Disclaimer: All rights belong to J.K. Rowling. Many thanks to her for inventing the HP universe for us.

And finally...

A Forest Tale

Chapter 34

Alternative Ending Part II.

The Fraud

Harry was sleeping peacefully, but Lily could not stay still. Sitting was uncomfortable; therefore she was walking about the room, fighting off a sensation of insecurity.

She was observing the furniture in the room as though she was trying to discover the fingerprints of the owner. On the mantelpiece, she found a book that had been left open, and she stepped closer to examine it, but her attention was caught by a very out-of-place-looking object lying across the open pages of the book. It was a necklace with an egg-shaped pendant on it. There were few objects she would have considered less likely to be found in Severus's private quarters than a piece of jewellery… unless it was a magical object, perhaps. Curiously, she bent over the necklace, and that was how she noticed the rolled-up parchment next to the book.

She could not quite explain how it had happened – whether the parchment had unrolled on its own, whether she had actually touched it, or whether it had been unrolled by the magical power of her curiosity – but there it lay flat and open in front of her eyes, and it was undoubtedly a letter, written in a neat hand. She was feeling something akin to what she had felt when her Muggle sister had received a letter from Hogwarts. Who was writing letters to Severus?

The risk was enormous, and yet, she was already perusing the lines, her lips parting in amazement. The words were merely friendly; but she thought there was a lot to read between the lines. What was it that Mary did not regret? The parting present contained what Mary valued above all... Whatever it was, such presents were rarely given unless the relationship was special.

Hard though it was to believe, Severus had received a love letter - which was a farewell letter as well. Something had ended quite recently, and she wondered how it had affected him. Even as he was trying to comfort her, to provide her with shelter and safety, he was perhaps mourning the end of a relationship, the loss of a girl who … who was not Lily.

This possibility had an unexpectedly unsettling resonance in her mind, and everything she knew about her best friend appeared to be woefully inadequate. Had his mind been occupied with the letter and the present just before her visit? If so, he had apparently forgotten about it all for her sake.

She wondered how Severus could handle a break-up. When their friendship had (temporarily) ended on that sunny June day (five years had passed since then), she had never thought of how he was coping with it. She had had her own emotions to mind, and she had never bothered to imagine Severus's point of view. But their relationship had been friendship, while this one was probably something different.

Gingerly, Lily touched the pendant with a fingertip. Immediately she could feel two things at the same time. One was an irresistible urge to take the pendant into her hand; the other one was a hot, burning sensation – the pendant was hurting her! Yet, she could not let go of it. For a brief moment, she thought of dark magic, but something in her mind refused the idea. She tried to drop the pendant nevertheless, but only to have her fingers lock around it tightly. When she opened her palm again, there were no painful marks on it, but the fire seemed to be burning inside her already. She was overwhelmed by the desire to know what it was she was holding, when the pendant broke into two equal halves.

She gasped, but before she had time to be properly scared by the idea that in her impertinent curiosity she had damaged someone else's treasured property, something was coming out of the pendant. Frightened, Lily took a step backwards, but the vision was all around her. It was a huge fire - burning trees everywhere, with snakes coming out of the flames, and Lily knew she had seen those trees before. There was no way to escape, but suddenly the running figure of a man appeared. He stumbled, fell on half-knee and looked up at her, a flash of surprise in his eyes.

It was Severus. Lily recognized him beyond doubt, though he did not look like his usual self. It must have been because of the intense light and colour of the flames, but his usually pale, sun-deprived complexion was glowing; and even though 'handsome' was still not the word to describe his face, Lily knew that she would not tire of watching him for a very long time.

The scene continued, although Lily was hardly aware of what was happening until some drink was poured down her throat, and Lily thought a cooling potion was just what she needed, but the potion almost lost its effect when Severus took her hand to pull her across the fire. The touch of his hand on hers had never been like this.

The scene changed. Now she seemed to be kneeling on a wet, cold and hard surface with very little light seeping in from outside, and she could feel nothing but emptiness inside. Someone she loved had died… A door opened, and Severus entered – again, not the Severus Lily had known before, but the one she saw through Mary's eyes.

