Thanks to Olna Jenn for encouragement and to Heliopause, Valerie and Untherius for beta reading.
After- and she knows her life will always be divided into before and after- After, Susan can't bear to stay in England. The paperwork takes time, but in the end, she sells everything and buys a ticket to New York. She thinks she can drop her sorrows in the ocean and start over, without a past. She has memories of America, but they're not rooted in her family the way that her memories of London are.
Susan hasn't lost her gift for getting to know people. By the time the ship docks, she has three offers of places to stay. Before- Before, she'd have taken Harriet's offer. They're of an age, and they both know how to have fun. But that hurts too much.
Bill's offer of a place in his mother's house is tempting, but she fears that it comes with too many strings attached. She likes Bill well enough, just not that way. She's not sure she'll feel that way about anybody for a long time.
So it's Agnes' offer she accepts. Agnes is forty-five and a war widow. Her only child, a daughter, married two years ago, so Agnes has been reinventing herself. She has work with the United Nations and tells Susan that she can help her find work there, too. It may be simple secretarial work, but at least they'll be working for peace.
And who knows? A job like that might lead to something more. Susan's always wanted to travel. Her French is excellent. She hasn't had a chance to learn other languages. Maybe she can do that now, too.
The Wood Between the Worlds is exactly as Professor Kirke described it: trees, so very, very many trees, growing close around pools, so very, very many pools. Susan looks up, trying to decide what kind of trees she's seeing. After a moment, she realizes that it doesn't matter. These trees aren't going to take offense if she mistakes an oak for a sycamore.
The air feels thick, not humid or heavy, but substantial as if it, too, were a living thing. Sunlight filters through the distant leaves, and she thinks that it's brighter than it should be, what with the trees. There is grass, thick and green and inviting. Susan kicks off her shoes and pulls off her stockings. Blades of grass tickle her feet, and she smiles for the first time in weeks.
She blinks. She can't remember why smiling feels so strange. She can't remember what brought her here. She looks down at herself. She's wearing black. She frowns a little. Black seems the wrong color here. Then she shrugs. The trees, the grass and the pools, they're not going to judge her.
She sighs and sits, leaning against the nearest tree. She sets down the box she's been carrying. She won't, she thinks, pick it up again. It's a burden better surrendered. She closes her eyes, just for a moment. This is like coming home. Thinking of home brings a momentary flash of pain, but she can't think why it should. Isn't this home?
She doesn't move again.
Susan knows what the rings are as soon as she opens the box. She may no longer entirely believe, but she hasn't forgotten the Professor's stories. Those rings were yellow and green, as these are, not common colors for rings. She closes the box and puts it aside. There are too many things that need doing for her to think about this immediately.
But as she sorts through clothing and books and the detritus of a family's life, she can't help wondering. She thinks about what her brothers must have been trying to do and wonders if their deaths- and all the others- came from disobedience. They were told that there'd be no returning. She folds her mother's clothing, sorting it according to what she thinks she'll be able to wear and what she can't. This world was to be enough. Her bitterness sharpens. This world was never enough for the others.
She considers her choices. Aunt Alberta has made a point of asking Susan to move in with her and Uncle Harold. Susan isn't enthusiastic. She knows no one in Cambridge, and her aunt and uncle are decidedly peculiar. On the other hand, the idea of trying to find a job and a place to live in London is daunting. She doesn't doubt that she could do it, but it would be hard and risky without family to fall back on.
In the end, it's the look in Aunt Alberta's eyes that makes Susan's decision. She's almost forgotten, in her own grief, that Aunt Alberta and Uncle Harold have lost quite as much as she. At least, she thinks, they will understand each other's pain and know how to step around all of those gaps where there used to be family.
She takes the rings with her to Cambridge. She's not sure what else to do with them. Burying them again simply means someone else digging them up, someone who wouldn't know not to touch them with bare skin. And where would she bury them? Her family home is to be sold, and the garden there is all vegetables still. Lucy and their mother had been gardeners, finding ways to make that little patch of earth yield things that could be eaten. Were Susan to dig deep enough to hide the rings, the neighbors would notice; there'd be an obvious scar. Someone- probably a child- would dig to find the 'treasure' she'd hidden.
Living with her aunt and uncle takes some adjustment. They encourage her to work. She has the impression that they'd send her to university if they didn't know that she was rubbish at such things. Aunt Alberta comments occasionally that Susan should make something of herself.
Susan doesn't want to make something of herself, so she's glad when Uncle Harold starts bringing young men home to meet Susan. She has the impression that Aunt Alberta doesn't entirely approve, but Susan has been lonely since moving to Cambridge. Her London friends said they'd write, and some of them have, but it's not at all the same. The young man she was seeing before- Well, he has more or less vanished. He didn't even come to the funeral. Susan supposes that simply wasn't any fun. She thinks she's ready for someone more substantial.
Uncle Harold's young men are mostly engineers and architects. There's even an industrial chemist, but Susan doesn't like the way he spends the evening staring at her breasts. Fortunately, Aunt Alberta also doesn't like that, and the industrial chemist never returns.
John Richardson is a civil engineer. He's passionate about his work, but he never talks down to Susan. He's willing to explain what he's talking about, and he can do it in ways that neither bore nor baffle. He comes to dinner three times before he asks Susan to take a walk with him. She agrees, not out of preference for him but simply because she wants to leave the house. She's astonished to discover that he can talk about the latest films and that he has definite preferences in music. She's only previously heard him talking about politics and work.
