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Movement along the lakeshore, in the shade of a willow tree, caught Remus’ eye. That’s not any of us, it looks like a woman—she’s wearing a gown like the Witch’s, I may be about to get my question answered—

The woman stepped forward hesitantly into the morning light. Her gown differed from the Witch’s only in being blue rather than red, and the belt of links about her slender waist was silver instead of gold. Her skin looked naturally fair, but she obviously spent a great deal of time in the sun, and the resultant tan set off the wild brunette curls which cascaded to the middle of her back to perfection. In her hand she held a spray of yellow flowers, still wet from the lake. Her eyes were a warm, rich brown, and fixed on him as though he were her salvation.

So much Remus took in at his first glance. His second moved past ‘what does she look like’ and focused on ‘who is she,’ and all matters of looks and dress became utterly unimportant. He had room in his mind for only one thought.

She’s real.

"You’re real," breathed the voice he’d heard singing to him as he rode towards this place. "You’re real—and you’ve come—"

In an instant she was in his arms, her own around him, her lips against his. The flower in her hand was dripping cold water down his back, but he didn’t care.

She’s real, and she’s even more beautiful than I dreamed her, and she seems so glad to see me—

"I know all about you now," she whispered when they broke off. "From this." She brought the blossom around so that he could see it. "You made it, and I’ve held it, and my magic lets me know you from that—I so hoped you were the one, the one who heard me singing, the one who watched me dance—"

Remus lowered his head and sought her lips again, and she gave them gladly, but even the wonder of a second kiss couldn’t take his mind from its path.

I suppose part of healing has to be knowing what the one you’re healing ought to be like normally. If she’s a healer of magic, she must be able to feel my magic through the flowers, because I conjured them, and learn who I am from that. But all about me—then she knows—

They broke off again. "I can let you learn about me that same way if you want," she said, looking up at him. "All you have to do is pick one of these same flowers that’s grown here, and hold it a certain way with my help. It won’t hurt you, I promise, and you’ll know me then as I know you. Will you?"

Remus hesitated for a moment. To learn all about another person, all in the blink of an eye—all their good and their bad, their joys and sorrows, successes and failures and troubles and comforts—

Then he looked down at the bright face still turned up to him, and felt his soul rising to answer its call.

I’ve never believed in love at first sight.

But I think it might just be happening to me.

She smiled impishly at him, and rose onto her tiptoes to steal a third kiss.

May as well be informed love at first sight, then.

When their lips parted once more, Remus knelt and plucked a spray of the flower he needed, holding it up to her. She cupped her hands around his and blew into them, and a picture formed amid the tumbling seeds—a baby girl, her eyes wide and brown, reaching up to the toy her dark-skinned sister held above her.

Remus sat back on his heels to watch.  

"You’re in with Snape, aren’t you?" Sirius snarled at the Witch. "You and whoever that woman was, back at that tower thing—you set this all up, you’re just playing with us, getting our hopes up and stringing us along until you can hand us over to Voldemort—"

The Witch closed the distance between them and slapped Sirius across the face. "You dare," she hissed at him. "You dare suggest I would ally myself to such evil as you name. How am I to know for my part that none of you serve him, and that you will not bring him down upon me, to use my power for his own foul purposes?"

James bristled. "Just a second here!" he snapped. "Are you suggesting one of us could turn? One of us?" He waved a hand at Sirius, nursing his reddened cheek, and Peter, who was watching the whole scene in fascination. "I’d trust these men with my life! With Lily’s life!"

"And so you would have done," said the Witch icily, turning to face him. "And you would have died for it, as would she."

James took a step back. "Died?" he repeated, feeling very much as if he’d fallen over a cliff he hadn’t even known was there. "I would have—and Lily—"

"I’m here," Lily said breathlessly, landing her broom beside him and dismounting. "James, you’re pale as a ghost, what’s wrong?"

James pulled her close, as if he could protect her with his own body. "What are you talking about?" he demanded of the Witch. "What do you mean, we would have died?"

"I speak of a world that would have been, had you dodged the curse thrown at you of your own accord, and thus had no need to seek me out for the sake of your friend." The Witch’s head was high, her eyes remote, as though she could see a vision none of the rest of them could. "A world in which neither you, nor any of those others who have come here, would live to be forty years of age."

"What?" Lily gasped. "How is that possible?"

The Witch brought her gaze down to meet Lily’s and smiled. "It is finally time," she said. "Time for you to speak to these two of what you see, what they would never hear before." Her nod indicated Sirius and James. "Of the other reason, besides their treatment of the friend of your childhood, that you resisted for so long the love of the man you now stand beside."

