Petal in the Rain

Chapter 34 – Beautiful Renegades

"It's our time to make a move, it's our time to make amends. It's our time to break the rules…let's begin."

-X Ambassadors

If there was one place in the world where Lily felt an absolute sense of peace, it was burrowed among the tens of thousands of books that colonized Hogwarts' mammoth-sized library. It amazed her how such a large dwelling could feel cozy—what with its never-ending stacks creating quiet alcoves and forgotten study areas for students to nest in, content to shut out the word for a while.

Lily had decided to spend her Saturday morning surrounded by history and the musky, papery smell that accompanied it, having chosen a squishy armchair near the very back of the library that rested beneath an intricate, cathedral-like window. As she took in the perfect northern views of the castle grounds—almost entirely ensconced in rolling, forested hills—sunlight tenderly warmed her forehead, while a cup of coffee Mimi had snuck past Madam Pince thawed out her cold fingers.

She heaved a gentle sigh, pausing from reading the book wide open on her lap to admire the motes of dust travelling along the buttery rays refracting through the window. It was easy to become distracted from reading such a tedious volume as Atlas Bandi's book of three-page-long incantations, especially when many words were hard to even make out, ink lifting with age. Though Lily had finished her essay long ago, it hadn't stopped her from leafing through Bandi's book page by page, her eyes skimming spell descriptions for anything that looked interesting or useful to her campaign to become better at Defense.

"You aren't an easy women to track down, Miss Rockford."

Lily straightened at the sound of the mocking voice, looking up to find James emerging from the depths of the stacks. He smiled, settling on the arm of her chair.

"This library is titanic, never mind the castle itself—I'm surprised you found me at all."

"My map comes in handy in a pinch," James flicked the Marauder's Map and tucked it beneath his black sweater. Even dressed in his Sunday casual, he came off as impossibly debonair. "Apologies if you were hoping for some time alone this morning—I saw a chance for a private chat and took it."

"Well you better be bothering me for a good reason, then," Lily said, her tone light as she took a sip of her coffee. "Can I get Mimi to sneak you in a cup?"

"You're much braver than I, pushing your luck with Madam Pince like that," James chuckled, his stare drifting out toward the verdant horizon gradually transitioning to autumn jewel tones. "I've already had an entire pot of coffee this morning—anymore and I might start to shake."

"Up late grading essays?"

"No—Order meeting," James replied, the flatness of his tone enough to alert Lily that something was praying on him.

"Are you going to tell me about it?" she asked, keeping her voice soft as she reached for his hand. She knew they were alone in the library, save for Madam Pince sorting books at her desk on the other side of the colossal room. The library wasn't a particularly popular place on Saturdays, never mind Hogsmeade days.

Lily was surprised when James didn't brush her off, troubled words tumbling out of him with vigor. He blew out a breath: "Truthfully, things grow worse by the day. The papers aren't privy to even half of it. Mysterious disappearances, murders, the hate propaganda being circulated—Voldemort and his followers are amplifying their efforts ten-fold. What's worse, more wizards and witches flock to his cause every day."

Swallowing, Lily closed her book and put it aside. "And what does the Order make of the information I provided on Regulus and his cronies? Will Dumbledore expel them? What did you tell him?"

James frowned. "I told him you overheard a conversation in the hallway between classes— not that you were sneaking to the kitchens after curfew and stumbled upon them, if that's what you're worried about. And by the way, I'm still cross with you that you risked discovery for that information. Merlin knows what those thugs would've done if they'd found you out."

And you'd be a lot angrier if you'd known I'd actually snuck into the Slytherin common room to seek out the information…Lily thought, her guilt like an oily knife in her gut.

"You should have more faith that I can take care of myself," she chastised him, though it was half-hearted considering her own deception.

"I have enough keeping me up at night. I don't need to be worrying about you getting tangled up in some dark plot that could see you harmed—or worse," James replied, his face solemn.

"I'm always going to be "tangled up" in it, as you put it," Lily reminded him, though the flicker of despair that crossed James' face gave her no pleasure. "Voldemort has my number already—he may not know who I am, or where I am, but his rise impacts me just as much as it impacts you."