"Come," he said, and although initially she refused to be rescued, it was impossible to ignore his will, and she let him take her hand once again.

And now it was night and she was flying towards a cold and frightening place. When she arrived, she had to get through a wall by means of some extremely difficult magic. Finally she was inside a prison cell, where she found Severus in a semi-conscious state, thin and pale again, in appalling conditions.

It occurred to Lily that Severus would not want her to be there – even as a child, he had done everything in his power to hide his poverty, and she had usually respected those pitifully hopeless efforts. This was much worse than simple poverty. But she did not feel revolted at all as she began doing the various chores around him.

Then she saw flashes of various moments in a prisoner's life, moments Mary had secretly and illegally shared with Severus in the days when Lily had been trying to obtain official permission to visit him...

Then, in a mirror, she saw him change his prison uniform into ordinary black robes, and Lily could not tell any more whether the emotions she was experiencing were Mary's or her own. But when Severus came out of the prison cell, wearing the necklace with the pendant around his neck, Lily felt a rush of great joy and simultaneously a rush of wild jealousy; and the impact of this contradiction petrified her mind. Helpless, she watched him fly on horseback, reach the island at dawn, and enter the cave where he had been with her first, and yet she was also following him now, trusting his previous experience and knowledge of the cave.

The Blue Stone did not work for Severus any more; and this time Lily's own emotions suppressed anything that Mary could feel. Lily knew what Mary did not know, the true significance of the Stone; and the fact that Severus was able to use the pendant but not the Blue Stone made her feel hurt, but she despised herself for it.

There were others in the cave with them, dangerous people… She saw Severus drop his wand and let Mulciber capture him just to spare her pain, and she also saw him approach, raising a fist that was going to hit her – but he kept struggling against the Curse binding his mind and his free will. She was close to crying when he attacked Mulciber and got defeated in an unequal fight; yet, she really broke down only when he won the duel in the end. Then Severus took her into his arms, and comforted her as he had never comforted Lily, not even tonight in her great distress.

Later they were flying again, and she had to help Severus enter Azkaban, but she could not do it. She could not leave him locked up among the Dementors … and when they were on the run, Severus was holding her firmly, protecting her from the monsters...

They were on the island again, and Severus had a bleeding wound on his arm, but his face reflected anger at least as much as pain. And she was once again Lily, who understood that, in reality, she had been at that moment in the Azkaban cell with James, and James had touched Severus's enchanted blood with a knife... When his pain was over, Lily knew it had ended when she had touched his blood far away.

Lily kept watching the vision, unable to turn away from the sight, even though she should have closed her eyes now. Only when she could feel her mind all but burst with the growing tension, did she – or was it Mary? – close her eyes, but only to feel him much more intensely than before. Later, she opened her eyes again to see him, but he was being led away from her, and she was lonelier than ever before.

The vision dissolved, and the pendant closed again. Lily sank into an armchair, shaking and trembling with what she had discovered. She had seen Severus through Mary's love, and Mary's view on him seemed strikingly accurate even as she regained control of her mind. She was not surprised that Mary loved him – it would have been unbelievable if she did not. The shock shaking her was the realization that she – Lily – loved him, too. It was her love for Severus that had forced the pendant containing Mary's love to open up to her, and she was already paying the price: Control was slipping out of her hands, and she was compelled to accept the long-suppressed truth.

She wished it had remained suppressed forever. There had been a time when mere friendship with dark-leaning, pro-Slytherin Severus had been embarrassing, even degrading; and James had been the ideal boyfriend to free her once and for all from what she had so readily denied. Who else could have reinforced her choice better; and what other relationship could have more successfully wiped off the memories tainting her childhood? It was because of James that she had been able to move on.

And now, it was too late. She had a family. There was no denying that her marriage was in a crisis – and with a guilty conscience, she saw that her jealous, irritable James had understood her feelings much better than she herself had. But Severus had embraced Mary, and Mary had become to him what she – Lily – should have been. Oh, yes, they had kissed once - but had not Severus told her tonight that a kiss did not always mean much? And yet, she loved him.

