It was a terrible thing: Susan laughed before Lucy did.
Not a company-laugh--she'd had to do those within days of returning home, the women of their street trying to find things to smile about as they picked up the rubble of their houses. Laughs that weren't laughs in any way, more echoes of life before the Blitz, Susan learning at her mother's hand how to socialize, be pleasant, fit in.
Lucy never learned that laugh anyway, though Mother did try to teach her; Susan too. She wasn't interested, but soon enough that would not have mattered: one had to learn how to behave, to get along in the world, to do what was needed to secure one's future. She knew of it, of course, wrinkled her nose at it, and was young enough still to escape the parlour for the garden, read a book in the kitchens instead of attending on relatives on the Sunday visit.
Being there--being in Narnia--had changed things. By the lion, what a foolish thing to say; even now the Susan-she-was clashed with the Susan-she-is at the thought, both persons some strange carnival-mirror reflections of herself. Lucy had known by then, back then, when-then, how to behave in company, though in Narnia one did not laugh if one was not amused. Though there was so very much to amuse, faun-dances and summer sunsets, the dip of the Splendor cresting through a wave. The four of them, together, in perfect trust and perfect love. Narnia was no place for dissembling.
Lucy, their sweetheart-queen, laughed the most and the longest, spinning with dryads and skipping rocks with the Seals. They became women there, motherless though they were. Susan knew her power, became a diplomat, renewed the policies Helen and Frank had once established and grew Narnia's borders beyond fair Galma, their former colony and trades-port, to the Seven Isles, and trading even further afar. She had begun to think of children, that secret part of her whispering now to her girlish body, thinking then of going deep into the waters to speak with the Rivermouth, mother of naiads, and learning how she might choose to bring her daughters and sons into her blessed world.
They laughed then, as sisters, rulers, and women; there was much to laugh about.
None of them laughed when they returned. Not when they tumbled through the Wardrobe, clothes that were once rags rewoven on their young, untried bodies. The Professor waved off concerns about their melancholy, and the maids gossiped, of course, they're worried about their parents and the war; but that was so far from their minds then, the loss too fresh and raw. It had taken several days before their confused minds began to remember Mother and Father at all, having lived so long without parents that it was more of a shock to recall them than having forgotten.
When they were called home, fetched like hundreds of other boys and girls massing in unruly hordes at every country train station, Peter held on to them all so tightly that red marks livened their skin at first, though none of them complained. It was the only thing that felt real, the four of them, who didn't bear their grief on their unmarred bodies. Mother come to meet them (Father at the Home Office), and they all hesitated as the other children threw themselves forward, screaming and crying and laughing all at once. Mother's drawn face, her joy and grief at seeing them, felt as though it were happening to another person all together; and Peter had to be the first to come forward, offering his hand only to be tightly hugged, and each of them in turn.
Their sadness did not go unnoticed, but it did go unremarked; everybody was sad, even as stubborn threads of hope at the coming of Armistice shot out like spring flower-buds after a harsh winter.
That, they did know; for the first time in a score of years and more, Susan knew they all thought of Jadis, and Edmund most of all.
There was too much to do, and no words to speak, and so Peter and Edmund and Susan began the work in front of them with silent fortitude.
Lucy often disappeared, would nearly miss dinner after missing tea, but no one commented on it save Father, who asked Peter and Susan if their sister was alright. There were no words for that either, but they took turns trying to placate him, and it seemed enough that he carried on to the Home Office the next day with a careful smile for Lucy, who didn't seem to see it but at least did not frown.
Neither Mother nor Father spoke of Edmund, he who had changed the very most of all of them; but then, he gave them nothing to remark on, diligent and careful and always, always respectful, offering Father his coat and briefcase at the door, bringing Mother a cup of tea just as she was looking to the kettle. If they were unnerved, they did not show it, but they looked at him with wonder and love.
And so, they, now children, were somber but dutiful, except for Lucy, who was barely there at all and silent when she was.
Susan was surprised as anyone when the boy at the rations desk told a joke as she was there for their bit of butter, rasher of bacon, cut of meat; ration books tightly hidden in the lining of her coat. The joke wasn't even directed at her, but a young woman several paces before her, and Susan couldn't recall what the joke even was, later when she thought on it. Only that the young woman laughed, almost a company-laugh, being polite, but a bit real too; and then a few other people laughed, and in front of her the stooped gentleman in the ragged black coat started to shiver with laughter, and suddenly the sound of her own laugh, thought buried under an Ettinsmoors' weight of grief, burst out of her like the silver fish Trinian couldn't catch that summer day on the lawns.