"That may be true, but it also means you should be taking extra precautions to stay as far away from him and his followers as possible," James maintained. "Don't go looking for trouble."

Lily gritted her teeth. If she had even more at stake than James did, didn't she have even more right to do something about it? To be proactive, rather than being relegated to the sidelines? She very much doubted she would be treated as such if she were a man.

"Trouble will find me if I continue to learn alongside aspiring death eaters," she mumbled.

James sighed. "The information you provided has affirmed our suspicions that the sons and daughters of many pureblood families are considering—and perhaps actively pursuing—becoming death eaters, whether they've graduated or not. If it were up to me, they'd not only be kicked out of the school, but tossed into a cold cell at Azkaban; however, since they haven't technically done anything against the rules, Dumbledore has no grounds for their expulsion."

"What?" Lily demanded, heat rising to her ears. "They were talking about killing other students! Isn't conspiring to commit a crime grounds for expulsion?"

James removed his glasses, rubbing at his temples. "Dumbledore seems to think we can keep a better eye on them at Hogwarts—and potentially keep them from joining up until after graduation."

"Unbelievable," Lily scoffed, rising from her chair to pace beneath the window. The sudden movement made her stifle a groan, her leg and stomach muscles aching from her sustained exercise with Nymphadora and Amelia. "He's going to endanger other students just to delay what sounds inevitable?"

"I don't always agree with Dumbledore, but the Order has to put its trust in him anyway," James murmured, joining Lily at the window and putting his hands on her shoulders so she'd pause to look at him. "We'll be watching them like a hawk, I promise you."

"And while you plan and plot and do things that matter, you expect me to sit idly by? Studying and attending parties, pretending everything is coming up daisies?" Lily whispered, her eyes echoing her frustration.

"I can't be of any use to the Order if I'm worrying about your safety," James said, trailing off as he played with a strand of Lily's hair, tucking it behind an ear. A slight blush crept to her cheeks. "The same goes for Frank, Sirius, Remus and all the others who know your true identity. The best way you can support us and our fight right now is to lay low and blend in as best you can."

Lily's bottom lip wobbled. Was she hindering the efforts of members of the Order of the Phoenix by not cooperating with their well laid-out plan for her?

"Then what do you want me to do next?"

A horseless carriage bumped along the craggy thoroughfare leading from Hogwarts castle to nearby Hogsmeade village, jostling around the bundled forms of three reticent students. Dressed in a deep-emerald dress coat, matching cloche hat and beautiful suede boots—new arrivals from Madam Gladrags, who now shipped her the latest fashions each month per Frank's instructions—Lily crossed her arms as she observed Rudolf and Alice, both of whom were pointedly avoiding her gaze. Already moody due to the task James had given her, it took less time than usual for her to lose her practiced patience.

"Are you two going to spit out what you're holding back from saying, or are we going to endure awkward silence for the rest of this coach ride?" Lily demanded, causing Rudolf and Alice to shoot furtive looks at one another.

"We…we saw the article this morning—Frank's break-up interview," Rudolf finally divulged, looking relieved to be able to say what was on his mind. Never one for holding his tongue, Lily supposed Alice had threatened him within an inch of his life to remain quiet on the matter.

"Oh—that," Lily's temperament further darkened. She'd forgotten about the interview entirely, never mind the timing of its publication. What ever happened to her pleasant, undisturbed morning in the library? "I haven't even read it."

"But surely Frank told you about it?" Alice sputtered, her blonde ringlets bobbing beneath her fashionable plaid hat as she straightened in her seat. She looked positively horrified at the prospect of Frank going behind her back. "He wouldn't do such an ungentlemanly thing, would he?"

"Rest assured, Alice; he was a perfect gentleman as usual," Lily replied, a small smile threatening to quirk despite her temper. "You both knew he and I weren't going to last much longer—this was just a way for us to announce the break ourselves."

"Frank was very complimentary of you," Rudolf remarked, leaning back in the leather-trimmed seat. "He made it sound as if you were too good for him."

Lily's eyes flickered to Alice, who failed to hide her antagonism at the preposterous idea. "We all know that isn't true, and I'm sure if he did, Frank was just being noble. That's just who he is—and I'm sure I couldn't stop him even I'd tried."