Loved him? The colour drained from her cheeks as she recalled what she had done. Severus could be in mortal danger! Having had two close calls with a werewolf before, he had gone to face the same one yet another time only to … to do what? Why was he checking the safety of Padfoot's house (and for such a long time) if she and Harry were spending the night away from the danger anyway? She could think of one answer only: He wanted her to be safe, but he did not want to stay with her. He preferred to risk meeting a werewolf… but why? Was it because he thought that was what she wanted? Could he consider her so heartless? Or was it - somehow - because of Mary?

"Shame on you, Lily," she told herself in desperation. "You should worry about his safety, not about his motivations."

If Severus was hurt tonight, it would be her fault. She had allowed him to go and take a perfectly pointless risk just because she had been afraid to stay with him – although it was not Severus she was afraid of … and not even James.

She had no Floo Powder - but dawn was near, and she would Apparate back to Padfoot's house soon – and perhaps Severus would return before that. She was, however, waiting for him in vain. Severus did not return – she only saw him in her imagination, which tormented her with vivid images of pure horror, until her anxiety, combined with a whole night's sleeplessness, gave her a severe migraine. By the time the night was over, Lily had become expressly ill, with symptoms including headache, blurred vision and nausea...

She dragged herself to the twin cabinets where Severus kept his potions. They were locked, but her Alohomora opened both of them. She reached for a bottle of Invigoration Draught when she heard the knocking on the window. It was an owl, bringing an envelope addressed to her in James's handwriting, but the letters were dancing a foggy dance before her eyes. She went back to the potion cabinets, and opened the envelope as she was tasting the potion, but as soon as her tongue got into contact with the liquid, she realized the mistake she had made, and she dropped the rest of the drink at once.

Once again, it was too late. A tiny amount of the poison had already reached her throat, and although she made a grab for one of the bezoars sitting in a bowl on one of the shelves of the cabinet, her legs failed to support her, and her fingers missed their target.

Snape had his wand, but he did not have much time to decide on the most useful spell. Still, he succeeded in reducing the effect of the attack at least, so he was not impaled by the enormous antlers. He was thrown back though; and when he hit the ground, he was certain he would never be able to move again. He fully expected the hooves of the stag to trample on him with the animal's whole weight, but he only heard staggering footsteps in the dark, which had died away by the time he managed to turn his head around. He wondered how close the werewolf might be, but he still did not know how to get up. Finally, there was some noise again, and Potter returned. He was directing a wand at Snape.

"Rennervate," Potter muttered.

Snape gave a groan, indicating he was conscious. The groan sounded like 'Sectumsempra', but he did not have the strength to make it a real spell. At least he tightened his grip on his wand - lifting it was, for the moment, too difficult to try. In spite of that, Potter tumbled and collapsed like a sack, still clutching his wand.

"Where are Lily and Harry?" Potter panted, raising his head from the ground.

Defiantly, Snape pressed his lips together. The silence lasted at least a minute.

"Where are they?" Potter demanded again, brandishing his wand.

Snape sat up (taking his time, since every single movement hurt), before responding.

"They are safe," he growled. "Where were you?"

Potter was silent. He had left a very disappointed Petunia rather abruptly, when she had made a romantically-intended observation about the full moon casting a lovely light into the room – but he was not going to share these details with Snape. James Potter was not proud of himself.

Without getting up, he turned away from Snape, ignoring the wand that was now pointing directly (if somewhat shakily) at him. With his back to Snape, he let out a strange sound; and Snape's hand, just about to sweep off some short black hairs that had got caught on his robes, stopped in midair. The Stag of Gryffindor was crying!

"Get a grip on yourself," Snape snapped, looking in the opposite direction.

Then slowly, he got to his feet. With equal difficulty, Potter did the same. He opened the door of the house, and went inside, gesturing for Snape to follow.

Potter had just proved that he was perhaps even more dangerous than his werewolf friend out there, and Snape did not like the invitation at all – but he would not have been able to go very far anyway. Besides, he did not want to appear easily frightened. He entered the house after Potter, who sank down on the nearest chair.

"I lost my mind," Potter said just audibly. "I thought Lily and Harry were in danger. I … wanted to protect them."

"From me?"

