warm and vibrant. I've seen you find courage in the moments you doubt the most. I know who you are, so now you need to show yourself that you know it, too."
"But – but that wasn't me!" Susan cried, her voice breaking again and sounding slightly hysterical. "I can't find that here, Edmund! My strengths belong in Narnia, are a part of Narnia – I…they came from Aslan, Ed. And Aslan's not here."
Something twisted in my chest.
"Aslan wouldn't abandon us, Susan. I'm sure Lucy's told you that?" Lucy was a key force behind our path of faith. She often understood so much more than she let on, and her insights were welcome in our times of doubt. Ever since we'd come back to England, we had needed them so much more than usual…
"I – yes, she did." Susan sounded a little ashamed. "I didn't mean for it to sound as though…as though I don't trust Him anymore. It's just that I feel so…wrong…all the time. I don't have the same character I had in Narnia."
"And there, dear sister, is where you are wrong," I said, somewhat triumphantly. "You're still a Queen, whether you feel like one or not. Your crown didn't give you the ability to become Gentle; not even Narnia gave you that. S –"
"How can you say that?" Susan interrupted, sounding shocked. "Narnia made me Gentle – Aslan gave me that title! How can you –"
"You just answered your own question. Narnia made you Gentle, and Aslan gave you your title – in the confidence that you would discover its meaning, through the experiences you would encounter while in Narnia. You learned things from our country – gained them over the years as you experienced more of her. You chose to embrace what Aslan had given you, and in so doing, became open to the thoughts and actions that made you Gentle. England can't change that. Not unless you choose to let go of who you are and embrace the Susan that England might offer you."
"But what if Aslan put us here because he wants me to embrace England?" Susan asked in a trembling voice, so quiet that I had to strain to hear.
"Su, somehow I don't think Aslan would have sent us to grow up in Narnia if he didn't want us to retain who we've become." I paused. "That line came from Lucy."
That coaxed a slight laugh out of her. "I figured as much."
"But it makes sense, doesn't it?" I prompted. "You're still Queen Susan the Gentle, although no one has to know you're a queen to understand who you are. I believe that is the lesson Aslan is trying to teach us by sending us back to England. So we ought to embrace it."
"Did those lines also come from Lucy?"
I sighed. "Perhaps. But does that make them any less real?"
There was a long silence from the other end of phone while both of us processed our thoughts. I was surprised at my apparent insight; I hadn't realized just what had been going through my head these past few weeks, nor that I'd managed to work out some sort of logic to our situation. What bothered me now was that no matter what I'd just told Susan, it was still hard for me to believe what I understood. It disturbed me, because I had rarely had that problem before. Susan broke the silence with a sigh.
"Thank you, Edmund," she said, a little thickly. "I…it's hard to talk to Lucy about this. I don't like looking weak in front of her – not my little sister – and I didn't want to go to Peter, because he worries more than he needs to. Of course, I didn't want to worry you, either, but…"
"It's alright," I assured her, a wave of relief washing through me now that I knew she understood something. "I know exactly how you feel. Even I can't go to just one person – namely, Peter – every time I need advice."
"I understand," Susan said, then hesitated briefly. "I'll try to call more often."
I nodded, even though she couldn't see me.
"I'll be waiting."
"Susan called," I found myself saying to Peter. The words slipped out of my mouth of their own accord, and despite the fact that I'd resolved earlier to let Susan come to Peter in her own time, I could not stop myself from telling him of our conversation. Too much had become clear to me while I'd been talking with her, too much had changed in my mind, and now her phone call had been as much about my problems as it had been about hers. I suppose that was why I'd been so easily distracted while fencing with Aden. I'd managed to hold myself together throughout the whole fencing lesson, but when I'd actually had to use my blade…well, Narnian things started to happen. I couldn't help it.
Peter said nothing, but listened intently as I spilled my thoughts to him. I was hardly aware that we were walking away from the gym, towards the bench where he and I had sparred together that one Narnian afternoon. I could see the understanding and sympathy in his eyes as I talked, though there was something else beneath them that I couldn't quite place. Was he sad? Did he perhaps understand so well because he thought the same way? I couldn't tell, and I couldn't seem to stop myself to ask. My words poured on and on, a relentless stream of confusion and faith and logic, and Aslan, I just wanted to go home…
"…so I suppose I wasn't thinking, really, when I was paired with Aden. I don't even know…" I hesitated, glancing at Peter out of the corner of my eye. "What did I do, just now? One moment I was thinking about Narnia and Aslan and wondering why we'd been allowed to leave, and the next – I was standing outside our fencing boundaries, and everyone was staring at me as though I'd turned into a centaur."
Peter shook his head.
"I think you just surprised the class," he said, his voice wonderfully calm and controlled, a stark contrast to my wild onslaught of emotion. "You just pulled a practice move on Aden. It wasn't anything terribly advanced, and you were quick about it, so really people are only going to wonder where you learned such a move…and why you decided to use it right then, I suppose. I don't think it revealed too much of our past instruction. Yes, you disarmed him, but that's not surprising because he wasn't expecting it. If he had been, you might not have knocked the sword out of his hand."
I was grateful to him for injecting some sense to my near-panic. I'd been worried that my emotions had lead me to execute something undoubtedly not-English on my unfortunate partner, but a "practice move," as Peter put it, referred to a quick maneuver often used in warm-up with Oreius. My brother was right; it was only harmful in that it would raise questions among our classmates and teacher, but it had not jeopardized our schoolboy façade.
