Susan had been living with Barbara and Ian for several weeks, and was slowly settling in, and slowly coming out of her shell. She’d have stints where she acted like she’d known them forever, explaining elaborate ideas and brilliant calculations, getting excited over science or math or art and grinning and calling them by their first names rather than Mister Chesterton and Miss Wright. The rest of the time, though, and especially at school, she was the same withdrawn person, answering questions smartly but quietly, trying as best she could to avoid getting any attention.
When either Barbara or Ian would try to approach her about it on the ride home from school, she’d change the topic, and then when they got home she’d go up to the room they’d set aside for her or take Barbara’s bike to visit her grandfather.
On a day like that, Susan had given them a quick, “I’ll see you for dinner,” and then raced up the stairs to her room.
Barbara watched her go, and sighed. “I wish there was something we could do to let her know she can trust us.”
“Oh, I think she trusts us,” Ian replied, taking Barbara’s bag and hanging it by the door. “Coat?”
Barbara pulled it off and handed it to him, watching him hang it up next to her bag.
“She’s just used to her parents.” He took a stack of tests to grade out of his suitcase and tapped them on the table, straightening them out. “It’ll take a bit of time to get used to us.” He sat down and pulled out a pen.
Barbara sat next to him. “Honestly I’ve half a mind just to go back to that house and tell them a thing or two.”
Ian chuckled, looking up from his tests at her. “I’ve been thinking the same. I’m sure Susan wouldn’t appreciate it, though. She’s independent; she wants to handle everything herself.”
“Just like every other teenager,” Barbara added. She looked up the stairs after Susan. “I just wish she knew she can ask us for help.”
“Maybe you should go and talk to her,” Ian suggested. “I’d go, but…”
“Ah.” Barbara smiled. “Ever Awkward Ian.”
Ian winced. “You’re just better at this sort of thing than I am, is what I was going to say.”
Barbara stood and laid a hand on is shoulder. “I suppose I should go, shouldn’t I.”
“It certainly wouldn’t hurt.”
She almost bent and kissed the top of his head, and stopped herself. She gave his shoulder a pat instead, and said, “Wish me luck,” before starting up the stairs.
Ian called a little, “Good luck!” after her, which made her smile.
Stopping outside Susan’s room, she sighed, and tapped her knuckles against the door. “Susan?”
After a moment, Susan opened the door. “Yes?”
“I was hoping we could have a talk,” Barbara said. “May I come in?”
Susan flinched the tiniest bit, but she nodded. “Of course.”
Barbara followed her into the room, and sat in Susan’s desk chair while the girl sat on her bed.
“Am I in trouble?” Susan asked.
“No, of course not,” said Barbara quickly. “Not at all. Your grades are wonderful. I was just…” An idea popped into her head. “I was just wondering if you’d like to come shopping with me. I need a new sweater, and I was thinking maybe you could pick a few things out as well.”
“Shopping?” Susan squinted at her.
“Yes.” Barbara smiled at her. “I know you’ve got your dresses, but what about skirts, or trousers? Something a bit more modern? Oh, and I saw this blouse the other day and thought of you straight away, it was perfect for you.”
Susan had this tiny smile on her face, like she was trying to keep a neutral expression and failing but only by a bit. “Really?”
Barbara nodded. “Come on, it’ll be fun. Ian won’t come; just us girls.”
Then Susan grinned. “Alright, then.”
“Before we go,” Barbara said, standing back up, “are you sure you’ll have enough time for your homework tonight if we do this? School-”
“Comes first, I know,” Susan finished. “I’m sure. It’s mostly reading, so…”
Barbara nodded. Susan blew through reading assignments in minutes. “Good. Come on.” She turned primly in a way she hoped would make Susan laugh - she got a little giggle - and led the way back down the stairs. “We’re going out, Ian. We’ll be back before dinner.”
Ian shot her a glance complete with raised eyebrow. “Have fun.”
“We will,” promised Barbara.
“See you later, Ian,” Susan added, and then she looked up at Barbara, and after a second of holding eye contact, she burst out into excited giggles and ran out to the car.
“Susan, don’t forget your-” Barbara sighed, smiling, Susan’s coat in hand. “Never mind, I’ll bring it.”
Ian looked out the door after Susan and then over at Barbara. “You must’ve worked a bit of a miracle. Not that I’m surprised. What did you tell her?”
“I didn’t tell her anything, Ian,” Barbara said, handing him Susan’s coat so she could put on her own. “I figured the best way to let her know we’re not going to be like her birth parents is to show her. So, I’m showing her.”
“Seeing her happy,” Ian said, “gives me the best feeling in the world. I just want to make sure she’s happy forever.”