Potter shook his head.

"I attacked Remus. I … injured him. He was bleeding heavily when he left. No one can help him … until dawn."

"I am not a werewolf, and you nearly killed me, too," Snape reminded him, just in case Potter had not noticed.

"Why don't you leave Lily alone?" Potter asked accusingly. "None of this would have happened if it had not been for you … if Lily and I had not quarrelled because of you!"

"Idiot," said Snape with as much contempt as he was able to put into a single word. "She has always wanted you. Do you think I would be here if I had the slightest doubt about that? She fled to Hogwarts with your child because she did not feel safe with the werewolf in the garden. But as you can see, I am here."

Potter pressed his palms against his ears as though Snape's words could hurt them. He was thinking of what Petunia had told him about Lily and Snape. Lily's sister did not seem to be a disinterested witness any more, but he still could not fully understand how her insinuations, together with her abortive seduction scheme, as well as his own pathetic role in the affair, had created a tension he had been unable to deal with. He had taken it out on a friend with a cruel, animal instinct he had never before realized he possessed. It was the same instinct that had driven him to attack Snape, but it was not easy to acknowledge his regret to him.

Friend or foe – it used to be simple. Now he had to face the fact that he was not always able to tell them apart; and how could he be sure that Lily and Harry would not get into mortal danger the next time he made a similar mistake?

"I would like to hex myself," he said in a drained voice.

In the ensuing long silence, the two wizards were conveniently busy with the physical after-effects of the violent incident. Potter had bruises to tend to, and Snape's back and limbs still hurt. Potter did not protest when Snape (without asking his permission) searched Lily's stock of potions and helped himself to some Strengthening Solution. In exchange, Snape shared with Potter the painkiller he had also found. (He did not give Potter anything that would strengthen him though.) Neither of them suggested or even pondered contacting Lily.

Dawn broke and dawn brought back Black, who was supporting a gravely injured, very weak Lupin. They cast some first aid spells on him and bandaged his wounds (there were several of them, and he had lost a lot of blood). Snape gave him some potions, too, as Lupin's face was distorted by permanent pain, although he endured the treatment without a single cry. He was undoubtedly in life-threatening condition. Black notified St. Mungo's.

"They will ask ... questions," Lupin said feebly.

"I will answer those questions," said Potter, who did not try to hide his tears any more. "You need a healer."

He sat down by his injured friend, and stayed there until the healer arrived.

Black was walking up and down in the kitchen, ruffling his hair from time to time.

The healer spent a long time with Lupin; but finally he went downstairs into the kitchen, where the others were waiting. (Snape did not know why he was still there - unless because it was very early morning, and he supposed Lily could be asleep. Besides, he was not quite ready to make the simple decision of going anywhere yet.)

"Are you Mr Lupin's family?" the healer inquired.

"Yes, we are," said Black.

"His friends," said Potter. "He has no family."

"The wounds were caused by a sharp object," the healer began. "A large knife or -"

"Antlers," said Potter.

"Can we talk openly?" the healer asked, watching Potter closely.

Potter nodded.

"The physical wounds," the healer explained, "can be healed. However, that in itself does not guarantee your friend's survival."

He spoke slowly, choosing his words carefully.

"He has other wounds. Not physical ones. Some of them are old, but he has been traumatized anew. I'm sorry to say this, but I can't find in him the will to live."

"Do whatever must be done," said Potter, turning deadly pale, "nothing else matters. I will pay for any treatment he needs."

"St Mungo's is a very good hospital," the healer said. "But we are best at treating the wounds of the body. Your friend needs something more. There is a place … far away from here… It is quite new, but is run by widely respected professionals, who are experts in their fields and know what they are doing. Their purpose is to heal the deeper wounds besides the visible ones. They accept werewolves who want to get a second chance to start their lives again. However…"

The healer paused.

"Don't worry about the costs," Potter said quickly.

The healer cast a searching glance at the three young men.

"They do not accept lonely wolves. The method they have developed requires a family member, someone who cares for the patient enough to stay with him permanently, participate in the treatment and help him heal. For years if necessary."

Potter's eyes opened wide.