"He really is quite noble, isn't he?" Alice agreed, folding her hands in her lap and looking out the open window, her hair swaying in the slight autumn breeze. She suddenly snapped to attention, a thought occurring to her. "You're alright though, aren't you Aurora? I should have said earlier that I'm sorry things didn't work out between you."

Lily smirked. "I'm fine, Alice, thank you. Frank is going to make some lady a wonderful partner one day—we just weren't right for one another."

"His mother will be so cross she won't be able to include the Dumbledore name on her family tree," Rudolf chuckled, earning a jab from Alice. "Ow! Well it's true, Alice. You don't think my own mother sent me an urgent owl this morning after the Prophet came out, instructing me to pursue Aurora? Every single aristocrat at breakfast likely got one from their parents."

Lily gathered up her face in her hands, balancing her elbows on her knees like she was going to be sick. "Please tell me you're joking."

Rudolf winked. "Any dinner plans tonight, darling?"

Alice jabbed him in the ribs again, earning snorts of laughter from all three of them. "As if she'd date the likes of you."

"Such brutal words from such a sweet girl," Rudolf clucked, tapping a finger to Alice's crinkled nose. As their carriage pulled into the bustling village, the sound of chattering students and blowing leaves filled the air, mingling with the scent of freshly-baked pies coming from the nearby bakery. "So then, who's the next lucky chap on your dance card, Aurora?"

What would have been Lily's snide retort was cut off when the coach door swung open to reveal a confident-looking Sirius Black. "Ah, there you are! Climb out of that coach, love; I'm so hungry I could eat your hat."

With Alice and Rudolf transfixed on the handsome apparition, Lily shot Sirius a glare before accepting his out-stretched hand and carefully exiting. The dashing wizard was dressed smartly in a white dress shirt and dark vest and pants, his night-black hair falling into his mischievous eyes. Taking in his fetching appearance, Lily supposed he'd made an effort the same way she'd been instructed to.

"Think I can get away with ordering a firewhiskey on the rocks with lunch? Too early?" Sirius grinned at Lily in greeting, turning his attention to Alice and Rudolf. "I haven't seen you two since we were all defying prohibition at that charming little party. Doing well?"

"Very well, Lord Black. Do you have lunch plans?" Rudolf asked conversationally, though Lily could easily decipher his peaked interest.

"Isn't she lucky?" Sirius teased, earning another glower from his companion.

"Would you like to meet up afterwards?" Lily queried, trying to ignore the earnest looks of other students departing coaches. The sight of Sirius always seemed to draw a crowd. "I'm craving something sweet from Honeydukes."

"Of course, Aurora—we'll catch up later," Alice agreed, leaning over to peck Lily on the cheek. "C'mon Rudolf, I need to stop into Scrivenshaft's for a new peacock quill."

"Such exotic tastes," Rudolf tittered, looping arms with Alice. "We'll look for you later, Aurora. Ta-ta."

Sharing another clandestine look between them, Alice and Rudolf disappeared into the sea of amassing students, all impeccably dressed for an afternoon of shopping. Sirius captured Lily's hand, smirking down at her. "You clean up nicely today—I suppose you'll do."

"Is that supposed to be a compliment?" Lily muttered, flexing her hand in his.

"Stop frowning; it'll ruin our photo op, which is the whole point of this. Besides, is lunch with me really so awful?" Sirius enunciated dramatically, leading her around the perimeter of students towards The Three Broomsticks. Heads turned as they passed, making Sirius grin like a Cheshire cat. "I don't think I've ever taken a girl on a date before—you should count yourself fortunate."

"You really do think highly of yourself, don't you?" Lily countered, finding it hard to keep from grimacing. "You must have quite the lackluster love life if you've never taken a girl on a date before."

"Dates are for men vying to win the affections of women—I don't need a dinner to persuade what I want from a lady," Sirius winked.

"Pig," Lily muttered, making him chortle. "However, you're quite wrong—you have taken someone on a date before. Roxanne."

The mention of her long-lost friend's name seemed to have the same sobering effect on Sirius that it did on Lily. He paused at the threshold of the restaurant, turning to her. "I'll admit, there was something special about her…a muggle more special than most witches, in fact. It's hard to believe there's someone living who's feistier than you."

