Chapter 2 : Of Wondering and Watching
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As always, everything but plot and OCs belong to JK Rowling.
This chapter is dedicated to the amazing guys and girls over at TGS, without whom I'd probably never post a thing. Double thankyous to my lovely beta, Kaity (kaityb) for both helping me out with this chapter and being supremely encouraging!
chapter image by the incredible moose! at TDA
Epiphany's cobblestone streets were littered with uncertainty. His infuriating sprite of a companion still pulled on his arm with far more strength than he had imagined she'd have, sending them rushing across the intertwining paths at the heart of the city. With each stride that Sirius took, he found himself trotting upon the debris of broken assuredness. Every miniscule cranny in the sidewalks oozed suspicion.
Not to mention, there was something terribly peculiar about the Epiphanites. And even worse, Sirius couldn't place it. The impossible beauty in each passerby’s face, sure, it was more than slightly unsettling - but the same infuriatingly persistent feeling of safety engulfed his being, leaving him more aggravated than anxious. If Ruby's fake-coughed comments regarding his apparently defective emotions weren't enough to send him sprinting down the path of insanity, then the unwavering feeling that he was utterly missing something would.
His sigh of dismay did not go unnoticed by the girl who clung to his arm like a lifeline. She turned to him with her dark brows pulled together and a tight frown on her lips, her cheeks stained pink with emotion that Sirius could not recognize.
“I don’t bite, you know,” she told him, her eyes regarding him, “You can ask questions.”
“I thought you were utterly unsettled by my insatiable curiosity?”
He grimaced, watching as she rolled her eyes once more. “We’ve already established that you’re not the norm, haven’t we?”
Sirius breathed deeply, taking in an aroma that he could not place, before he turned his face to her. He noticed, now, that Ruby possessed a sampling of scattered golden freckles across the bridge of her nose, strands of coppery red in her hair that sparked alive with vibrancy under the light of Epiphany’s unwavering sun. There was a feeling that he could only label as frustration in the pit of his stomach, most prevalent when he found himself looking at the infuriating girl.
What had him puzzled, however, was that her sarcasm, though irrefutably exasperating in all senses, wasn’t what had his stomach twisting in uneasiness. It was, in fact, mere mannerisms that produced the qualm that there was something more to all of this.
It was when Ruby’s ivory colored skin flushed pink and a barely-there sigh escaped her lips that Sirius filtered through the tangle of questions that occupied his head.
At last, he settled on the one that came easiest to his lips. “Is something wrong?”
He could feel her bristle beside him as they continued; dashing over a field of flowers so wild that Sirius could have sworn he’d never seen such colors. Her head inclined towards him another fraction, eyes that had once resembled warm honey shifting to a hue that Sirius could not easily decipher from black.
“No,” Ruby scoffed, turning away from him in an instant.
Sirius sighed, product of his latest misstep. “I thought you didn’t mind the questions?”
“What? I told you I don’t - ”
“Then tell me the truth, Ruby,” he insisted, peering down at her. “You have me here, confused out of my mind and wondering whether I’m about to meet my impending doom – you at least owe me some answers.”
A few moments of silence ensued, Sirius never letting up on his half-aggravated, half-desperate stare. It seemed as though eternity had passed when she returned his gaze from the corner of her eye, an exasperated groan escaping her.
“You’re impossible!” she huffed, “If you must know, the Watching Room guard and I are not the greatest of friends!”
“Really?” Sirius gasped, “But you’ve got that fantastic personality!”
Ruby’s mouth dropped open a fraction, her eyes glinting with aggravation as Sirius’ lips pulled into a wry smile. Two, he thought with a chuckle, can play at the sarcasm game.
“Nothing to say?” he quipped, widening his eyes. The picture of innocence on all accounts, though the mischievous glint in the gray of his eyes said otherwise.
What fell from her lips was entirely expected. So surprising, in fact, that Sirius felt himself tense from confusion the moment his eyes beheld Ruby’s crestfallen expression.
“You’re exactly as I thought you’d be.”
He was taken aback, naturally. The mere mention of the alleged acquaintance that they held – the same one he could not, for the life of him, remember – sent a rush of cold down his spine. The feeling in his stomach grew in intensity; a resounding thought that something was not right, not at all. She looked up at him again, the hopefulness now dwindling into nothingness.
“I’m sorry,” he blurted, without much thought. It seemed the sensible thing to say, after all, since the poor girl was looking more and more forlorn by the moment.
She laughed. Grimly, quietly, but laughed nonetheless. “You haven’t a clue what to be sorry for, clearly, as it’s not even your fault in the first place. That’s why you’re so frustrating.”
Sirius blinked. “Ruby, please, you’re talking - ”
“In riddles? I know.”