Barbara nodded, and she loved him so much her chest ached. “I know. You get your grading done, we’ll be back soon.”
“Yes, Ma’am.” Ian ducked his head when she tried to mess up his hair, and sat back down with his papers.
Barbara laughed, and really, he was right. Seeing Susan happy made her happy. She went out to the car and gave Susan her coat, and they drove downtown together.
Susan was in a decidedly good mood, chattering on about things that happened in class and occasionally pointing something out through the window. “There has to be more than three dimensions,” she was saying, “doesn’t there? And I know Ian knows what he’s teaching but his class is so dull sometimes. No fault of his, of course, just the other students. And, oh, this boy in my second period-”
“Susan, Susan-” Barbara stopped her, laughing. “I’ve got a question.”
“Are Ian and I… doing a good job?” she asked.
Susan laughed a little. “A good job at what? You’re very good teachers.”
“Thank you.” Barbara nodded. “I mean at- this, though. At looking after you.”
“Well, I can look after myself,” Susan said cautiously. “But… I don’t know.” She looked down at her hands. “You’re both so kind to me, and I don’t want to cause you any trouble.”
“Is that why you’re keeping to yourself?” Barbara asked.
Susan nodded. “It’s just that I don’t want to be a problem, or be too much work. You’re doing me such a favor as it is.”
“Susan, look at me,” Barbara said, and then immediately felt silly because she was driving, and she couldn’t look back. “You will never be too much work, alright? You’re not work, you’re a girl. You’re a person. A person we are more than happy to have in our lives. You don’t need to keep away from us.”
Susan nodded. “I know.” She sniffed.
“Oh, Susan-” Barbara spared a glance over at her. “Did I say something?”
“No,” Susan answered, wiping her eyes. “I mean- yes? I just haven’t- no one’s really told me that before.”
Barbara put a hand on her shoulder, rubbed the part of her back that wasn’t against the seat. “You’ll be hearing it again, at least once. Ian needs to give you his version.” She laughed a little, and Susan did too.
“You’re my favorite teachers, you know,” she replied through laughter, and she wiped her face on her sleeve.
“We’re not just your teachers, are we?” Barbara asked. “I mean, you do live with us, and…”
“No, you’re not just my teachers.” Susan smiled at her, and that was all she seemed to have to say.
They drove to a shop downtown, and Barbara sat on a little bench outside the changing room and offered opinions on everything Susan tried on and then they switched, and Barbara tried to find the perfect new sweater.
In the end, they drove back home with a new turtleneck for Barbara in a periwinkle that Susan said complemented her eyes and with a few new shirts and a skirt for Susan. When they got home, Ian was halfway through cooking something for dinner.
“Wait,” Susan said. “I need to put them on and ask Ian what he thinks.” She dashed up the stairs with her bag from the shop.
Barbara went over to the kitchen, not making a sound, and waited until Ian wasn’t holding anything hot to try and scare him.
It worked - it worked every time - and after Ian had gotten over it he asked, “I take it things went well, then?”
Barbara nodded. “Shopping downtown. I figured she needed some new clothes. Ian, she’s such a wonderful girl.”
“Of course she is,” he said matter-of-factly.
“She called us her favorite teachers,” Barbara told him.
Ian laughed. “I should hope we are.”
After a minute, Susan came into the kitchen in the skirt and in a striped cotton shirt she’d picked out.
Ian made a show of squinting at her, and he pulled the oven mitt off his hand. “Is that Susan? My Susan?”
Susan laughed, nodding.
He put a hand to his chin, striking a silly detective-type pose. “Oh, I don’t believe it. Barbara, I think you lost our Susan in the shop and brought back a movie star on accident, I-”
“You’re so silly, Ian,” Susan muttered, grinning.
“Oh, am I?” He went over to her and held out his arms.
After a moment, she hugged him.
He lifted her off the ground, and gave her a little turn, depositing her further into the kitchen. “It’s not my fault you’re the loveliest girl in all of London.”
“Oh, Ian,” Barbara jumped in, “you’re mistaken.”
“Mistaken?” He raised an eyebrow at her.
“All of England, I’m sure,” she corrected.
“Of course!” He exclaimed. “My mistake.”
“Honestly, you two are ridiculous,” Susan said, grinning from ear to ear. “Stop it.”
Ian scrubbed a hand through her hair. “Now, would the loveliest girl in England like to set the table?”
Susan rolled her eyes. “Fine.” She bounced out of the kitchen.
“Look at you,” Barbara murmured, nudging Ian’s side with her elbow. “Acting like a father.”
“Funny,” he replied.
He nudged her back. “I was just about to say you're acting like a mother.”