"What are you doing?" the words came out sharper than Susan had intended, but nonetheless she put her own work down and crossed the shop in a few quick strides to where Mary was folding jumpers to lay them out on a shelf. Snatching the grey cardigan out of the younger girl's hands, she shook it out and began to re-fold it properly. "Leave it on the shelf in that shabby pile and it'll be certain to stay there. Honestly!"
Mary started to stammer. "I'm sorry, I--"
Tori interrupted crossly. "Oh, leave her be, Susan. It's only her first week."
"And that's supposed to mean what, exactly? That no one ever taught her to fold clothes before she came to work in a dress shop?" Susan snapped, pivoting back to Mary. "Surely your mother wouldn't find this acceptable either. Go help Liz sweep out the back for tonight. I'll finish up this display."
She ignored the embarrassment in Mary's eyes, deliberately turning her back and focusing on her work.
She'd been too harsh with her, Susan knew that, but it seemed she couldn't help it these days. She only ever didn't feel angry when she stopped trying to hold back the tears.
The trouble was when she didn't hold back, they came pouring out forever.
There were times, especially this time of year with Christmas fast approaching, when keeping busy seemed the only way to keep from falling apart. So, busy she kept, her hands occupied with folding and her mind for once, blessedly quiet.
The street outside was dark and quiet. Most of the other shops had also closed for the night, so the only light filtered dimly through shuttered windows or fell from dim yellow street lamps. A light carpet of snow lay outside, and something about the combination of snow and lamp-posts made Susan's stomach tighten. She wasn't looking forward to the walk home, and not just because it grew dark so early this time of year.
Shivering with something other than cold, Susan turned away from the window.
She'd worked as a clerk at Miss Tudor's dress shop for nearly three years now: one before the railway accident that had turned her world upside down, and two after. Miss Tudor herself, bless her heart, had been most understanding when Susan needed time off to mourn and make funeral preparations, and equally so when she'd begged to return to work: the long, hauntingly quiet days in that empty house grown too much to bear. So she'd sold the house, put the money away into a small nest egg and found herself a small flat not far from the shop.
Susan had tried to go back to her old life after the funeral--filling her days with work and her nights with parties--but without Mum, Dad, Peter, Edmund and Lucy to disapprove and get her back up, it was all too easy to see for the hollow thing it really was.
These days, all dining and dancing did was to remind her of the time she'd wasted, time she might've spent with her family. Most nights she went straight home, ate a quiet dinner alone and went to bed early. It was a lonely life, but lonely was safe.
She had company enough in the persons of her ghosts. Friends were only losses waiting to happen.
Susan froze, feeling instantly ashamed of actions she'd nearly forgotten a moment before. "Yes, Miss Tudor?"
The older woman came up beside her, laying a kindly hand on her shoulder. "I know the Christmas holiday is difficult for you, dear. Still, do try to remember that Mary really is a good girl, she's just very inexperienced."
Susan grimaced. "Does it really matter what she thinks of me? Even if I'd done nothing, Tori and Liz would turn her soon enough."
Miss Tudor let out a deep sigh. "No, dear, I fear you do that all on your own," she corrected gently. "They're young and careless, Susan, just like you were when you started here. It isn't fair to hold your own tragedy against them because they haven't suffered the like."
She might have appeared frail, with her thin, wrinkled body and her brittle silver hair, but there was very little that Miss Tudor was afraid to confront. It was part of the reason for Susan's loyalty--she made her think of the woman Lucy might have grown up to be had she lived.
"I think we've done enough," Miss Tudor declared after a long moment's silence. "You go on, Susan. I'll fetch the girls and lock up behind."
Perhaps sensing Susan's hesitation, she added, "I can send Sam along if it'll make you feel safer." Sam was her brother; the two of them lived in a flat above the shop.
"No, I'll be all right," Susan assured her hastily. "You know my flat's not far and I can look after myself."
"Yes, I fear you've gotten far too good at looking after yourself," Miss Tudor agreed with a shrewd but sympathetic look. "Run along, then. We'll see you on Monday."
She hadn't gotten far from the shop when the other girls emerged; not far enough, at least, that Mary didn't run after her.
"Susan?" she called breathlessly, snow flying around her feet. "I'm told...well, Liz and Tori and I are off to the pub for a bit before we head off home, and I thought you might like to join us."
Susan stopped, startled by the offer. For a moment, she thought about Miss Tudor's words and nearly said yes, but then she glanced over at Tori and Liz, who were watching the scene with obvious distaste. Clearly it had been Mary's idea, not theirs, to invite her along.
It was stupid that that should matter, but it did. Susan lifted her chin. "Thanks, but no." Pride made her add, "I've a previous engagement."
Mary looked half disappointed and half relieved. "Oh...well, perhaps some other time?"
"Perhaps," she agreed without much conviction.
