They tumble through the wardrobe, and it feels like a prison cell slamming shut. Adult minds and animal sides are forced into a single body too small for it all, shoved down and locked away. It almost destroys them.
Lucy spends hours curled up inside the wardrobe, muffling her screams against the coats when her body refuses to accommodate the lioness. Screams turn into tears and Lucy slams too small fists against the wooden panel keeping her away from home, away from the lioness. Sometimes one of the others joins her, and Lucy curls around them in a painful mockery of what she used to be able to do. She hates it most when it’s Peter, so much larger than her in this awful place, but she clings onto him just as tightly.
Edmund is unbalanced, steps landing too loudly or in the wrong place. He crashes into walls with his shoulders and yells in frustration. He climbs trees and clings to the branches while tears blur his vision, often staying up in them for hours. He almost breaks his arm when he falls asleep in it and lets Peter carry him inside, crying too hard to complain. Sometimes Susan joins him by curling up at the base of the tree. It makes him even angrier, but he is grateful for the gesture all the same. He never drops down on her, too afraid of how frail they’ve all become.
Susan spends too much time staring at herself in mirrors. She feels like glass, one wrong move away from shattering completely. There is no tigress beneath her twelve-year-old face, not even when she smashes the reflection in a fit of anger. There are no fangs to flash at those looking down on her. She screams awake at night and tugs her siblings ever closer. She is too small to protect them here, and she is so very afraid. Lucy curls against her back and the feeling makes Susan’s heart seize painfully, but she takes the comfort regardless.
Peter wakes from sleep with tears streaming down his face. Desperate fingers scratch at unyielding skin, begging the jaguar to come out and help him shoulder the weight. He faces the days with blood under his fingernails and a clenched jaw, determined to find a way back for them all. He ends them with shame and guilt bubbling in his chest, itching to come out as a roar. His voice is too high here, and he knows the others flinch whenever they hear it. He lets them curl into him in ways they haven’t been able to in years and prays until his throat aches.
They are adults and cats confined to the cage of fragile human children in a world unwilling to let them cope in the ways they wish to. They spend hours running across the Professor’s property and ignore the sting in their eyes whenever they stumble. The wind doesn’t push against them in the right way, their weight shifts in all the wrong ways, but sometimes things almost seem okay. Edmund and Lucy are still the fastest, with Susan bringing up the rear whenever they sprint. Peter still tackles them with ease. Lucy screams with laughter when Susan picks her up, and Edmund dodges Peter’s grip expertly.
They sneak into each other’s rooms and fall asleep in a heap, a poor imitation of their old habits but something they cling desperately to. Neither weight is correct, and they cry and cry until there are no more tears to be found. The Macready scolds them the first time she finds out, but the Professor takes one look at the terror and desperation they can’t figure out how to hide and tells her to let them be. They push the beds together in one room, and there is no more sneaking. They ignore the continued disapproving glares of the housekeeper in favour of digging fingers into horribly fragile skin and burying their faces in each other’s shoulders. It doesn’t get easier, but slowly the new normal sets in and their tears dry out.
Coming back to London doesn’t help the claustrophobic reality of their cage. It presses in on them as soon as they exit the train, and Peter’s grip on his siblings tightens painfully. They let their mother hug them and hope she won’t force them apart when she realises what strangers they have become. The girls sneak into the boys’ room as soon as they can, and the beds are stripped to make a nest. It’s not nearly as warm as it should be, but they make do. Susan knows their mother sees it, but it’s never brought up to her surprise and relief. The gentle, sad smiles thrown their way whenever it gets late are the only indicator that their new habits have been noticed.
The prospect of going back to school becomes all too real all too soon, and with it comes a cold new wave of fear. Lucy won’t be going to boarding school until the following school term, and the boys don’t share a dorm. Lucy pleads with their mother to be sent to boarding school early, but it cannot be done. Through tears and fury, they devise coping strategies - “we ought to be prepared to explain why we might scream at night, just in case the terrors get worse” - and start a train-fund for emergencies.
The week leading up to the term is filled with nightmares for them all, but Lucy is the worst. The others crowd around her at every breath, terrified of the reality that they will be separated. It’s not the first time, of course, they all remember campaigns and various times of travel in Narnia, but they know that this is worse. Not only are they trapped, but their cages are forced further apart. Neither sleeps during their last night together, too busy memorising the others and begging the universe to intervene. Nothing changes and Lucy shakes as she waves goodbye at the train station.
It’s hard, downright torturous to be apart. Lucy, known for being bright and excitable, struggles in school for the very first time. There are parent-teacher meetings where Lucy stares at the floor and wishes she could avoid the worried glances of her mother. Susan drifts away from her friends, throwing herself into school work in desperate attempts to distract herself from the growing hole in her heart. Solitude becomes her dearest friend, without the odd looks and remarks of her classmates. Edmund and Peter, though their lot is the easiest of the four, find themselves facing down eager bullies with sneering faces. Their instinctive snarls are met with ridicule and insults. Neither adjusts well, and their only companionship remains with each other. Money is saved diligently. Susan writes regular letters to Lucy and the boys, marking off the days until the holiday in them every time.
The first time they see each other again, they cry with a mix of happiness and frustration. There are no signs of home, though Lucy never gives up even when her siblings despair. Their only ray of hope is Lucy’s first boarding school term coming up. Susan cries with relief when she realises they will be so much closer. The four of them spend their holiday in piles out in the garden, tangled and holding on as tight as their too-small bodies will allow. If they bruise, they only cherish the reminder. Their nights grow calmer once more, a change not left unmentioned by their mother. She looks at them with hurt, yet somewhat guilty eyes and they don’t know how to explain and soothe her worries. They simply nod and hope she will be alright eventually.
“She’s lost us as her children as much as we lost her as our mother,” Susan whispers that night as they settle down in the boys’ room. “We cannot blame her for feeling hurt.” And they don’t. Instead, they take care to be of as much help as their mother will allow while they are in the house.
It doesn’t become home, not with the way their skin refuses to yield, and their voices are so quickly overheard. Regardless, Peter often muses that as long as they have each other, even such a grey and claustrophobic place as England feels ever so slightly brighter. The others huddle closer and agree.
“It shan’t be long now,” Lucy promises every evening with a kiss. “He will call us back. You will see.” And oh, how they hope.