"I miss her," Lily breathed, her throat constricting at the thought of her. She hadn't truly embraced just how much she longed to see Roxanne again—the one person in the world that had always been on her side. "I wish I knew her address in New York so I could write to her."

"I hope we both see her again," Sirius said, his authenticity helping to extinguish Lily's flaring temper. "Now, let's get on with this, shall we?"

James lingered in the dank alley between Zonko's Joke Shop and Dervish and Bangs, discreetly watching as students filtered in and out of the shops alongside excited friends. Hands rustling the change in his pockets, he adjusted his stance as his eyes befell Sirius and Lily—hand-in-hand—approaching The Three Broomsticks, located directly across the street from him. He watched as they stopped momentarily at the threshold to trade words, wondering what had been said to prompt the grin to slide off Sirius' face.

His attention shifted when he detected movement a few shops down from them, sunshine glinting off a piece of magical machinery wielded by a goofy-looking fellow in a trench coat—a camera.

Looks like that tip I sent in to The Prophet worked like a charm, James thought, rolling his eyes at the conspicuous paparazzo roaming the streets like a starving dog in search of a bone.

A sharp crack broke through the air—the perfunctory sound of someone apparating into the lane behind him. James turned, observing as Frank Longbottom surfaced from the gloom, the lord dusting dirt from the arms of his overcoat as he approached.

"Things going as planned here?" Frank asked reflexively, coming to stand beside James.

"It's almost too easy," he replied, folding his arms and leaning up against the wall. "But keeping an eye out for photographers isn't exactly a two-person job, Longbottom."

"I'm not here to help out with that," Frank's brow furrowed. "I've come with word of a possible attack. There's talk that the Dark Lord has tasked some of his followers with carrying out a series of assaults in public places. Dumbledore wants us to fan out across some locations he's deemed potential targets."

James' eyes shadowed over. "And he thinks there may be an attack here?"

"After the information Lily provided, we can't be too cautious that the Dark Lord hasn't given orders for some select students to participate here," Frank replied, his gaze shifting to the crowd of schoolchildren milling about the square. "I do hope you gave Lily hell for eavesdropping."

"I did—but little good it'll do me," James sighed, running a hand through his mop of hair. "She's determined to help with the cause, and I'm doubtful my tactic of guilting her into cooperation will work. She's so bloody headstrong."

"What does Dumbledore say?"

"I don't report her actions to Dumbledore," James leveled an unforgiving look at Frank. "He's not her keeper, and nor am I. She's been through enough already—I don't wish her to trade one gilded cage for another."

"No one wishes to control her," Frank said coolly. "Only keep her safe—and make her aware when she's treading in dangerous territory. He's still looking for her, you know."

James' hands balled into fists. "I don't need to be reminded of that," he growled. It still made no sense to him why Voldemort wanted her—what threat he thought she could possibly pose to him. "If there was even a whisper that he knew where she was, I would whisk her away without a moment's notice. And no one would ever be able to find us."

"She deserves more than a life in hiding," Frank murmured. "Which is why we must continue to remind her—"

"I know we've buried the hatchet, Longbottom, but I'll remind you to stop acting like your love for her runs deepest," James snapped, his eyes dangerous pools of intensity. "No one will ever love that girl more than I do. I would do anything in my power to protect her from this—which makes you badgering redundant."

Frank pursed his lips, his gaze finding Lily and Sirius departing The Three Broomsticks. "You would even let the world think she loves your best friend?"

"Let the world think what it wants—I know I have her heart, and that's all that matters to me in the end," James answered, fixing his glasses on the bridge of his nose and rolling up the sleeves of his sweater so they hitched below his considerable biceps. "I'll tell Sirius to keep an eye out for any suspicious activity. Good day, Longbottom."

With a belly full of sweet potato soup and pear tarts, Lily emerged from The Three Broomsticks with Sirius, squinting as the afternoon sun obfuscated her vision. Clutching the brim of her hat to shade her eyes, she was pleasantly surprised to see James crossing the street towards them.

