The thought comes to her in painful clarity as she looks at the Stone Table. This time, staying would hurt as much as leaving. And also, further back in the corner of her mind, I’m not coming back.
She can see the knowledge somewhere in Peter’s eyes, hidden deep below where he can’t (won’t let himself) find it. She lowers her eyes from his and cups her hands and weaves together sunlight and warmth and all the memories this land has given her into something she can hold in her hands, and as she steps through the archway she hides it in her heart. To know that it is there is enough, she thinks, and she ties back her hair and rolls up her sleeves and stares critically at a world that is all she has left.
This is what Susan knows. Your life is only what you make of it. You do what you can with what you are given, and you work hard, and if one day you look in the mirror and don’t recognize yourself, it hurts less. That all the truths learned once are no longer applicable here, and the sea and the sun are no longer edges of eternity.
On her 17th birthday, they go to the shore. The sky stretches forever into the blue sea, and if she looks at nothing hard enough she can watch what she imagines is eternity.
She has grown up twice now in two worlds, and all she holds as remembrance of the first is threads of a might-have-once-been. Standing on the rocks that lead to nowhere, she cups her hands and feels salt spray roll down her face and trickle through her fingers, an insubstantial, mutable nothing wearing away the rocks beneath her feet.
She wades into the ocean, far enough out so that she can drift in the wave swells. Looking up, she can see white gleam on the rocks above the shore. She blinks back salt and imagines a castle made of magic standing there. When she dives under the waves and comes back up, shaking her head free of the water, it is gone.
This is what Susan keeps close to her heart. Peter as he wakes up in the morning, drowsy and peaceful. Edmund playing the flute, bent over his music in solemn content. Lucy dancing, all wild grace and abandon and thoughtless beauty. The sea and the sky melding together until you can see how they end (because they don’t). The feel of sunlight in her mouth and warm wood beneath her fingers as she pulls back, and the clean arc of red feathers in flight.
Susan knows the value of masks, and even as she paints her lips blood red (faint memories stir of her lips red with real blood – her own, her allies’, her enemy’s) she laughs at the futility. She knows that the real mask is your own body, how you stand and talk and the sideways glances you give under lashes. She remembers how to paint your skin with magic and how their enemy wore many different faces (or is it that all their enemies wear the same face?).
England was to be their prison, but it takes only making the choice she wasn’t given to turn it into a semblance of a home, and so she walks steadily and laughs at jokes she’s heard a hundred (thousand) times before. She watches her siblings crash against walls they’d forgotten were there, and waits for them to come to her.
They never do.
This is what Susan wishes could be (once was never will be). The feel of skin on skin, the heady rush of success after a victory, sunlight on sea and candlelight on silk. Smooth wood beneath her fingers, silver crowning her head, Peter’s hand in hers. Being able to see the land she loves without pulling out what is left of her heart, and the bravery to be who she is and not who she is defined as.
She goes to an archery range once, and waits patiently as the instructor tells her how to place her fingers. Finally growing weary of it, she picks up the bow and strings it in one fluid motion, her fingers remembering things they’ve never done, and then pulls back and shoots. It hits the center, and the instructor looks at her warily.
Muscle memory, she says, and then laughs because in some strange, impossible, worlds-spanning way she is right. She hands him back the bow and leaves, the bitter taste of failure in the back of her throat.
She looks in the mirror as she puts her hair up, and gives no outward sign that the girl who looks back is not the girl Susan knows. Once, she thinks as she brushes on blush, she was beautiful in her own way. But to remain like that would be to be different, and that is not what she wants.
She applies her lipstick with a steady hand and watches her siblings fumbling for balance in a world they’ve forgotten, and she doesn’t wait for them anymore.