After their first walk, there's another and then a trip to the cinema. John takes her dancing. He's not the best partner Susan's ever had, but he gives her his full attention. Susan is wary. She remembers Rabadash and half a dozen others who said the right things and acted pleasant only to reveal weakness or cruelty when they thought they could get away with it. She wants John to be real, and she needs to know before she commits herself.
She misses her siblings and her parents. She thinks that any one of them would offer her good advice. Well, maybe not her father. She can't imagine bringing this dilemma to him. But her mother or Edmund would understand. Finally, she asks Aunt Alberta, not about John specifically but rather about men in general and the difficulties in knowing if they're genuinely who and what they seem.
Aunt Alberta considers that as she washes dishes. Susan is drying. Finally, Aunt Alberta says that it's important to see how a man treats those below him. She suggests visiting a man's office and getting to know the secretaries and the cleaning staff. It's not a sure thing, she says, but it's better than nothing. Aunt Alberta adds that Susan will always have a home with her and Uncle Harold, always, no matter what.
Susan exerts herself to gain the trust of the people who work in John's office. She finds the secretaries easier to approach than the cleaning staff because she can pretend to be looking for work. She just has to avoid letting John see her.
John is not universally loved- Susan would worry if he were- but he is respected even by those who don't like him. He has a reputation with his firm's secretaries for respecting their time. He never expects a girl to work late without notice, and he makes sure that, if she does work late, the girl gets home safely.
Having made her queries, Susan relaxes a little. She continues to see John frequently. She knows Uncle Harold approves.
A year and a half after her family's death, Susan marries John in a registry office ceremony. It's not what her family would have wanted, but she can't face the fuss of a large wedding, and she doesn't want to ask her aunt and uncle to bear the expense of it. She's not ecstatically happy, but she is content.
For a honeymoon, John takes her to Paris. It's not, he tells her, what it was before the war, but it is a place she's always wanted to visit.
They cross the Channel on a ferry. Midway across, Susan drops the box holding the rings into the water. That, she thinks, should take care of them nicely. She doesn't want them around when she has children.
The first thing Susan does on arriving in the Wood Between the Worlds is to walk away from the pool that leads to Earth. She turns her back on it and strides through the trees, turning right and skirting around several pools before turning left. When she's satisfied that she's lost, she takes off her yellow ring and puts it in her bag with the other rings. She takes out a green ring and puts it on.
She turns around, trying to see any indication as to which pool she should try, but all the pools are the same. She shrugs and adjusts her backpack. More or less at random, she selects a pool and walks toward it. She closes her eyes for a second as she steps into it.
The first three worlds are the hardest. On the first world, Susan almost gets arrested for wearing the wrong clothes and that's before they realize that her bow is a weapon. On the second, she drops into the middle of a civil war. She can't leave with that unresolved, but figuring out which side is in the right is beyond her. She thinks maybe neither is. On the third, she finds people who look like nothing so much as walking flowers. They think she's a monster, and she doesn't dare eat anything because there aren't any animals and she can't tell which plants are people.
The Wood Between the Worlds has advantages; Susan feels neither hunger nor thirst when she's there, and if she's injured when she arrives, she heals rapidly. She doesn't dare stay long. The peace of the Wood is seductive, but she has no mind to lose herself by staying. It isn't until after her tenth world that she risks sleeping in the Wood, and she only does that because she has a broken arm. Fortunately, she wakes refreshed, healed and still bent on visiting world eleven.
It isn't long before she realizes that the rings are taking her to places where she can make a difference. Once that becomes apparent, she starts staying on worlds until she finds something she can do. She always bears in mind that while she can leave, others can't. She has more rings than she can possibly use, but she thinks that she needs more than desire to be able to share them. She waits for a sign that never comes.
She spends nearly ten years on world fifteen. For a while, she thinks she'll stay there forever, but during the last year, she feels increasingly restless and increasingly alien. The people of that world look human, but she knows they're not sons of Adam and daughters of Eve. She finds herself taking out the rings and staring at them, longing to touch them. She travels that world, looking for something; she's not sure what, and she fails to find it. By the time she packs and puts on a yellow ring, her departure is a relief.
The Wood seems to welcome her. Susan takes off her shoes and socks and enjoys the grass between her toes. She feels no urgency now that she's back in the Wood. She suspects that it's because time has no meaning there. Whatever task awaits her on the next world, time won't pass there while she's in the Wood.
She's lost count of the worlds she's visited when she finally acknowledges the truth; she isn't aging. She thinks it's the Wood because she's sure she got older when she spent ten years on world fifteen. She simply doesn't look any older now than she did when she first left Earth.
The Wood doesn't end. She tries to find the edge of it once, but no matter how far she walks, there are always more trees and more pools. She can't possibly visit all the worlds, and she worries about the worlds she doesn't visit. What if they need intervention and she passes them by? It's a long time since she prayed, but she finds herself doing just that before she selects a new pool.
Still, she's surprised when a rainbow arcs from a pool on her left. She never expected an answer. She approaches the indicated pool with a spring in her step. There will be something worth doing there, she's sure.