"Have a nice lunch?" he greeted them, moving to kiss Lily on the cheek. She flushed, taken aback by the public display of affection. Was it all part of the plan? "And wow—you look beautiful."

Before Lily could muster her thanks, Sirius grumbled: "She wouldn't let me order a second firewhiskey. Something about being seen out with a lush ruining her reputation. The nerve of this girl really does astound me."

"Have you seen any photographers about? Please tell me this lunch with Mr. Intolerable was worthwhile," Lily whispered to James, making him grin and Sirius scoff.

"Yes, there's one lingering about," James confirmed, his grin as blinding as the sun itself—enough so that Lily felt her knees go wobbly, though she'd never reveal he had such an embarrassing effect on her. "Do you have plans for the rest of the afternoon? We could walk around with you for a while before you head back? Perhaps make Sirius hold your shopping bags?"

"Another photo opportunity?" Lily snorted, shaking her head. "I've actually promised to meet up with Rudolf and Alice at Honeydukes, then we'll catch a coach back to the castle together. I'm running low on the stash Sirius amassed for me at the beginning of the year."

"See the sauce of this girl? What lady in their right mind would turn up an afternoon spent with the two best-looking lords for miles?" Sirius complained to James as he angled to plant a kiss on Lily's cheek—a kiss that was purposely close to her lips. An audible gasp sounded nearby—likely that of a swooning onlooker—as did the click of a camera. "Be off with you, then."

Lily quirked a smile at James before turning on her heels towards the dizzying sights and smells of Honeydukes, located across the town square. She was desperate to get her hands on some butterscotch, her mouth already salivating at the thought. The imagined flavor turned ashen, however, when she saw who appeared to be waiting for her on the other side.

"Ah, if it isn't the lady of the hour," Regulus Black crooned, sauntering into Lily's path. He was dressed head-to-toe in an impeccable black ensemble, likely bought from the expert tailors of Rome or Paris. "Really, Aurora, your romantic pursuits are shocking—trading in Longbottom for the equally pathetic lord that is my brother? Surely you can do better than that."

"Jealous you aren't a contender, Regulus?" Lily bit back, unsure of what else to say. What was she supposed to reply to the brother of the man she would be rumoured to date, never mind the same person who seemed hell-bent on becoming her biggest enemy at Hogwarts?

"Hardly," Regulus chuckled, though the feigned merriment didn't seem to reach his chestnut eyes. "But it seems only charitable of me to warn you off of my imbecile of a relation."

"Honestly, what do you care anyway?" Lily huffed, her patience wearing for the second time that day. "Considering you don't think highly of me anyway, what would you care if I was seeing your brother? Not that I am, I would add."

"Who said I—?"

Regulus was cut off by the sudden presence of his older brother, who materialized at Lily's side. "Well now, if it isn't my baby brother," Sirius declared, looping a lazy arm over her shoulders and bearing his teeth in what could only be described as an aggressive smile. "Where are your groupies, Reg? I didn't think you travelled without them."

"Perhaps I needed a day off from their bowing and scraping," Regulus matched his brother's vicious smile, his imperious eyes sliding back to Lily. "I was just commenting to Aurora how funny it is, watching you fawning all over her like a love-sick dog. Have you become her new pet?"

"Don't be absurd," Lily derided, only causing Regulus' grin to widen.

"He really is, Lady Aurora," the Slynterin concurred, staring down his brother. Seeing them side-by-side, Lily was struck by their striking resemblance. "Exactly why our mother decided to burn him from our family tree—being the blood traitor and muggle sympathizer he is."

Astonished, Lily looked to Sirius, but he was not bated by Regulus' harsh words. "What I consider an accomplishment, little brother. You cannot imagine the sense of freedom it afforded me, being shunned by my family and unfettered by their warped beliefs," he said, more to Lily than Regulus. "The pressure of being the eldest son and carrying out their bidding—it was a stifling, sickening responsibility I had no interest in. To their delight, it's now been bestowed upon the brother who would gladly wear a mantle of ignorance and indoctrination."

At such an assertion, Regulus' eyes narrowed on his older sibling, his temper flaring. "You really are a disgrace to the Black family name."