"Oh." Lily laughed a little. "If that’s all—"

"All," the Witch interrupted with a warning tone in her voice. "All—but this ‘all’ would have ended many lives and blighted countless others, and you are beginning to let yourself be blinded to it as well. Though it is perhaps less your fault than it could have been." She turned away, to look again at—

Wormtail? James blinked. What’s he got to do with this?

"May I guess?" the Witch asked kindly. "You thought that hiding the pain would eventually send it away. That even the semblance of friendship was better than a life alone and unprotected. Am I near the mark?"

Peter sniffed once and nodded, his eyes filling with tears. The Witch crossed to him and laid a hand on his shoulder, turning to nod to Lily.

Lily pulled away from James and faced him and Sirius. "She’s got it right," she said, indicating the Witch. "There was another reason besides the way you acted to Severus that I didn’t want to be around you for all those years."

"What, Wormtail?" Sirius scoffed. "What’s wrong, couldn’t you stand the way he smells?"

"That’s exactly what I’m talking about!" Lily shouted, startling Sirius into half a step back. "Peter’s supposed to be your friend, Sirius, but you spend half your time ignoring him and the other half running him down! And you’re no better!" She hurled the accusation at James. "You’re supposed to help your friends, care about them, give them a hand when they need it! Not just put up with them!" The green eyes glistened with tears of their own now. "Are you really surprised I thought long and hard before I decided I wanted to be your friend, when I could see how you treated a person you already called that?"

"But—" Sirius was goggling at her. "I don’t mean it! Not like that! It’s all in fun, the stuff I say, I don’t really mean any of it!"

"Tell him that," Lily snapped. "Or better yet, don’t. Just stop doing it. Because words hurt, Sirius. Words hurt worse than the Cruciatus ever could. And apparently, these words had the power to kill every one of us here—which I would tend to assume includes you!"

James felt the pieces fly together in his mind, and the implications staggered him.

She’s right. Both of them are right. He glanced at the Witch, who was now holding a shaking Peter. We don’t treat him the same way we do each other, or even Moony. And we wouldn’t ever have seen it if not for today.

But Voldemort would have. He’s done it before, used people’s own weaknesses against them. He’d have got to Wormtail somehow, threatened him or bribed him or put him under Imperius, and would we ever have realized it? Would we ever have thought of him as a spy? I know I wouldn’t...

He looked over at Sirius and saw the same sick realization dawning in the gray eyes that he knew lurked in his own hazel.

We wouldn’t. None of us would. We’d have looked at everyone else, but never him, and he’d have got himself in deeper and deeper, because he’d never have dared to tell us what was going on. And the end of it would have been death. Mine and Lily’s for sure, maybe Padfoot’s too, and even if Moony lived through it, what kind of life would he have afterwards, with all his friends either dead or turned traitor? And Wormtail would have been stuck on the wrong side, so no matter who won, he’d have been miserable as long as he lived—which apparently wouldn’t have been all that long—

Just the thought of such endings to his own life and his friends’ made James want to scream, and judging by the look on Sirius’ face, he wasn’t alone.

But that’s not even the worst of it. As insane as that sounds for the fact that we’d all have died before we were forty.

No, the worst of it is that if we’d never had this day, if we’d never heard these words, if we’d kept going the way we have been and came to that ending—

"We would have deserved it," he said aloud.

"Always did hate people who let their friends down," Sirius agreed hoarsely.

Together, they crossed the little clearing towards Peter, who was sitting on the ground with the silver sword in his lap, running a finger across its ruby-encrusted hilt. Lily seemed to have vanished, and the Witch had moved a few paces away and was looking into the distance, the fingers of her right hand tapping thoughtfully against her left elbow.

"Been meaning to ask you, Wormtail," said Sirius, dropping down beside his friend. "Where did that come from?"

"I wish I knew." Peter closed his hand around the hilt, as though recalling what it had felt like to pull it forth from the little bag hanging under his broomstick. "I was just looking for something, anything, to keep her here, not let her get away—oh, while I’m thinking of it, can one of you find my wand?"

James drew his own and Summoned Peter’s, handing it to him. "Thanks," Peter said, tucking it into his pocket. "And just so you know... I don’t hate you, truly I don’t, but..."

"But we’re not as funny as we think we are," James finished. "Or maybe it’d be better to say, we’re not as funny to everybody else—including you—as we are to ourselves."

"I didn’t know," Sirius said, shaking his head. "I never thought—"

"I could have guessed as much," the Witch’s voice cut in.

Sirius growled and was about to make a smart reply. James cut him off with a snapped-shut fist, then made a quick series of signs where Peter couldn’t see. She’s trying to make a point, don’t rise to the bait—but you don’t like it, do you?

No. Sirius sighed deeply. But she didn’t have to be mean about it.

James grinned. That wasn’t mean. That was truthful.

"Some best friend you are," Sirius grumbled.

Peter turned the sword over and gasped audibly. "Look at this!"

