Disclaimer: I do not own Susan or any of the events in her life. I do, however, own basically everyone else in this story.
AN: I always want Susan to have a happy ending and I have, over the years, thought seriously about her life after the events of The Last Battle. This is my attempt at discovering how Susan's attitudes would have been altered by those events and, mostly, how people see her now.
And The Queen Married The Banker
She sat tall, despite the disapproving frowns she was receiving from around the room. The women of Warren Kenly's family were unimpressed with the girl he had brought home. She was pretty enough, if one wanted cold, classical beauty in his bride. She was smart enough, if one didn't mind a bride who never quailed at offering her oh-so-dissident opinion. And she was rich enough, if one didn't believe in curses.
It wasn't that the Kenly women believed such fiddle-faddle, but it was hard to ignore the girl's tragic history. Parents, siblings, cousin, even a family friend or two were all tragically killed in that train accident several years ago. The only family the poor girl had left were her aunt and uncle, neither of whom she cared to associate with.
There were stories, of course. That she hadn't become a character out of gothic fiction was a miracle and some said she'd been heading that way for quite some time. Whatever had brought her out of it had worked though, producing a woman aged far beyond her years.
She hadn't inherited a fortune, by any means, but she'd had the common sense to invest it. That was how she met Warren. Seven years her senior and a promising young banker, no one knew what they'd found to talk about -- besides her finances -- but she'd somehow gotten a proposal out of him.
"And when were you planning on … affirming this union?" Justine, the family matriarch and Warren's grandmother, asked, finally breaking the silence in the small sitting room.
Susan met the woman's hawk-like gaze evenly, without malice and without fear. "Three weeks."
Aunt Penelope's teacup clattered in its saucer.
"So soon?" Penelope's sister, Marge, asked.
"We see no reason to wait."
Justine's eyes narrowed. "I am afraid that I do. This is a large family and many, if not all, of its members will wish to congratulate Warren on his wedding day. I do not expect you to understand this."
Susan's eyes darkened, but she gave no other indication that the woman's words had cut her. "I am well aware of your family, Mrs. Kenly. It is my understanding that most of them live close by. If any of them wish to congratulate Warren or myself they should have no trouble doing so. In three weeks we plan on a quiet exchange of vows, nothing more."
She glanced up at the clock over the mantle and stood. "I'm afraid I must go. Warren is expecting me. It was kind of you to invite me for tea."
Before any of the ladies could say a word Susan had breezed out the door.
"The nerve of her," Justine hissed. "Thinking she can marry a member of this family."
"Honestly," Penelope said, her small voice trembling, "a girl like that should have some respect for others and simply … put herself away."
Justine bit back a sigh. "She is not cursed, Pen. But I agree. A girl with that much emotional turmoil should have the good grace to not to entangle her life with others'." She stood, carefully adjusting the collar of her dress as she did. "I will have to have a talk with Warren."
Susan glanced at the address Warren had given her as she turned the corner. She wasn't familiar with this part of the city and her meeting with his grandmother and aunts had made her late enough as it was without her getting lost.
Firm arms wrapped around her, lifting her off the ground and spinning her about. For one terrifyingly clear moment she was home: her mind raced as she sought to identify which nation would seek to attack her, and her fingers reached for the knife that no longer hung always at her side. Then Warren's hearty laugh swept away the cobwebs of her past and she came back to herself. She hugged him back, laughing in kind, though unsure whether she did it for joy or simply to keep the tears at bay.
He set her back on her feet and she looked up into his bright eyes, catching her breath. His smile was infectious and her breath escaped her once more, as it always did when he looked at her like that.
"Don't you know you shouldn't accost a lady on the street?" she asked.
"You'd think a lady being accosted would cry out. You barely made a sound."
She ducked her head and he took her hand, swinging their arms between them as they walked.
"Which is why I like you," he whispered, ducking down to speak in her ear. "I prefer a woman who isn't afraid of every little thing, useless in a crisis."
She bit her lip and her head popped up, her awkwardness forgotten in the face of his praise. "Where are we going?" she asked.
"It's a surprise," he said proudly, puffing his chest out.
She bit back a giggle and let him lead her down the busy street. They were still getting looks from pedestrians who'd seen their earlier show, but she didn't mind. Attention, good and bad, was something she could deal with. When they stopped it was at a small restaurant where a table for two was set up for them in the back.
"Not that I don't enjoy eating out," she said, placing her napkin in her lap before looking over the menu, "but this isn't much of a surprise."
"No," he said, "but this is."
From beneath the table he pulled a small white box that had clearly been waiting for them. He watched patiently while she opened the lid, his smile intensifying at her gasp of joy. Wrapped in tissue paper she found a lion figurine, no longer than her index finger. It was a work of fine craftsmanship, capturing the lion's strength and contained grace in a moment of calm serenity.
"You remember our first date?" he asked. "I finally got you to go out with me and when we got to the zoo you wouldn't even look at the lions," he said, laughing.
"They were too tame, I told you that," she insisted, cradling the figurine in the palm of her hand.
"And the caretaker who heard you thought you were mad."
Only years of diplomatic experience kept her from saying the words on the tip of her tongue. "Many people think me mad."
"Thank you," she said instead. "I love it. I already know exactly where I'll put it in your house."
"Our house," he corrected, taking her free hand in both of his.
"Our house," she echoed with a smile.
"Now, what shall we have to eat?" he asked, snapping open his menu.
"Warren," Justine said, walking past him into his house without waiting for his invitation.
"Grandmother," he half-sighed, obediently closing the door behind her and following into the sitting room.
"I assume you know why I am here," Justine said, taking a regal seat in a wingback chair.
"You do not approve of Susan," he said, taking his own seat casually, "and you want me to call off the engagement."