"If it is not possible, the patient can just as well go to St. Mungo's. You say Mr Lupin has no family-"

"He broke ties with his parents," said Black. "He did not want to trouble them with his … condition. He has never been married, and he is not in a relationship … as far as I know."

"A successful therapy can greatly improve the patient's chances of living a happier life despite the condition," the healer continued. "If Mr Lupin's parents are alive, perhaps one of them could be persuaded to-"

"That's enough," Potter cut in. "We'll try it. I'll stay with him."

At the questioning look of the healer, he raised his hand.

"Yes, I perfectly understand what it means. No one is closer to him than his friends, and since I caused his wounds, I must help him heal."

"I'll make the necessary arrangements then," said the healer. "You friend must be transferred there immediately. As for who caused his wounds, well, Mr Lupin is not intending to seek justice (I must say it is a typical reaction of injured werewolves) but, Mr Potter, I do think you may find the therapy useful as well."

The healer left. Snape and Black were staring at Potter, bewildered.

"Prongs, dear old mate," Black murmured. "Don't you think I should-"

"No," said Potter. "I almost killed him last night. I must accept whatever it takes to heal him. It is about his life – it is worth the effort. How can we expect him to be well if he loses his trust in his friends? First Peter becomes a traitor, and then I injure Moony… "

"I'll help you get there," said Black. "Perhaps we would all need that therapy… It has never been the same since Peter turned his back on us." He ruffled his hair again. "I'll go and pack his things."

Snape remained alone with Potter and he could not restrain himself any more.

"What about Lily?"

Potter looked at him with the expression of a recently tortured man.

"She will understand," he answered. "She must understand. I made a mistake, and I owe this to my FRIEND! To both my friends... The three of us at least ...will never let each other down. But I will come back … Eventually."

"She will have plenty of time to be unhappy until then."

"I know!" Potter snapped. "Tell me how I could make a better choice between her and my friend's life!"

He clenched his fist. Snape shrugged.

"Perhaps you are right. You'd better lie low for a while, hiding yourself and your friend. An unregistered Animagus and a werewolf nearly killing each other! At least you will not drag Lily into this!"

"Stop that!" Potter shouted, stepping away from Snape. "You don't know … you cannot know what it is like to … to have harmed a friend … someone you care for, someone you would not want to hurt for the world!"

Snape opened his mouth to retort, but what he actually said was something completely different.

"I do."

Potter wheeled around, and gaped at him.

"You do?" he asked sharply.

Snape stared back at him, paler than usual.

"It makes you loathe yourself," he replied. "It makes you want to punish yourself. You would give anything to undo the harm."

"Exactly," said Potter quietly. "Exactly."

The healer returned.

"Mr Potter, we must leave in a few minutes. They are waiting for you in the Healing Centre."

"I'm almost ready," Potter answered.

He turned back to Snape.

"I'll send her a note … There is no time for more," he said miserably, knowing he would not be able to look into Lily's eyes anyway.

"Don't let her despair," he continued with great effort, "and don't let anyone hurt her … or Harry … There may still be Death Eaters out there. Keep them safe until I come back. I will come back as soon as possible."

"I'll do my best to keep them alive," Snape muttered, "but I can't take your place in their lives."

Potter stared at Snape hard, until Snape had to notice. He fell silent.

"You will try to comfort her, I guess," Potter said coldly at last. "Don't deny it because I won't believe you."

With this, he left the kitchen to get ready to leave.

"Oh, yes, I will," Snape wanted to shout after him, but he could not.

It did occur to him that comforting Lily might not be an unpleasant task after all, but he shook off the thought. He knew how Lily was going to feel, and Potter's cynical sarcasm had hit home. In vain he wanted that lost brilliance to return into her eyes. Whatever he did, she would miss Potter. It might take an eternity before she accepted comfort from him. And then again, what was comfort? A crying Lily's hand in his, or perhaps a cold kiss of revenge, after which he would be told that was it? He was not sure he could bear it once more.

But when he was left alone, he took some Floo Powder, and peered into the green flames.