“Er, yes. Why can’t you - ”
“Explain everything to you?” she smiled, this time more sincerely. “Why do you think they call it Epiphany, Sirius?”
And even though he didn’t care to entertain the notion for too long, he supposed that Ruby was correct. After all, he’d been in Epiphany for – well – he couldn’t determine exactly how long, but of Ruby’s being here longer he was certain. Not to mention, she’d been appointed his personal tour-guide by someone, hadn’t she? Certainly that meant she knew the goings on of this peculiar place.
She sighed. “You’re charming, Sirius. So much so that you can’t help but attract the attentions of people who don’t even know you.”
Ruby watched as his brows furrowed in thought.
“That doesn’t help in the least, does it?”
He shook his head. “Not even a little bit, no.”
So quickly that he almost could not recognize it, the ghost of a smile came upon Ruby’s face. The corners of her mouth were pulled upwards the tiniest bit, though her eyes remained dark with diminishing hope.
“I’m not usually like this,” she assured him, her vice-like grip on his arm slackening. Her fingers slid slowly, hesitantly, down the length of his forearm until he found himself holding her hand that was warm to the touch. “It’s just that, well, I don’t quite know what to make of you yet.”
“Well,” Sirius sighed, “that was far more cryptic than I anticipated.”
She rolled her eyes again, the quietest of chuckles escaping her mouth.
“Do you really want me to explain it all? Are you really that curious?”
Sirius nodded vigorously, stray pieces of dark hair falling haphazardly into his face. Through the strands that hung like fringe over his eyes he could see Ruby’s face, dissolving into what he guessed was the most unreadable expression he’d ever had to experience. He noticed, with a start, that her lips were trembling as she opened them to speak.
“Look what the wind blew in!”
The unfamiliar voice pierced through the tension between them like a finely sharpened blade, the genuine nature of the moment spoiled. Ruby’s eyes narrowed into slits, her hand dropping Sirius’ own in an instant as she grit her teeth, whirling around with Sirius in tow.
It was then, sitting primly at a podium in a sharp white suit, that he noticed her. Oddly enough, Sirius could have sworn he’d been in this position before. But with no sense of time and still no clue as to what was going on, he was left to stare.
The crystalline blue of the girl’s irises held in them the same gem of hope that was settled in Ruby’s own eyes. Her skin was just as porcelain; a smooth, cream-toned canvas framed by thick tendrils of flaxen hair. Her lips, like folded petals of a pink rose, pulled up at the corners in what was a charming – albeit sinister – smirk.
Sirius managed to bite his tongue whilst closing his gaping mouth.
“This,” Ruby sniffed, looking very much displeased, “is Loretta.”
Loretta’s eyes brightened. “My favorite girl, come to visit me?”
Ruby’s face immediately contorted into an expression of extreme discontent, eyes flashing with what Sirius could only guess was sheer annoyance. She nodded curtly.
“Thank ye kindly, doll! Lord knows what I would do without your company,” Loretta snorted, her scrutinizing glance finally landing upon Sirius’ bemused face. “And who is this?”
“No one special,” Ruby snapped,; surprising him as her face flushed a brilliant red. Sirius scoffed his thanks at her high praise of his character. “Another assignment, you know. I just – he was a friend – back at school.”
“Didn’t know you had yourself any of those, doll.”
Sirius could almost see the anger swell inside her. Ruby’s eyes snapped towards Loretta, granting her one of the dirtiest looks she could muster, before her hand captured his once more. She tugged with much more force than he anticipated, pulling them closer towards the tremendous door set into the stone of the tower.
“We were friends at Hogwarts?” Sirius muttered, furrowing his own brows in concentration. There was a sharp pain at his temple, as though the memories that should have been gone were trying their best to escape the confines of his perplexed mind.
There was a pregnant pause in which Ruby’s entire body froze, her hand clenching tighter onto his. Then, as if it had been rehearsed:
“Golly, a school named after a swine with dermatological issues.”
“You remember Hogwarts.”
His head began to throb. “I – yes – no – I don’t know where that came from.”
Ruby’s eyes had widened, pupils dilated to the fullest extent, gazing at Sirius as though she had never seen something quite like him. The pain at his crown increased, pulsating against the rhythm of his raging thoughts.
“Well, I’ll be damned,” Loretta piped in., “He just asked a question.”
Sirius let out a moan of pain, his hand flying to his forehead. His eyes fluttered closed, the pain intensifying to nearly unbearable levels. “I have to do something – Ruby – my wand?”
And then suddenly, so quickly that he hadn’t any time to react, he felt a rush of air and the sleek surface of cooled stone beneath his feet. Sirius opened his eyes, squinting in the dimly lit alcove he found himself in, staring at the barely visibley face of his companion, her face drawn up in a scowl.