"Your opinion means little to me, Reggie. But do me a favour—stay away from Aurora. She has no interest in being in your slimy presence."

"Oh, but I think she has more interest than she's willing to let on," Regulus swaggered, reaching for Lily's hand. Before she could react, he'd planted his cold lips to it, smiling devilishly as his mouth tickled her fingers.

Momentarily numb, Lily cried out when her hand was ripped from Regulus', his older brother having lunged at him. Tackled to the ground, he tried to fight against his taller counterpart, the two trading punches in the dirt like street urchins rather than distinguished lords. Lily backed away a step, trying to put some distance between her and the violent skirmish as it amplified, and found herself in the strong arms of James, who had arrived lightning-fast to her side. His hands unclutched her shoulders as an astounded Rudolf arrived a moment later, his eyes wide at the production unfolding.

"Would you two prats break it up?" James hollered at the two scrapping brothers, leaving Lily with Rudolf as he tried to intervene.

"Are they fighting over you?" Rudolf exclaimed in amused disbelief, coughing out a little laugh as Lily's stunned eyes met his. "Good gracious! As much as I'd like to stay and watch this contest, perhaps we should—"

Rudolf was cut off mid-sentence. Just as James had managed to break up Sirius and Regulus—a large group of students now assembled around them to gawk at the ungentlemanly scene—a shrill scream sounded from across the village. As everyone seemed to pause at once, Hogsmeade grew suddenly quiet and still.

"What is that?" a boy in the crowd shouted, pointing to the sky.

Following the direction of his little finger, Lily's awareness was drawn to the clock tower that presided over the village. Above it, a ghoulish insignia had begun to emerge, greenish-black against a stark-blue backdrop. Her heart skipped a beat as they all took in the hideous form of a skull with a snake curving out of its agape mouth.

"It's a…it's a dark mark," an aghast Regulus said, his hand squeezing Lily's. Her spine tingled as they beheld the glittering emblem, ominous and powerful.

It was then that time seemed to condense into a series of rapid moments that didn't allow for thoughtful inspection or contemplation. There was another scream, and then another. Before Lily could take it all in, a hand closed over her arm, and in a split second, the world temporarily cleaved in two. She gasped for air as she felt her back pushed against a hard surface, instantly nauseous. When she opened her eyes, she discovered she was no longer in the village square, but pinned against the wall of an empty alley by James.

"Stay here," he breathed commandingly, his eyes locking with hers to communicate the threat that now surrounded them.

Lily clutched at her chest as James disapparated, her heart racing as she tried to gain her bearings. A second later, James reappeared—this time with Rudolf and Regulus in hand.

"Don't leave her side!" James ordered Rudolf, who collapsed against a wall alongside a bleeding Regulus. They both seemed shaken, but seemed to fair the apparition better than Lily had.

"I won't," Rudolf promised, his Latin features etched with worry. "Please find—!"

Where James disappeared, suddenly Frank appeared—Alice and another student at his side. It took Lily a minute to register that Frank was even in the village.

"Thank Merlin," Rudolf sighed, collecting a shaky Alice, who seemed reluctant to let go of the lord that had come to her aid.

"You need to stay out of sight—we're going to clear the square of students while the others hold them off," Frank directed at Lily, giving Alice one last apprehensive glance before disappearing.

"I-I-Is it death eaters?" Alice stuttered, Rudolf enfolding her against his chest.

"Didn't you see the mark? Of course it is," Regulus spat, casting an annoyed glance at Alice as he moved to staunch the blood oozing from his lip and a cut above his eyebrow. Not the result of a death eater attack—instead one by his own brother.

"Then what are you doing cowering in the dark, Black?" Rudolf demanded, turning on the other boy in ire. "Aren't those your people out there? Slytherin scum acting on behalf of their master?"

"You don't know a thing about it," Regulus snapped back, his eyes shifting to Lily's; she saw a glimmer of fear there, contrasting against his pale-white skin.

Regaining feeling in her limbs, Lily turned her back on the bickering boys, inching her way along the brick wall toward the mouth of the alley. The closer she got, the more chaos came into view—that of screaming students running in all directions out of the square, dust and paper kicked up in their wake, and in the very middle, a battle line of wizards facing a group of masked figures, spells in every hue of the rainbow erupting from wands in a tangle of colour.