The room where Remus Lupin found himself at the end of an exhausting journey resembled a cosy bedroom much more than a ward. It was clean, bright and practical, but did not look insanely expensive. That was good. It would be difficult to accept an unreasonable financial sacrifice from his richer friends even though he knew James would be hurt by his refusal.

"Mr Lupin," said the healer who had received them, "let me welcome you and your friend in the "Hand in Hand Healing" programme of our Healing Centre. I am Healer Sage, and it is my duty to give you an introduction to our programme and to explain everything you must know about our methods. Later, you will have a chance to meet researchers Mr and Mrs McDonald, who have worked out and first tried out the magical background of this programme. They often visit us and help us with our work. As for the centre itself, when you can get up, you will discover our various facilities; however, on the first three days after the full moon, you would be advised to rest even if you did not have these deep wounds. If you need assistance, our nurses will help you… "

It was night again when Lily came to in a candle-lit ward of the Hogwarts Hospital Wing. Another bed in the same ward was occupied by a house-elf. Lily did not feel well. As she stirred, a door opened, Madam Pomfrey came in, and gave Lily a drink. She recognized the antidote.

"Where is Harry?" she asked in a faint voice.

"He's with Professor McGonagall," Madam Pomfrey replied. "He is fine, and you can see him in the morning. Try to sleep now."

She left, but Lily was not alone for long. Someone else entered the ward, and sat down on a chair by her.

It was James. He took her hand into his.

"Don't worry about anything," he said. "Just sleep."

Lily had a lot of questions, and she wanted to reprimand James, but she felt too weak to start that kind of conversation. Therefore she merely drew her hand away, and she asked one question only.

"Is … Severus all right?"

James seemed surprised.

"Yes, he is. Why?"

Lily did not respond.

She felt much better when she woke up. The candles were already out, and the rays of the sun had found their way into the hospital ward. She was alone - even the house-elf's bed was empty. She carefully sat up and stared at the door. It was probably too early to inquire after Harry; but it was difficult to be patient.

She tried to recollect her memories of the previous two nights. How had she ended up drinking that poison? The owl had disturbed her, and she must have gone to the wrong cabinet for the second time. She wondered how it was possible that she was still alive.

As though James had sensed that she was awake, he promptly entered again, looking exhausted, even old. He sat down again by her side, this time without a single word, avoiding eye-contact with her. Lily was observing him, trying to decide what she was feeling. James seemed almost a stranger to her now, and she could not see the wizard she had once fallen in love with. Was there enough forgiveness in her to accept him back? Could she still love him one day as she had loved him perhaps aeons before? Would she ever be able to trust him again? Or could she simply ... live with him without real love? She had no doubt that James loved Harry, and Harry needed his father. Was it possible to break up at all?

"I won't deprive Harry of his father," she said to herself. "But I cannot promise anything more. Not yet."

And what was she to do with her newly recognized, disturbing feelings about Severus? She was ashamed to admit it to herself that she would have expected him to show up by her sickbed as well. Had she offended him? Perhaps he had paid her a visit during the day… Or he could be seeking solitude, or perhaps he was trying to find Mary... Never before had Lily wanted to understand Severus so much. Perhaps he needed the help of a friend, only he did not know how to ask. And who could he go to? Dumbledore? Ridiculous. Who would share their relationship problems with Dumbledore? No, it was quite clear who Severus's only real friend was ... and she had been too occupied with her own problems to even ask him how he was doing. She had lost count of how many times she had felt ashamed of herself in the past two days.

"How did I survive?" she asked suddenly.

"Snape found you," James said. "He gave you a bezoar when he got back from Bl- … Padfoot's house, and he brought you here."

"In the meantime, where were you?"

"I'm here now," James replied after a short pause. "We can discuss everything when you feel better."

He did not look at her.

"I'm feeling better," she said.

"You must never attempt that again," James continued in an agitated voice. "I don't understand how you could do it."

Lily gaped at him, but then she realized what he was speaking about.

"I didn't want to commit suicide," she explained. "I needed some potion for a migraine. I … made a mistake."

"A mistake?" James asked with a mixture of relief and astonishment in his tone. "You?"

Lily shrugged.

"I took the wrong bottle… I never thought of poison when I opened the cabinets. To start with, I don't keep poison among my potions."