She watched as Mary turned back to the other two. They were close enough that she was able to catch a bit of their conversation without even trying:
"...knew she wouldn't. Too good for us, that one. I want to know who died and left her queen?"
Tori let out a delightfully scandalised gasp. "Liz! That's a dreadful thing to say!"
"Why is it?" Mary asked, sounding bewildered.
"Ooh, that's right, you haven't heard the whole tragic tale..."
Reeling, Susan stumbled away towards home. It wasn't what they thought of her that shook her; that she'd known for a while now. It was the words themselves: ...who died and left her queen?
No, she scolded herself fiercely, fighting the thought that threatened to bubble to the surface. There was no way she was going to let one careless remark drag her back down into a morass of childhood fantasies, the selfsame fantasies that had cost her a relationship with her siblings and them their lives. No, it wasn't real.
Unfortunately, the internal battle wasn't so easy to win. By the time she emerged from it feeling even moderately victorious, she looked up to discover she was no nearer her flat than she'd been when she left the shop. She'd gone the wrong way, wound up somehow in a narrow street that was entirely deserted.
Well, deserted but for the skinny man in the brown pinstriped suit and long coat who was running towards her, waving his arms like a madman. "Look sharp!" he shouted at her, genuine alarm in his voice.
Susan ducked instinctively, just in time for a large black shape to swoop over her head in the night sky. She looked up just the thing that had narrowly missed her flew across the full moon, casting its shape into silhouette. An impossible silhouette.
She stumbled backwards, landing square on the seat of her wool coat in the snow. By now the pinstriped man had reached her, and Susan saw to her disbelief that he had a quiver of arrows slung over his shoulder and carried a longbow in one hand.
"Sorry 'bout that," the man informed her cheerfully. "I'm the Doctor, by the way. And you would be?"
She was too stunned to answer, spitting out instead, "What...what was that?"
"What'd it look like?" he answered her question with one of his own, giving her a curious look out of the corner of his eyes.
Susan shook her head emphatically. "It can't be what it looks like!"
Dear God, he was worse than Peter, Ed and Lucy towards the end. "Dragons don't exist!" she stated adamantly. "Not in England, not now!"
"Nope, they don't," he agreed, and for one blissful moment Susan thought the man might be sane after all. Until he added, "However, a full-grown vortisaur can look and behave remarkably like a dragon, if provoked." He waved the bow at her. "See this? Anachronistic weapon. Picked it up from a fellow by the name of Locksley, used to hang about in Sherwood forest...though perhaps hang isn't quite the right word, much a certain authorities might have wished it to be. Vortisaurs feed on temporal energy, so in theory if I can hit it with one of these arrows, it should pop right back into the Vortex."
He whipped out an arrow, sighted and fired. The projectile went soaring right past the creature, who turned its head briefly as though in idle curiosity, then circled around and dove for them once again. The Doctor yelped, pulling Susan to the ground.
"You can't practice archery in this light," she protested. "It's ridiculous; how could you possibly think to hit a target you can't even see?"
"Yes, that does appear to be a problem, doesn't it?" he mused. "Suppose I could lure it back to the TARDIS, but that didn't work so well the last time. Of course, that could be because my companion at the time was a walking paradox, but then..." The Doctor glanced at her, frowning. "There seems to be something rather temporally odd about you, too. This may sound weird, but have you been this age once before?"
Susan's heart almost stopped and she could feel all the colour drain from her face. "What?"
"It's just, when I look at you, it's as though part of your life was rewound and started over," he answered, still frowning. "Very strange...never seen anything quite like it."
"How did you...?" No, they were childhood fantasies, they weren't real! She hadn't been this age before, hadn't been courted by the lords and princes of half a dozen realms and rejected them all because some part of her knew, though she hated it, that she didn't belong to that world and would one day have to give it up.
He grinned, not seeming to notice her growing consternation. "I'm a Time Lord. S'what we do."
Heart pounding, Susan insisted sharply, "Don't you think you ought to be doing something about the dragon--or whatever it is--before you worry about me?"
"What?" He looked at her blankly for a moment. "Oh! Right--vortisaur, twentieth-century London: bad combination."
It was at that moment that Susan lost patience. "Oh, honestly, give me that!" She plucked off her gloves and snatched the longbow out of his hands. Grabbing an arrow from the quiver, she notched it to the string of the bow with uncomfortably practiced ease. "I don't suppose you could manage to summon up a bit more light?"
The Doctor's eyes brightened. "Right!" Grabbing some sort of odd silver wand out of his pocket, he jogged over to the nearest street lamp. Shimmying up it as though he were part monkey, he popped off one globe after another, waved the device at the bulbs and all at once the light from each grew brighter. "How's that?"
It didn't help much, but then she'd used a bow effectively in far less light before. An image flashed into her mind of a dark castle courtyard: caught up as she was in trying to spot some vulnerability on the creature he'd called a vortisaur, for once she didn't force it aside.