He had entertained naïve fantasies that, when they met her, his aunts and grandmother might approve of Susan, but he'd always known they would not. She was too … something for them. He didn't know quite what that something was but it had been what made him approach her at the bank all those months ago, what made him fall in love with her, what he knew he would spend his entire life trying to understand. Of course, he knew that some elusive something was not enough to base a marriage on. Solid, hard work was called for and that was something he was more than willing to contribute.
Justine nodded curtly.
"That will not be happening."
Justine's eyes narrowed. "Do you have any idea why she has agreed to marry you? Your ages are far removed --"
"Not so far, I am not quite an old man."
Justine did not smile at the joke. "You are well-positioned in your employment, you promise to go far. It is entirely possible that she is marrying you simply for security's sake."
"Successful marriages have been built on nothing more than that," he said calmly.
She met his eyes for a moment, silently asking if he could truly live such a life, before he rose from his chair and paced to the window. Looking out at the busy street he tried to rein in his emotions. Truthfully, he had asked himself a thousand times why Susan was marrying him. Not because, as his grandmother thought, she was beneath him, but because she could do so much better. It was in the way she looked at him, the way she spoke to everyone she met as if they were a good friend she just hadn't made yet. And she loved life with a fervor that made him wonder if she hadn't seen more during the war than she let on. And sometimes -- he sighed -- sometimes he would catch her with a faraway look in her eye, her expression settling into something somehow both serene and troubled, and he would be caught up in the thought that she was a princess who'd fallen from some fantastic kingdom in the clouds.
"Do you know when I knew?" he asked, his voice hoarse. "When I knew I loved her? That I would never meet another woman like her and if I was at all sane I would catch her up and never let her go?"
Justine was silent behind him and he barreled on.
"She had met me at a small restaurant near the bank after I was through with my work. We were having a perfectly nice time when voices carried from a few tables over. They were some of my coworkers and they were discussing us. They hadn't seen us, I'm sure, there was a plant in the way and it was an awkward angle between us anyway, but … They spoke of her family, of the crash. She held her head high, though I knew it broke her heart. I wanted to hold her, tell her it would be alright, but she never gave any indication that she was breaking inside.
"I almost asked if she would prefer to leave, but then a cry rang out. Women began leaping onto their chairs and I could see a few men who I knew wanted to do the same. There was a mouse in the restaurant. Waiters were chasing it around tables, throwing chairs wildly, but Susan simply knelt down and caught the creature up in her hand." He shook his head, near laughing at the memory. "One of the waiters brought a serving dish and lid, asking her to hand the creature over so it could be disposed of. She simply shook her head, saying she couldn't let him do it."
"She likes mice?" Justine asked, clearly disgusted. "You love her because she likes diseased rodents?"
"No," he said, "I love her for the reason she gave. After we'd left -- her taking a slice of bread from the table to feed the mouse with along the way -- we headed to the park to set it free. She told me that at the darkest moment of her life, when the entire world had seemed dark and small, she had seen mice act out of naïve hope."
At Justine's narrowed eyes he went on, "I didn't understand it, I still don't, but the way she said it … I knew I either had to believe her or call her a lunatic, there was no other path. And, well, I have believed stranger things."
"Mice?" Justine snapped. "With hope? Of course she is mad! To think that after her family died she would be faced with hopeful mice who changed her life!"
"No," Warren said, suddenly very calm, "she made it quite clear that this had nothing to do with her family and that the mice's hope did nothing, helped no one. It was simply the fact that it existed in a moment of such supreme darkness that mattered."
He didn't say the rest, that she'd also mentioned the mice's reverence for the divine and that when he'd asked what she meant she had only said that one day she would tell the entire story to her children, should she have any. He'd wanted to give her those children, desperately, in that moment. It wasn't just lust or love, though he knew those were factors. He wanted to know the story, felt that somehow the very turn of his life depended on knowing what it meant when she called them Easter Mice.
"And I am going to marry her," he said. "I love her and I am not fool enough to let her slip through my fingers."
"But you are fool enough to marry the woman!"
"That would be what makes it love, Grandmother. It makes us seem fools to those who do not understand it."
"How dare you," she said, her words thin and tight. "I loved your grandfather, your parents, and I love you far too much to let you allow this woman to ruin your life."
He nodded solemnly, considering her words. "And will you love me if I do? True love goes on after an affront, it can withstand a slap in the face. True love can be denied, stabbed in the back, and go on to die saving the object of its devotion without a second thought. Will you be able to love me still after this?"
Justine left the house without another word.
"I'm getting married soon," Susan said quietly. The church was empty save for a widow near the front and a pair of young men near the back, leaving her free to speak aloud.
"I know, you already know, but I'm not sure I ever thanked you properly." She went silent, thinking of how to say this just right. "I couldn't marry someone my own age," she said after several minutes. "He was a soldier, which must be your doing. Only a man who's seen war, made those decisions, those sacrifices, could understand me. Like you said," she added with a smile, "once and always a queen." She sighed heavily. "I don't always understand why I was left behind, why I have to continue on when everyone else is gone. I used to think you were punishing me, that I had done something wrong. It took a long time for me to understand that I wasn't ready, I'm still understanding, really. I still cry, I still want to curse and rage. But queens don't do those things, which, I suppose, means you've always been preparing me for this.
"And then you brought Warren into my life. I'm happy when I'm with him and I've only ever been happier with you. I love him, more than I ever thought possible. I used to have princes for suitors, but they never turned my head the way he does." She laughed. "I never thought I could feel something this amazing without you next to me. But I can see you in him sometimes, the way he smiles at little children, the way he puts up with me. I never knew I could love like this.
"Soon," she said happily, gratefully, "I will be married to a man better than any prince."
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