~ / ~ / ~

Chapter 3: Sybill

From the start, they'd been misfits together, she and Eileen. Oh, Sybill was under no illusions about how the world viewed her - - she wouldn't have needed to be a Seer to notice their scepticism, their subtle (and often not-so-subtle) mockery. Very few people believed in her Gift, and they never minded letting her know it.

Well, such was the plight of visionaries in an age as prosaic as theirs. And perhaps it had always been thus - - Madam Blastasky (her first and dearest Divination mentor) had told her the story of Cassandra, a witch of ancient times who had been gifted with the Sight, yet who had been fated never to be believed.

From the first day she heard of Cassandra, Sybill had always felt a strong kinship with her, for here was another woman who had understood the peculiar pain that came with being both knowing and powerless. It was the burden of the Gifted, one that Sybill had expected always to bear alone.

But that had been before she'd known Eileen.

For Eileen had understood - - not really about the Sight, because unfortunately, Eileen could be as sceptical as anyone about Sybill's ability to See. No, what Eileen understood was the anguish of being an outcast.

And "anguish" was exactly what one felt. Sybill was not being overly-dramatic to use the word (whatever her teachers and Housemates might have said). While she did believe that she tended to feel things more strongly than many people (it was part of the Gift), she wasn't exaggerating about the pain of never being accepted.

That's what Eileen had understood: how one was constantly bruised (emotionally speaking) from the blows (not literal, of course) of the disdainful world. One had to try to ignore them, but that didn't make them any less felt.

Eileen had felt the blows, too - - from indifferent teachers, who wouldn't take the time to look behind her (admittedly) prickly fa├žade, to callous Housemates, who hadn't cared if they hurt her by their clique-ish ways, to that red-faced, shouting Muggle husband who had so terrified Sybill on that day long ago - - that best and worst of all days, when she'd both regained and re-lost Eileen's love in a single swoop.

Eileen's love. It was. . .well, a person lived many lives, of course, and time could be malleable, but Sybill didn't think it was tempting fate too much to say that Eileen's love had been the best part of this plane of her existence. From the very moment that she'd seated herself at that small table in the Three Broomsticks during their sixth year, she'd felt their connection, even through Eileen's unhappy aura.

That aura had confused Sybill a trifle at first, for it had been - - not dark, exactly, but dull and thick, with not a glimmer of translucence anywhere. It was only later, as Sybill grew older and more experienced, that she recognised the dullness for what it was: depression, an inability to see the colours of the world.

Sybill herself almost always saw the colours, no matter how difficult life became, and she loved the fact that, by the middle of their seventh year, she had seen more brightness than flatness in Eileen's aura. She knew she was not being immodest to believe that it was her own friendship that made the difference, although she had seen Eileen's potential for happiness, even on that first night.

When Eileen had told the story of her friend Rachel's defection from their Hogsmeade weekend, she had told it so well, with such wit and perception, that Sybill had been enchanted even though she'd felt Eileen's pain. As a serious person herself, one who never understood how to make people laugh, Sybill admired people like Eileen, with her facile tongue (just how facile, Sybill was to learn later) and quick mind. And once she was able to see behind Eileen's sad aura, she found a clever, thoughtful girl who was willing to love and be loved.

Love and be loved - - Eileen had done both, and so had Sybill, during the whole of that shimmering spring and summer of their final year at Hogwarts. Never before or since had Sybill felt more in tune with the spirit of the entire universe.

In after years, she'd decided that her own happiness must have blocked her Sight, for she'd had not an inkling of the doom that had awaited them in the form of her own father. On that fateful afternoon, Eileen's aura had been clear; there'd been nothing, not the slightest hint that their whole cosmos was about to collapse. Everything had been bright.

And then Papa had come home.

A part of Sybill had always known, of course, that Papa would never approve of her relationship with Eileen, but she'd thought that before she'd need to face him with the truth, she and Eileen would have time to establish themselves in their new lives. She'd imagined that when she did confront Papa, she'd do so with the welcome strength of Eileen at her side.

How could even a Seer have imagined that excruciating scene in her bedroom: her father looming in the doorway, Eileen beside her in bed, her aura black with rage, and Sybill herself, so paralyzed with shame and humiliation that she couldn't speak?

When Papa had ordered Eileen out of the house, she'd dressed quickly and departed - - really, when Papa was in one of his towering tempers, no one could do other than obey him. But Sybill had expected that her love would soon send word to her about where they could meet. It never occurred to her that Eileen might be waiting for word from her - - Eileen was the clever one, the practical one. . .Sybill had just assumed. . .

After Eileen left on that sad afternoon, Papa hadn't even waited for Sybill to get dressed; he'd merely used his wand to drape the duvet over her and had told her, scathingly, that she'd been made a fool of, that her "perverted whore" of a false friend had used her, ruined her, and was now no doubt laughing at her.

Sybill hadn't believed a word of it. But when days passed without word, she began to worry that perhaps Papa had been right. Oh, not about Eileen laughing at her (for Sybill had always known that wasn't true), but when he said that Eileen wouldn't wait for her, that she'd move on with her life.