The important thing was she could see well enough to note that the vortisaur was not scaled like a dragon, therefore there was no need to seek out the rare hole in the armour (caused by moulted scales that failed to re-grow) that was a dragon's only weakness. She didn't want to kill, so she aimed instead for the right forelimb, right where it would disable the wing without tearing it. Pausing only a moment to relax into the feel of the weapon and let her body remember it, she drew back the string and let the arrow fly.
When the metal shaft struck true and the creature vanished with an indignant cry, she felt a swell of unexpected pride and triumph; not what she would've expected to associate with a skill so closely tied in her mind to those dreams she'd long ago rejected. Lowering the bow slowly, Susan glanced over at the Doctor.
He was smiling like ten sorts of madmen all at once, yet remarkably Susan wasn't afraid. In fact, she felt braver than she'd done in years: it was as though just having the bow in her hands made her a different person. Who that person was...well, whether she had the courage to examine that or no she still wasn't certain.
"Brilliant!" he exclaimed, hopping down from the lamp-post and crossing back over to her. "Remind me to take you along the next time I go vortisaur hunting. Just one question--how does a mid-twentieth-century shop girl learn to wield the longbow as though she were born to it?"
"I...I don't..." Susan stammered for a moment, still trying to hold back the tide of memories or dreams or whatever it was--the certainty that had been shaken by her family's deaths was teetering on the edge of oblivion now. Desperately her mind seized onto an escape. "Wait a moment, how do you know where I work? Have you been following me?"
"What? No!" the Doctor looked startled, then embarrassed. "Well...I might've followed the vortisaur, and it does appear the vortisaur was following you. As I said, you've a rather peculiar temporal signature, Miss..." He paused, then. "I don't believe I ever did catch your name."
Relieved to be back on safe territory, she answered him. "Susan. Susan Pevensie."
The Doctor froze, every bit of colour draining from his face until it looked as though his dark hair and eyes might begin to fade next. He shook it off quickly, though, turning away from her with only a hint of strain in his overly-casual voice. "Well, best be getting on. Places to go, worlds to save."
"Wait a moment," Susan objected. "You can't just..." She stopped suddenly, not entirely sure she wanted the answer to the question that had been on her lips.
He looked back at her. "Can't what?"
She didn't answer, but rather found herself blurting out impatiently instead: "Who are you?"
The Doctor grinned. "I told you: I'm the Doctor."
"You say that as though it's meant to tell me everything about you," Susan protested. "Well, I'm sorry but it doesn't. Not nearly."
"No more than your name tells all there is to know about you, I wager," the Doctor answered, eyeing her shrewdly. "Would you like to know more, then, Susan Pevensie? About me? Possibly even about yourself?" He held out one hand.
Susan hesitated, her heart pounding against her ribs as though eager for something the rest of her still feared. Don't, a familiar voice whispered inside her. If you do, you'll never be able to go back. Take his hand and you doom yourself forever to be who you are, not who you want to be.
For probably the first time since she'd returned home from America all those years ago, Susan didn't listen to that voice. She took his hand, felt slender fingers curl around her own, and gave the most dangerous answer to his question that she could: "Yes...yes, I rather think I would."
The Doctor grinned and she suddenly found herself being pulled along one street after another, some familiar and some not.
When they finally reached their destination, however, Susan felt a sharp sting of betrayal.
"There she is!" the Doctor exclaimed proudly. "That's the TARDIS."
Not that she oughtn't have expected it, Susan thought sourly: naturally the one time she let her control slip and began to believe, even for a moment, that there might be something out there more magical, the world had to show her just how very ordinary it was.
"A police box?" she asked coldly. "That's your grand secret, that you're a policeman?"
The Doctor smiled again, and there was something odd in that smile. "Just you wait." Pulling a key on a long chain out from under his collar, he slipped it into the lock and opened the door.
There was a room inside. A room that couldn't possibly fit into the box, anymore than a forest could fit into a wardrobe. This was it, then--what the voice had been warning her about. This was the point of no return, because if she stepped across the threshold and accepted that impossible space, then all the excuses she'd crafted so carefully to justify to herself why her memories of Narnia couldn't possibly be true crumbled to dust. Reality in all its beautiful, magical, perilous glory forced its way into her limited mind and tore down those walls, confronting her with the harsher truth that she had thrown away everything she loved for an illusion of safety.
That was the truth she'd been hiding from. But in doing so, she'd given up the memories of a lifetime and allowed herself to lose her family not just once, but twice.
In that instant, Susan saw herself for who she was and reclaimed it. She stepped over the threshold and looked calmly at the Doctor, who was waiting for her with eager, expectant eyes.
"Well?" he asked. "Aren't you going to say it?"
"Say what?" Susan asked.
"That it's bigger on the inside?"
Susan the Gentle, Queen of Narnia, smiled. "Yes, I suppose it is. But then, my sister once found an entire country in the upstairs wardrobe."