Sirius and James both turned to look, and James bit off a curse. Sirius didn’t bother. "It can’t be..." he said, staring at the name engraved on the flat of the blade.

"Apparently it can." James ran a reverent finger across the first G. "And didn’t the Sorting Hat tell us back in sixth year who it used to belong to way back when?"

"Yeah..." Peter blinked. "Wait. Do you think that’s where—"

Sirius suddenly burst into guffaws. Peter and James both looked at him.

"Hold on," he managed to choke out. "Let me—breathe—" He got himself calmed down, but kept his eyes carefully on the grass. "Do you remember what Lily told us Muggle magicians usually pull out of hats?"

"Yes," said Peter. "Why?"

"And do you remember what Moony told us that one girl thought you meant by his ‘furry little problem,’ Prongs?"

"Yeah, he said she thought he had—" James broke off, looking at the sword on Peter’s lap.

"It may not be badly behaved," Sirius said, in a tone that indicated he was losing his battle with laughter again, "but that’s one dangerous-looking rabbit you got there, Wormtail!"

James fell over backwards laughing. Peter maintained enough self-control to place the sword carefully off to one side before he too surrendered, and Sirius needed no further encouragement to go into a second round. Soon there were three helpless Marauders lying on the grass, panting for breath, avoiding each other’s eyes because every time they looked at one another, they sparked it off again.

And it wasn’t even that good a joke...

James shook his head, watching the leaves sway above him. We’re sleep-deprived and relieved. Which is a little bit stupid, considering Moony’s still going to die.

Thinking of which, where’s he got to? And where’s Lily?

He sat up and looked around. Lily’s hair caught the early morning sunlight, making her easy to spot, and Moony was unexpectedly close to her—and he was—

Blinking in surprise, James elbowed Sirius and nudged Peter with his foot. "Tell me I’m not dreaming," he said.

Peter sat up first. "That was quick," he remarked.

"Too quick." Sirius had his suspicious Auror look on. "I don’t like this."

"Of course you do not like it," said the Witch, turning to look down her nose at Sirius again. This was rather easier for her because he was still sitting on the grass. "No one likes what he can never understand."

"Never understand?" Sirius looked past her at Remus, on one knee and holding up something which sparkled in the sun, and the blue-gowned woman accepting it with a bright morning face. "I understand what he’s doing, I just don’t think it’s a good idea—"

"I do not mean what he is doing," the Witch interrupted. "I mean the force behind it, the reason for it. You see, he is in love. And you shall never understand love."

"He can’t be in love, love takes longer than—" Sirius broke off and stood up, staring at the Witch. "What do you mean, I’ll never understand love? I understand love just fine, thank you very much!"

"You are quite right, I do apologize." The Witch had her hands on her hips. "You have the capacity to love precisely one being. Yourself. And that love is so very deep and abiding that you cannot see beyond it to believe that there could be any other kind."  

Sirius spluttered. James held back a snicker by willpower alone. Peter’s lips were suspiciously thin, as though he were biting down on them from inside.

Lily turned away from where Remus was now on his feet, embracing the woman to whom he’d been kneeling, and raced towards James. He got up quickly to meet her, and found himself laughing anyway, but this was in sympathy with the unbounded joy on her pink-cheeked face. "So you had to come and bring Moony a ring for his girl?" he asked.

"Of course." Lily flipped a bit of his hair from one side of his head to the other, then decided it had been better where it was. "Professor Dumbledore and I found the source material Remus mentioned to me, and he was right, there was quite a bit more to the story. The ending of it made me think I’d better go and talk to Remus’ dad right away, and once he heard what I had to say, he let me have the ring he gave Remus’ mum. Then I followed the directions—they’re in another part of that same source—and here I am." She turned, beaming at Remus and the brown-haired woman, who had just arrived beside her, arm in arm. "Your dad says you’d better bring her home before you go anywhere else with her," she said. "In case I didn’t mention that yet."

"You didn’t. Thank you."

"I do not love myself that much!" Sirius finally managed to articulate, glaring at the Witch. "If I did, don’t you think I’d have stayed home? Or dropped out of this crazy little quest halfway through? But here I am, I stuck it out to the end, and it turns out there’s not even any help here—"

"There isn’t?" Remus said, cocking an eyebrow at Sirius. "News to me."

"That’s right, you weren’t here. I guess she couldn’t stand to tell you to your face that she couldn’t help you." Sirius threw the last few words directly at the Witch. "She decided to leave it up to us to tell you you’ve got to go home and get ready to die, that you wasted nearly a third of the time you’ve got left on this sodding chase—"

The brown-haired woman giggled, and Sirius turned on her. "And who the hell are you, anyway?"

"This is my sister," said the Witch coldly, "and I will thank you not to swear at her. Especially since she can do what I cannot. Namely, heal your friend of his curse."

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