"Well, I … I mean Snape obviously does."

"I guess he must," said Lily. "Poisons and antidotes are part of the curriculum here, and some antidotes require poison as one of their ingredients. I just wasn't careful enough."

"It was … an accident then?"

"Of course," Lily answered impatiently. "What would I have wanted to kill myself for?"

"You are right," said James. "You had no reason at all. Good."

She glared at him suspiciously.

"Honestly, James! What exactly were you thinking?"

His eyes reflected nothing but pure joy as their glances met for an instant. Then he quickly looked away, as though his emotion was something to hide.

"Wait a minute," said Lily. "I got a letter. I was about to read it ... Did you find it?"

"Yes, I did… So, you haven't read it?"

"No, not yet. Where is it?"

"It is nothing urgent," James answered. "I… wrote it. No need to worry about it."

Lily was increasingly suspicious. She could not imagine James feeling remorse that was deep enough to make him truly shy. He had something unpleasant to say… That was the reason why he avoided her eyes…

"Say it," she said sternly. "I am not a child. I can handle whatever it is, here and now."

He sighed. It was even more difficult than he had imagined.

"Nothing irremediable happened," he began cautiously.

Lily was not so certain about that; but, of course, James was talking about his own experiences.

"Everything will be all right … eventually."

"Couldn't you just … tell me at last?" she asked, unaware of how severe she was sounding. "If it's anything involving Tuney, I am prepared."


He seemed genuinely perplexed. Lily was getting confused.

"What is it then?"

He rose.

"I wish I could help," he said. "Really help. I tried."

Lily could not bear it any more. She got out of the hospital bed and stood facing him, white and weary in the hospital nightgown.

"You are not strong enough to get up-"

"I am," she replied. "Much stronger than you'd think."

He went to the wardrobe, took out a hospital dressing gown and put it on her shoulders.

"I'm sorry," he said, and for the first time that morning, he let her look into his eyes.

"I want the full truth," she said; her voice unexpectedly and almost magically soft.

Lily's gaze captured his. He was unable to look away. He had never suspected Lily had this skill or that she was willing to use it. Occlumency was no use. All his well-practised defence mechanisms melted against the emerald-green eyes. Lily was doing what recently not even the Dark Lord had been able to do, and he felt stark naked before her, feeling all the shame and embarrassment of nakedness.

He knew that she knew, and that his pathetic attempt to comfort her had failed. He had missed the chance to give her the tactful explanation he had planned. He saw the shock in her face, he could feel her heart miss a beat, he thought he heard her gasp - and he had no idea how to ask her to forgive. Words he had heard on another moonlit night came to his mind: Black's words, the ones about King Arthur's birth, the words that had hurt him so much. He realized how this deception could be, how it certainly would be misunderstood. Who would believe that there had never been a glimmer of hope in the back of his mind somewhere that he might, perhaps, reap a stolen reward for once again impersonating James Potter?

But Lily's features were composed again. She had been astounded, yet she felt no anger at all. He was cheating to make her a little happier. She was, in fact, touched, and – could it be? – relieved, as though after facing a long overdue change that she had both expected and feared.

There would be time later to unmask this heart-warmingly mortified fraud in front of her. (She almost chuckled in anticipation of the unmasking.) For a while, she could play along.

"I forgive you," she said earnestly, "if you truly intend to stand by me and if you promise you will be very good … to Harry."

His eyes widened now. He did not know what to make of her words. Had he not just been found out?

"I love you," he said, reaping the stolen reward he had earned.

He might never have pronounced those three words if he had not been able to hide behind James Potter's mask. Then, as though waking to reality from a deep sleep, he resignedly shook his head.

"Tell me what you need me to be."

Lily's heart was suddenly so light that she found herself capable of forgiving even Petunia. She definitely needed to sort out her feelings, and she was yet to learn some background details of this story – but at the moment, she wanted nothing more than a chance to personally heal any injury that the antlers of the stag might have caused to Severus.

"I don't think I'll ever want you to be anything but yourself," she said. "I wish I could touch and hug your soul."

Life was very far from returning to normal.