"Aurora, get back from the edge!" Rudolf insisted, coming up behind her to grab her arm.

"There's so many of them…" Lily choked out, referring to the number of veiled fiends appearing in the square in bursts of black smoke, all equipped with robes and masks of pure, etched silver. There was something truly fear-inspiring about them—grotesque masks hiding something even worse beneath. "They aren't evacuating the students fast enough!"

Lily watched as wizards—namely Frank, James and who she knew to be Remus—worked at grabbing for students and whisking them away, while others—Sirius among them—held a defensive line against the death eaters in an attempt to shield the students from errant spells. Little by little, the square was emptied of crying children, yet it was obvious to anyone watching that the number of Order members keeping the vigorous death eaters at bay wasn't enough to protect everyone.

Where is Dumbledore? Where are the other members?

Lily's heart twisted as she watched James come to this conclusion first, moving to join the line of battling wizards. Soon after, Remus and Frank joined him, though their small army was beginning to crumble under the pressure of the death eaters' onslaught.

The sound of crying filled the near-empty alley, pulling Lily's attention away briefly. She found Alice crouched on the ground consoling the other young student Frank had deposited with them—a Ravenclaw girl. Like Lily, Rudolf and Regulus had gravitated to the edge of the alley to observe the action.

"You should go sit with Alice—it isn't safe for a lady to be in such proximity to a battle," Regulus asserted roughly, one eye beginning to bruise.

"I don't take orders for anyone, Regulus, least of all you," Lily snapped back.

A strangled cry broke through the noise of the battle, loud enough to draw her notice to the sight of an ally wizard crumpling to the ground, blood spraying behind him. Lily inhaled, not only startled by the gruesome spectacle, but how a hole in the wall of clashing wizards now allowed angry red and green spells to infiltrate the defenses trying to protect the students behind them.

"In this case, I must agree with Regulus," Rudolf proclaimed, trying to guide Lily from the mouth of the alley. "It's not safe—"

"Look!" Lily interrupted him, directing Rudolf's attention to a group of young students huddled together at the other end of the square. Some were screaming, while others were covering their eyes, the hole in the defensive line now allowing spells to cascade toward them. Some hit the sides of buildings and windows, causing glass and brick to rain down on them, and Lily knew it was only a matter of time until the children themselves were the targets. "Rue, we've got to get over to them to shield them. You know we do."

Throat bobbing and eyes transfixed on the scene before him, Lily could tell Rudolf was trying to quickly weigh possibilities and options.

"I'll go on my own," he finally responded, pulling his wand from the breast pocket of his coat. "You must stay here as James instructed."

"You know there's no chance of that," Lily replied, unsheathing her own wand. "We go together and we'll shield them as best we can—"

"Have you lost your mind, Rockford?" Regulus demanded, angrily reaching for Lily's forearm to stop her. "I won't allow you to go into that mess."

Lily ripped her arm out of Regulus' hand, her glare murderous. "You should be volunteering to come with us, rather than trying to stop me, but I suppose I can't expect a miracle like that to happen," she spat, making Regulus balk. Ignoring him, she turned back to Rudolf. "Are you ready?"

With one tentative nod, and not another word from Regulus, Lily and Rudolf shot out of the alley behind the defensive line, running madly toward the collection of helpless students as fast as their legs could carry them. Now in the midst of raging combat, it was pure adrenaline that kept Lily propelling forward, dodging errant spells and trying to avoid the gaping holes that had been blown into the cobblestone street by death eaters.

"JAMES IS GOING TO KILL ME YOU KNOW," Rudolf screamed over the noise of the mêlée, keeping pace beside Lily as he simultaneously deflected a bright-orange spell barreling towards them.

"TECHNICALLY YOU ARE KEEPING YOUR PROMISE TO STAY BY MY SIDE!" Lily bellowed back, her heart thumping so fast that a sense of misplaced glee overtook her. Her hat flew off her head as they continued to run, unleashing her long brown hair behind her, but she didn't care—her determination had her narrowed in on one objective. "PROTEGO!"