“You can’t talk about that here, Sirius! Wands, potions, broomsticks…”
The hammering in his head had not diminished; the infliction in Ruby’s voice only acting to increase the flame of pain that burned at the edges of his thoughts. Her tone was reprimanding, scolding, as if he should know better in a land that was entirely foreign to him.
But Sirius was in no mood, and in too much pain, to argue with her once more. He bit the inside of his lip, nodding reluctantly at her lecturing. “She’s a Muggle? Brilliant. Let’s go.”
And just like that, he went on his way, climbing the staircase to his left. Not a clue where he was going or even if he was headed the right way to this Watching Room, the sole thought he harbored was finding a cure to this aching pain that plagued his mind.
“No questions,” Ruby noted, suddenly at his side.
Sirius groaned, stumbling up a step. “Questions only lead to your irritating responses, and with this headache, I don’t think I can take much more.”
He could practically sense the gears turning in her head. “Headache, is it?”
“Clearly!” Sirius snapped, groaning,. “Now unless you can tell me how to get rid of it-”
But he was unable to finish his sentence, for Ruby had chosen the moment to lay a single finger to his lips, silencing him. Sirius felt himself a child, reprimanded for not using an inside voice. The pain surged in his head once more, almost crippling now.
Ruby’s voice was barely a whisper. “This should help.”
His eyes should have had difficulty adjust to the sudden beams of liquid gold light that spilled into the stairwell like honey. His headache should have peaked at the sudden illumination, sending him to the floor in intolerable pain. He should have felt the sensation of his curiosity overtaking him, consuming him from the inside out. Above all, Sirius Black should have awoken from this ridiculous dream in a fantastical land where everyone dressed in white. He should have shaken his head, shrugged off everything he thought he knew about this place called Epiphany, and tucked back into bed for a calm night’s sleep.
But he didn’t. He couldn’t – not when every fiber of his being screamed at him to take a step into the brilliant room in front of him. Something warm flooded through him, and he identified it immediately as the feeling of recognition, as though everything he had wondered would finally become fact. The pain in his head dissolved, fleeing into the recesses of his brain, leaving his mind a blank canvas void of thought.
“Welcome to the Watching Room,” Ruby whispered, taking his hand once more. And with a step that had his body shaking in anticipation, he entered the room.
The first thing that occurred to him was that he couldn’t see the ceiling. The stone walls stretched upwards, never ending, until they plunged into inexplicable darkness. And even so, the room was bathed in a dazzling glow, though from where he could not place. His newfound ability to see so clearly left him breathless, for every wayward imperfection in the stone was visible; each miniscule crevice in the granite could be seen.
The second was the way in which the occupants of the room seemed to glide over the stone floor, flocking to the walls. There they pressed their eyes to golden telescopes that shone so brilliantly that Sirius could not help but step towards one, adamant on seeing whatever it offered.
“Come, Sirius, it’s time you took your turn.”
He hadn’t a clue what taking his turn actually entailed, but with his mind utterly blank, there was nothing for Sirius to do but follow Ruby as she smiled softly and led him towards the far wall. “Go on,” she instructed upon their reaching a telescope, “Take a look.”
The metal was cool against his skin, and grateful for this he was, for the sudden whirring of shapes in front of his eyes sent a tremor of excitement through him, his face flooding with color. And then, as clear as day, a scene that was familiar and completely foreign all at once unfolded before him.
Figures with wands held aloft in their hands as they danced around their silver-mask clad counterparts, dazzling jets of light traveling through the air in a terrifying light show. Chaos reigned in the atmosphere of the dimly lit room, people scrambling to their feet, others falling to the floor like rag dolls.
His memories began to trickle back, drop by drop.
“Come on, you can do better than that!”
Sirius didn’t have to think. He didn’t have to take a moment to drink in the familiar features of the man in the center of the room, to realize, with a shock that resonated throughout his entire being that he was looking at himself – cheeky grin that did not belong plastered on his lips, eyes bright with the promise of excitement. He looked tired, haggard, as though he had lived many a years of toil. Sirius shivered, suppressed thoughts of a lonely twelve years tearing at the fabric of his mind.
He was so immersed in his reminiscing, identifying his loved ones in the turmoil of the scene before him, that he nearly missed the moment when a jet of red light careened across the room. Perhaps it was a trick of the light, but the scarlet shone brighter than any incantation he could remember, even as he watched it soar directly towards him, hitting him square in the chest.
And Sirius watched with wide eyes as he fell through an arch, veil fluttering within in, and did not come out the other side.
He watched, with bated breath, as the room seemed to go still for a moment. Around the point of his vanishing, dueling stopped and fighter’s looked up, wand arms falling to their sides in disbelief. There was commotion, flashes of dark cloaks as they Aapparated away, triumphant peals of laughter and taunting shrieks, mad dashes to capture any who remained – and even so, Sirius wasn’t watching them.