Then she had seen the wedding notice in the Daily Prophet.

The world had gone dark for a moment, and for the first and (Merlin please) only time in this life, Sybill had felt as if the Sight deserted her.

Of course, by the time she learnt the truth about Eileen's marriage, their karma had inevitably shifted, hers and her darling's. Their time had passed.

Yet nothing could destroy the memory of those brief, shining moments when their souls had been one, when they had been together to soothe and comfort one another against life's vicissitudes. They had healed each other, and Sybill loved Eileen for that (and for so many other, private things).

That's why Sybill had come to Eileen's side today, even though last time, when Eileen's tyrant of a husband had summarily ordered her from his home, she had vowed that she would never insert herself into Eileen's life again. She'd felt that she had indeed been wrong to visit Eileen (a married woman and a new mother), and she'd vowed to leave her dearest in peace with her little family - - no matter if it meant that Sybill had to stake her own heart in the process.

And she'd kept that vow until today, although periodically over the years, she'd Seen glimpses of her love. She often let herself remember that glorious evening at the Divination commune, where all the members had brought their mental powers together (just for practice; one needed to keep the Sight supple). When it had been Sybill's turn to look into the crystal, and she'd thought about the thing she most wished to See - - well, she had Seen it.

She had Seen Eileen. True, Eileen had been in that dreary Muggle sitting room, but she had been laughing, swinging a little dark-haired toddler into the air as he, too, had laughed. . .

Sybill had Seen that Eileen was happy, and she had sobbed aloud with the joy it. And the anguish.

~ / ~ / ~

The years had passed, and Sybill had continued to live in the Divination commune, where she and the others, women and men both, had practised their skills and raised what food and wool they needed to sustain themselves. If she had not been exactly happy, she had at least been content.

She stayed busy with so many interesting things. Her days were spent baking and sharing the tending of cows and crops; her nights were given to pursuing her Gift with the crystal and the tea leaves, warming herself periodically with sips of healing sherry. She collected delicate china tea cups (for one must have beauty) and knitted herself soft, colourful shawls (for one must make one's world vivid) and took long, soul-cleansing walks.

Yes, she had been satisfied. She had her work and her pleasures and her memories: of Eileen's happiness and of the love they had so passionately (if so tragically briefly) shared.

It had been enough. . .until this morning.

This morning, when she had arisen with the larks, she had immediately sensed a disjunction in the cosmos, and she had known at once (as one knows these things) that all was not right with Eileen.

Her first instinct had been to rush to her love's side, but she had hesitated. It had been years since they'd seen each other - - eleven years, two months, and eighteen days, to be exact, from 14 April 1960 until today, 2 July 1971. She supposed her precision might surprise people; Sybill knew that to the outside world, she sometimes seemed fey (for she dwelt so much among th'untrodden ways, as the poet said). But living in her own world never meant that she was unaware of the everyday one. She remembered the dates perfectly.

She wanted to see Eileen, but there were many issues to consider. First was the length of time since they'd met; so much would have changed. And of course, Eileen was a married woman. That fact alone should have made Sybill keep her distance, because. . .well, because Sybill couldn't promise herself that she would let the marriage matter to her when she saw Eileen again. She couldn't promise that she wouldn't take Eileen into her arms the instant she saw her. That was the sort of thing she was never able to know in advance (one's own mind, ironically, could often be the hardest thing to See).

But then again, Sybill knew herself to be a woman of maturity and sensitivity; surely she could visit an old friend, to offer succor, and not behave with any indignity? Of course she could.

So she waited until noon, prepared herself a light luncheon that she served on her prettiest plate (for why shouldn't one's meals be aesthetically pleasing?) and then, after a fortifying nip of a little something to warm her bones, she Apparated to that world of towering chimneys and terraces of blackened brick.

To Eileen's world. Eileen's door.

She paused, letting her Sight assess the sooty little house; she didn't want to encounter the husband or the boy. But she sensed only one essence within.

So she knocked.

The door opened, and there was Eileen, frowning as if she expected to find an unwelcome salesman. She looked weary: her cheeks were gaunt, and her hair was scraped back into a tight knot from which one lock escaped to droop untidily over her face.

But none of that mattered to Sybill; she cared only whether Eileen would welcome her. She watched the tired eyes widen with amazement as Eileen recognised her.

"Sybill," she whispered, and tucked the lock of hair behind her ear in a gesture so quintessentially Eileen that Sybill felt herself near tears.

But they were not tears of regret. No, as Sybill stood on that bleak doorstep, the years seemed to crumble away. It was felt almost as if no time had passed at all, as if they were girls again, coming face-to-face in a crowded pub. She spoke the same words she'd said when they'd first met:

"Your aura is unhappy. Let me help you."

Eileen's lips quirked in a near-smile, and she answered with their old joke: "The Inner Eye guided you here, did it?"

That was the moment when Sybill could See that everything would be all right.

"That and corrective lenses," she said.