"Thank you for getting me out of there," I said quietly. In the brief pause I'd taken from my rant to let Peter talk, my emotions had cooled, leaving me with a hollow feeling in the center of my chest. Peter noticed the change and looked at me sharply, but didn't say anything as I continued. "I wasn't thinking clearly…Aslan, I'm still not thinking clearly. I'm not sure I could have managed very well if you hadn't made an excuse to Mr. Heynes."
We had arrived at the bench we'd sparred next to several days ago. Peter sat down and pulled me close, offering the strange brother-father comfort that only he could give. I buried my face in his shoulder and tried to concentrate on the lovely, solid scent that was uniquely his, not caring that we were sitting next to a public walkway, though it was deserted for the time. He let me stay that way in silence for a few moments, holding me close, letting me draw strength from our contact.
"I'm glad you told me about your conversation with Susan," Peter said after a while. His voice was still gentle and calm, a small miracle, considering what we were talking about. "I wish…" it wavered for a moment, then steadied. "I wish she'd felt comfortable enough to come to us sooner. I wish you had been comfortable enough to come to me sooner. I'm always going to be here to help you, no matter what you think I may be going through." He tilted my head up slightly, enough to meet my eyes. "Understand?"
Of course I did. It didn't change my instinct to protect him.
"Yes," I whispered. He caught the uncertainty in my voice, knowing that it was directed internally, and asked me again.
"Do you understand that I will always be willing to help you – will always be able to help you – no matter what I may be going through? And do you understand that I want to you to come to me, no matter how strongly you feel you ought not to?" His blue eyes burned into mine, the truth of his statement searing into my thoughts, leaving no doubt. It was such a relief to hear something I had known all along…I was puzzled by the strength of my reaction.
"Yes," I repeated softly, looking down as I blinked furiously against the annoying moisture in my eyes. Aslan, I was not holding it together today.
"Good," Peter whispered, clearly relieved. He held me in silence for a little while longer, allowing me to sort my thoughts and blink my eyes dry. After a few moments, he continued. "I know how hard it is to understand what's…happened lately, but – "
"I do understand," I interrupted hoarsely, surprised again at the words coming out of my mouth, yet realizing they were true. "I understand why we had to come back. Lucy put me on the right path, and today…I realized what she was getting at when I tried to explain it to Susan. I just…I don't…" I felt something constricting my throat as my real problem surfaced again, and I struggled to put it forth to Peter. "I can't make myself truly, honestly…believe…in what we're doing here. I understand there are lessons to be learned in England. I know that. I know Aslan put us here to learn how to be ourselves outside of Narnia. I just…I can't…"
How could I possibly have been rendered inarticulate? I was the silver-tongued one. I switched tactics, slightly desperate to make sure Peter understood what I could not explain.
"I don't believe in those lessons because I can't understand why I want Narnia so badly." I fought to make to words work, and then they started to come, unchecked, from my lips. "I can't be satisfied with anything here – the trees, the air, the food, all of it – it doesn't compare, it doesn't help to get me past Narnia, only to remember what I don't have. But we're fortunate in England – we're able to attend school, we have decent food, I have you here with me – and I just don't care. I want Narnia, always…I would give up everything in England save family to just walk in Cair Paravel for an instant, to breathe that air, to see a dryad again…and it's the one thing we cannot control, we can't have, and I hate myself for wanting it, because I have you and Susan and Lucy, and that's all I ever needed in Narnia anyway. I just…I still want Narnia, and I hate myself for wanting it." I buried my face in Peter's shirt, fighting the moisture that had returned to my eyes. "How is that fair? How is it fair that I can hate myself for wanting to go home?"
Peter held me close as I clung to him, my words halted by the constriction in my throat. I thought he might have tried to speak, but he seemed to choke, and I realized that I'd hit something within him, as well. It wasn't just me who felt so sure, yet so twisted. Peter, Susan, Lucy…all of us were struggling. How I wished that we could weather this together…
"I understand," Peter murmured quietly in my ear, his voice strangely constricted. I didn't have to look at him to know that something fierce was shining from his eyes, that what he said meant that he felt it, too. "I'm so glad you told me."
"Me too," I mumbled, and he held me tighter.
"I'm going to see if there is a way to get Susan and Lucy here for a visit," he continued, and my heart nearly leaped out of my chest. To see the girls again would do wonders for our current mental state. It seemed as though I could barely remember what it was like to be together, even though I'd talked to Susan earlier in the day.
"That would be nice," I said, my voice somewhat muffled by Peter's shoulder. He didn't reply, and I could tell he was smiling at me. The image seemed to fill a part of the hollow feeling in my chest – lightening it somehow – and making me realize it had been heavy before. As we sat on the bench together, I realized that, as always, my brother was right; I needed him as much as he needed me. Even in situations like this. Especially in situations like this.
And for the first time since returning to England, I began to feel truly content.
*crawls out of a deep, dark hole*
Um…hi? I hope at least one of you remembers me? I'm very sorry for the long delay I left you all hanging with. I really appreciate that you take the time to read my story, and this is by no means a way to repay you lovely readers and reviewers. I'd like to thank those of you who sent me little messages asking for updates – they really have kept me going during this ridiculous period of writer's block and homework/life chaos. (grrr).
Anyway, I hope you enjoyed this chapter – I am not going to promise a time period for the next update (it WILL happen – I will not abandon this story!), but I will promise to get it out as soon as I can. I hope you are having a nice Easter Holiday (chocolate bunnies!), and this is my gift to you.
P.S. ~ We all owe my amazing beta, phoenixqueen, an avalanche of cookies. I – with my astonishing powers of observation – accidentally posted the wrong version of this chapter. Oops. Thank goodness she was there to correct me on that! It sounds much better now with all her edits. :)