His eyes were trained on the boy in the center of the room. Gangly, narrow-faced and with a head of unruly raven hair, the boy raised his eyes to the mysterious archway.
Sirius watched as Remus held him back, allowed the boy to thrash wildly against him, throw his clenched fists every which way, and howl the brokenhearted song of those who know soul-splitting loss. Sirius watched his godson collapse under the weight of the world.
And just like that, it came back. A ricocheting blur of loose-ended memories and vague recollections, poured back into his head like liquefied thoughts. Everything – each person who sashayed into his life, everyone who had been ripped so cruelly out of it – tumbled back into his mind in a torrent of watercolor waves.
Sirius stumbled backwards, his face alabaster white, eyes wide with remembrance.
“Sirius? Sirius!” a voice shouted – he could only assume it was Ruby – though she sounded millions of miles away. A hand reached out for him, fingertips trailing desperately across his cold skin, but he found himself running towards the door from which he came.
It was as if the haze that had been surrounding him, the very one that had him thinking he was so safe, secure, had fallen entirely. What had once seemed like a strange dream-like land with the promise of adventure shifted into something so much darker, far more sinister than he could have ever imagined. The feeling of wonderment was gone now, replaced with recognition of a cruel reality – this place, whatever sort of place it really was, wasn’t good.
But then, why was he here? Everything, all the memories, braided together like the plaited hair of a girl he now remembered, stopped so suddenly. He had fallen through an archway, and instead of coming out the other side, he had arrived here – without reason. The thought of the still unexplained confused him and terrified him all at once.
“What’s all this hullabaloo?” Loretta huffed, her eyes scrutinizing him as he tore through the doors of the tower.
Not a moment passed until Ruby was there, her face clouded over in concern. She reached for him, placing a hand on his heaving chest, the warmth of her hand scorching through his clothes like fire. Sirius pulled away from her, eyes wild.
“The veil? The veil?” he shouted, clenching his fists, “Why didn’t you just let me pass through?”
“What? Sirius, I don’t-” Ruby pleaded, recoiling from him as though he’d slapped her.
“Why did you have to bring me here?!”
Ruby flinched. “I didn’t bring you here! You don’t understand, Sirius!”
And as though they had never before seen someone anything other than utterly at ease in their land, a group of Epiphanites assembled. Each clad in white, they congregated around the little scene until Sirius could no longer ignore them, their presence rendering him claustrophobic. He turned to them, ready to let fly phrases laced with profanities, when the sight of them stopped him dead.
Each face was haunted with the unnatural beauty of eternal youth.
It was just too much.
“Sirius!” Ruby tried once more, grabbing hold of his shoulders. He staggered backwards, irrefutable fear etched into the contours of his face.
“What – there’s something – I don’t - ”
“Oh, god, he’s dense,” Loretta snorted, a twisted smile unfurling on her lips.
But by the horrified look on Sirius’ otherwise handsome face, the last word he would have used to describe the situation was funny.
“Ruby,” he tried again, “Please…”
But the equally mortified look Ruby was sporting only confirmed the feeling in his chest that he could barely identify as crippling fear – something was terribly wrong, and he seemed to be the only one not in on it.
A whisper of breath pushed passed Ruby’s lips in the form of a drawn-out sigh as her eyes moved quickly, raking over Sirius’ face in what looked like torturous agony and before averting away as though she couldn’t stand looking at him for a moment longer.
His voice came out in what was nothing more than a whimper that only someone with a slate-carved heart could ignore. “Tell me what’s wrong.”
“Sirius…” she moaned, putting a hand to her forehead as though the prospect of enlightening him had weakened her.
The blistering heat in his chest threatened to engulf him. “Ruby!”
“Oh, for Pete’s sake, he’s got to find out sooner or later,” Loretta commented matter-of-factly, crossing her arms over her chest. She appeared both amused and entirely unsympathetic.
Ruby’s eyes all but flashed red. “I wasn’t under the impression that I was going to have to tell him!”
“Tell me what?!”
“For the love of all things holy - ” Loretta huffed, her eyebrows furrowing in annoyance. She turned, flashing an apologetic look towards Ruby that seemed not at all sincere, and opened her silver-tongued mouth once more.
“You’re dead, sonny.”
He had been exhaling; releasing a gust of breath that he had been hoped would be a sigh of relief from his quivering lips. And then in the next moment, he found his single breath caught in his throat as it burned like acid.
And his gaze, it flitted around the white-clad congregation with the smoothness of staccato notes. After a moment that was comparable more so to eons, it settled on a familiar ivory face, features marred by a most prominent grimace.
“Dead,” he managed to choke out.
Ruby’s eyes flashed up to meet his own.
“We all are.”