~ / ~ / ~

Eileen made tea, and they drank it at a battered table in the kitchen, the thin northern light from the small window doing little to brighten the gloomy space. Normally Sybill would have found such surroundings a pall on the proper balance of her humours, but today, beyond a sadness that her Eileen should have to live with so little beauty or softness in her life, she felt nothing but the lightness of her own being.

Staying away from Eileen had been a mistake; they belonged together, Sybill could feel it so strongly now. The doubts she'd had as a girl, the worries that their love and their pleasures were somehow wrong. . .all those had long burned away.

Now she felt, somehow, as if this dark, stuffy kitchen were the brightest and breeziest place imaginable; when she closed her eyes briefly, she could actually See the sunlit tile floors and billowing white curtains that defined the spacious home where their souls dwelt, hers and Eileen's. Or would dwell, once Eileen's own humours had been adjusted.

The main threat to Eileen's balance at the moment, Sybill learnt, was the painful change that loomed over her: her boy Severus would soon be heading to Hogwarts, the beginning of his slow but inevitable movement into his own life.

"He got his letter yesterday," Eileen explained, twisting the tea towel in her hands. "He's thrilled. Anxious, but thrilled. And why shouldn't he be? He wants to get out of this place, and who can blame him? I certainly don't."

"And you believe you cannot face life in this cold, empty house without him?" Sybill asked, breathless with the sorrow of it, but Eileen snorted.

"I'm not that weak, I hope," she said. "Of course I can face life. I've faced plenty up till now, haven't I? But I'll miss him."

"You love him," said Sybill, breathless now with thoughts of the power of a mother's regard for her child.

Eileen nodded. "I do. Oh, we have our clashes, don't think we don't. He's got a lot of his father in him. I'll miss him all the same, though. But at least he'll have his own life now. He'll be happy."

And you aren't, Sybill suddenly Saw clearly. You haven't been for years.

It seemed only right to reach out to take Eileen's hand in her own, to stroke the pale wrist, to bring the thin fingers to her lips. And it seemed only right that Eileen should move around the table and pull Sybill up from the chair and into her arms.

At least this time, Sybill thought to ward the room against unexpected incursions by Muggle husbands.

"Come home with me," she whispered, touching her lips to Eileen's cheek, but Eileen shook her head.

"I've the lad's tea to get, and it wouldn't work anyway, Sybill. We can't just go away together, even for an afternoon, not after all this time."

"Why not?"

It was a genuine question, for suddenly, the universe shifted, light poured from the Heavens, and everything seemed clear and simple to Sybill.

She'd had this experience before, of slipping into an altered state, where all impediments disappeared, and the things one wanted appeared to be within easy reach. Sometimes, true, the state followed upon the sipping of a quantity of sherry. But often the shift came on its own; Seers couldn't predict where their Visions would take them.

Eileen, meanwhile, stepped away and crossed her arms over her chest, her brows knotting. "Why not? You're supposed to be the Seer, aren't you? And you don't 'See' the problems? What good are a few hours of happiness? They'll just make it all the harder to come back to real life."

"They'll be real, too, the few hours. There are many planes of reality, you know, and - -"

"Oh, please, spare me the Seer's Creed. This is the only plane of reality - - right here, in Spinner's End."

Ordinarily, Sybill would have found a response of this sort to be hurtful, no matter how well she knew that Eileen tended to retreat behind surly savagery when upset. But today, in her enhanced state, she felt only a heightened understanding of the conflicts that must be raging in poor Eileen's heart.

Mere words would have been inadequate, so Sybill moved forward to put her arms around Eileen again and hold her close. After a moment, Eileen relaxed, sagging against her, her own arms stealing round Sybill's waist.

"My boy will be home soon," she said finally. "Tobias, too. The dole centre will be closing."

Then, her voice muffled by Sybill's shoulder, she said, "I've never cheated on Tobias, you know."

Our love would never be a cheat, Sybill thought, but didn't say. It was early days, and she couldn't quite See where this path might lead, not yet. For now, there was only today, this moment, this perfectly-right moment with Eileen in her arms.

Still, there was one future truth she actually could See, and she uttered it: "I'll visit you again. Often."

"I don't know. . ."

"Yes," Sybill said firmly. "I See it."

Eileen didn't make their "Inner Eye" joke; she only tightened her hold.

"You and I will find a way, and things will be all right," Sybill said.

The Visions were crowding thick upon her now: she Saw images of herself and Eileen, somehow younger again and together, standing hand-in-hand in some sunny land, smiling.

She Saw her soft, pillow-covered bed at the commune, with Eileen in it.

She Saw them together as old women, grey and a trifle stooped, still in sunshine, still smiling.

Then the Visions faded, but the sense of rightness and truth remained. Sybill kissed the top of Eileen's head and smoothed back the again-errant lock of hair. Everything was going to be fine.

"Your boy will thrive at school," she told Eileen. "He'll be happy, I know it. No harm will come to him there, not at Hogwarts."

Eileen didn't reply, but Sybill knew she had heard. And she was sure Eileen believed. How could she not? It was all so clear.

For several timeless minutes, they stood together in the charmed circle of their arms, as the shadows lengthened and a mill-whistle sounded in the distance.

Everything would be fine.

Sybill could See it.