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the book of smoke and mirrors, by briony tallis

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They meet for a smoke by the library gates. It's the best middle ground; if they sat by the fountains the boys would leer at them, and Briony had a five minute break before starting her shift again. The only two girls in the building, some of the very few on campus, they had started coming to each other for help in the first weeks of the semester and never really stopped.

"Girls like us, we have to stick together," Susan says, before offering Briony a cigarette. She hadn't explained what kind of girls she was referring to-- too poor female students, sister-less sisters, discarded Eves.

It didn't really matter - they didn't understand each other, in any case. Not wholly, or at least they liked to pretend they didn't. It was a bit like looking in the mirror after waking up, or after a grey day, or a cold bath, and there was that split moment where you looked at the chilled mirror and didn't recognize the reflection, or didn't want to recognize yourself in it. Make that moment a couple of hours everyday and you'd have the friendship of Briony Tallis and Susan Pevensie.

She had declined. The smoke, that is; cigarretts had always been Ceecee's thing, tastefully forbidden statements of rebellion. An understated, mildly accepted revolution. It wouldn't be right to steal that from her. Even if Susan always offered. She was very courteous, was her friend. 

Susan, on the other hand, had no issue with stealing from her dead sibling's belongings, and it was theft, though technically they were her inheritance. She took Lucy's hair ties, Edmund's hats and Peter's prospects. It didn't diminishes her Susan-ness in the least; Briony envied her that. She felt like a patched up blanket of stitched rags, pieces of other people's stories tied in the strings of her actions, most of them crooked.

When the war had ended and most of the nurses went back to their working husbands, Briony had lingered. The doctors started to trust her. It had scared her, the permanence of it. She had been too comfortable, or too displaced, it was hard to say. University was an escape disguised as an opportunity. 

"In any case," Susan had said after a perfectly timed drag, "do you have any plans for Christmas?"

Susan's changes of subject were jarring in how fluid they were. She was studying history, but something told Bryory that one way or another, she would end up in Diplomacy. The Foreign Office, maybe; she wouldn’t look out of place in Whitehall, in discreet meeting places and gold-bright parties. Susan was the type. Quiet and charming and seemlessly, naturally dignified, in a way that made it impossible not to forgive any snootiness and made her occasional dark moods mysterious instead of grating. Her back was always straight, her lipstick always rose-red, her eyes always rimmed black and purple under the makeup. She chose her words artfully, and for someone who built themselves out of words Susan's mastery was worthy of awe. 

Briony, who was pale and wan and haunted, like the white wallflowers tangled in the ivy back at home, the ones that clung to the walls and the sunshine and lived long, but always just on the edge of wilting; Briony loved Susan. At first she had loved the description of her, the way the dictionary crowded in her mind at the sight of her, the impossible-charisma-tragedy-wet-hems lovely aberration of her. It was a word-love and a freshly-bought-book-love, and somewhere around the time Susan told her she hated every single one of London's lion statues and Briony confessed how she loved the feeling of holding bandages over bleeding wounds a little too much, it became a touch-and-feel-it love too.

She loved the shadow of her in the pavement, the ghosts clinging to her red smile, the elegant slant of her handwriting, like she was used to using a quill instead of a pen. Every breath, every weighted-down lifted-up breath of Susan's was heavy with histories. And Briony loved them, but somehow she loved Susan more, and it was so strange, so foreign, to look at someone and see flesh and blood, not lines of ink on cheap paper. Empathy was so much easier when it was written down.

For this reasons, and because she was only pretty the way Botticelli's biblical ladies were pretty, Briony had few acquaintances, fewer friends and an appalling lack of mail every morning. There were stay cats, though. Those she fed, and forgave every scratch they gave her. She was so tempted to try to tame them, but it would be a sacrilege to do so. Susan had helped her pick up their names. 

There was no use in telling Susan what she already knew. Instead, she said, "My place has better heating than yours. Bring the eggnog, I'll have the meat in the oven."

Susan smiled, that small peeking of white, exactly wide enough to be real, and it would be a lie to say that Briony didn't think of Ceecee, of her parents invitation placed face down by the sink, the piles of scattered pages about women that weren't named Susan because it would be a betrayal and a revelation too close to heart every time ---

 

(it would always be a betrayal, it would always be unfair and that much artificial, but they both feel like it was what they deserve, so they write and smoke and chip at each other that little bit more, until this chapter too is over. queens and writers are all the same - too many border disputes in the curve of perfumed necks, fluttering armadas in each aching wrist, civil wars brewing under rougued cheeks.

'it's all smoke and mirrors, dear'. susan will tell her, freckled legs tangled in bryony's sheets. a caroling group will pass under the building, drifting hymns up the open window. she'll be smoking, briony hunched over the writing machine. mo slow afterglow for the restless. 'you put on the mirrors, blow out the smoke, polish your smile, and that's that. people like to be lied to, you see. it's comforting, like war overseas. or solitary lampposts. civilized, but only just.'

'sometimes', briony will say, looking at her through the mirror. she'll punch that mirror on new year's eve. susan will pick out every shred of glass out of her fingers, hold her hand the whole day, until it's february and it stops snowing, it's march and susan slaps her during an argument, it's june july august and briony doesn't dedicate her first book to susan, doesn't dedicate it to anyone because she's fairly sure it's not the right way to apologies to dead people. december again, and there are scars in bryory's hand that will ache all of her winters.

'sometimes lies are what allow you to close the door behind you. or pretend to, so you can go on. sometimes lying is almost alright.')

 

But it was a smile, and it was Susan's, and the cigarette smoke almost doesn't smell like an illusion, almost doesn't choke her. Briony breathes in, breathes out, heavy and drunk on a worship of gently written lies.