Her gloved hand rose and clapped over her own mouth, but she could feel her body shaking, as if it belonged to someone else, and then tears were streaming from her eyes even as her body still hiccoughed laughter. The mother of two behind her pressed a handkerchief into her palm and Susan gratefully wiped at the tears, a tremulous smile on her face that felt so very foreign. She stayed dizzied by the sensation even as she moved through the line, handed over her tickets and put the ration parcels in her basket. Her heart beat like the centaurs' war-drums as she picked her way home through the crowds and unswept streets, and as she turned the corner to see their home, still largely standing despite all that had happened, before and after, she pressed herself against the brickwork and tried to breathe.
Susan's face hurt, and she was trembling, and there was a ringing in her ears like when a bomb had dropped and exploded leaving the world chiming in its wake. She hadn't thought she could laugh again, not with the way she wept into her pillow late at night after Lucy had dropped off into restless sleep. She wept for the joy of the life they had left behind, that they had been tricked into abandoning by that fiendish, bedamned hart; for the lives they had known, blessed with Aslan's Grace and the love of their Narnians; the world they had returned to, brutal in its cruelty and want, the future a fearful hope, their childhood cracked and broken on the altar of war and the Stone Table.
Laughter felt as far away as the Great Eastern Ocean, as far away as Aslan's Country, and yet her body betrayed her over a dumb pun made by a stupid boy with a dozen other tired, grief-struck people laughing too.
She collected herself, and her parcels, and walked very carefully back to the house. Peter was working outside, tending the winter garden, and though she tried to hide what she felt he could see straight through to her, as he always could. She saw the shock in every line of his body at the sight of her and though she tried not to smile it crossed her face like a falling star, tremulous but so very bright. Peter's beautiful, solemn face understood even though he could not share in it, and wordlessly he dropped his rake, tugged off his working gloves, and drew her into an embrace as she let her basket tumble to the ground.
They clutched at each other, two children of Aslan so very far from home, caught between youth and the remembrance of adulthood, and Susan laughed wetly into the wool collar of his coat.
Peter let her, and she felt something in him relax, as if the knowledge that she could pick her way back from this meant he could follow in her path, weight lifting from his strong and noble shoulders. There was forgiveness, perhaps permission, in this feeling, as though Aslan's breath had followed them from their fair lands to here, grubby and small and alone together.
They stood there for a long moment, and when they parted, Edmund was there watching, as he so often had done before: he observed before he spoke. Words felt too fragile, and they had all been reduced to the sparest of sentences, as if speaking of this fraught thing might break them apart too; and that was unthinkable. He nodded, short and regal, and Peter beckoned him over so they could crush his small body between them.
Edmund gave a wet gasp, though there were no tears to wipe his face, and Susan knew suddenly that he was thinking of Lucy, who was not there, having disappeared nearly with dawn to wherever she went to bear her sorrow. They could not follow her, though Peter had tried; she had never been so far from them even when she was deep in the forest with the Trees and the Fauns, keeping her counsel with the wild things. Of the three of them none knew how to draw her back, she who had found their home in the first, and drew them all to follow with her golden surety of faith. They were all Aslan's, but Lucy most of all.
At dinner that night, a plain meal but the first that had not tasted of dust since their return, Lucy came in at the very last moment, climbed into her chair and spared no look at anything but her plate. She moved the vegetables and ham around, eating enough and moving her plate towards Edmund well before she was finished. She had grown thinner, and not from age. She barely looked up as she cleared the dishes, her duty in the house for tea and for dinner, and it wasn't until Mother and Father had retired and the three of them sat ignoring their own pursuits before the fire that Lucy came in to fetch her book and stopped at the room's threshold.
Susan looked at her, and could feel Edmund and Peter's gazes join her own, and Lucy looked shocked, devastated for a moment before turning angry. She threw her book on the floor and ran from the room, out into the night, and Peter started to mutter as he drew on his coat and Edmund followed. Susan let them go: it was late and dark with the wintering sun, and Lucy was again a young girl. She was struck once more by the well of sadness within her heart, and wished she could protect Lucy; that Lucy would let herself be protected. But that hadn't been true even before, and Lucy's perfect trust in Narnia and its people meant that the only shield she sheltered before was lion's mane.
Oh, if only Susan's heart could stay broken.