A sapphire-coloured spell ricocheted off of the invisible shield Lily temporarily erected, the two spells colliding so hard that she nearly got knocked off her feet. Behind her, the collection of first and second year students gasped, still clutching each other tightly.

"EVERYONE TO YOUR FEET, AND STAY BEHIND US!" Rudolf called out to the children, though he and Lily did not turn their backs to the battle, instead unleashing shield charm after shield charm to keep the group safeguarded.

As students shakily rose to their feet, Lily and Rudolf slowly maneuvered them toward the east side of the square, where the majority of people were hiding down alleys and in shops. When yet another alley was subdued in the defensive line, the blitz of spells sailing their way intensified, causing sweat to bead on both of their brows.

"Merlin—I don't know how long we can keep this up!" Rudolf called out to Lily—but the brief statement was enough of a lapse in his previously unbroken summoning of the shield charm to earn him a spell square to the chest.

"RUE!" Lily screamed, though she had to quickly revert to reciting the shield charm as her friend keeled over—stiff as a board—and hit the pavement behind him. A freezing charm.

The children behind her sobbed in response, Lily's alarm further panicking them, while the barrage of spells she was now holding off on her own was enough to send her to her knees, her arms shaking as she held onto her wand with both hands.

As her throat grew hoarser with every screamed incantation, Lily found herself suddenly flanked by four other students—Nymphadora Tonks, Amelia Bones, Hector Dagworth and Basil Horton.

"NEED SOME HELP, PRINCESS?" Nymphadora called out to Lily, a grin spreading over her pert face as she turned to the cowering students. "C'MON YOU LOT, GET A MOVE ON!"

Lily thought she might cry out of relief as—together—the five senior students erected a much stronger defense against the death eater assault, and were able to swiftly move the children closer to protection. Behind them, other students safely tucked away shouted encouragement, some of the saved students running to join their friends in their shelter.

"Let's get back to safety, Lady Rockford!" Lord Hector Dagworth announced when the task was done, reaching to take Lily's elbow and guide her into one of the alleys.

"I've got to go back for Rudolf!" she yelled back, though it was overshadowed by an ominous boom that rocked through the square, sending everyone to their knees. Tiles loosened from the rooftops of shops and smashed to the ground, causing people to cover their heads. Lily regained her balance, her knees bleeding. "Keep the rest of them safe!"

She couldn't make out the protest of Hector or the other students as she went sprinting across the square again, this time straight toward the fallen figure of Rudolf, whose body was dredged with debris. As she ran, she caught sight of James and Sirius, who were caught in a vicious dual with three death eaters, as well as Frank, who was engaged in one-on-one combat with a masked wizard nearly twice his height.

Gripped with worry, she didn't heed the spell that whizzed by her head and seared a path along the outer edge of her ear. Her hand shot to the womb to try and curtail the blood that now oozed from it, but the pain didn't stop Lily from moving toward Rudolf; rather, it gave her a second wind, her feet moving even faster.

As another great roar shuddered through the village square, Lily collapsed to her knees in front of Rudolf, whose lifeless eyes stared up at her from his immobile position. She grabbed a fistful of his shirt, attempting to drag him toward the safety of a nearby shop, continuing to produce shield charms with her other hand. As physically taxing as it was, she knew if she tried to levitate him it was likely they'd both be shot down without protection.

Continuing to drag Rudolf, Lily heard more cracks echo from the battle—but rather than of buildings rupturing or body parts splintering, it was the sound of more Order members apparating beside their comrades. With the battle lines forming again, Lily took her chance, muttering the counter-curse to re-enervate Rudolf. He began to blink as the incantation took effect, then cough, the dust from the battle having settled in his lungs.

"Are you alright?" Lily probed, her voice barely audible above the distraught sounds of combat. She looped her arms around Rudolf's back to help him into a sitting position. "Rudolf, can you hear—?"

She watched as he lifted his wand and tried to rasp out a spell—before a blast of hot air engulfed them, and everything went black.

It had been Dumbledore's arrival that had changed the tide of battle.

Overwhelmed in terms of numbers, it was an exertion to hold the line against the surprise bombardment of death eaters that had congregated in Hogsmeade. Clearly, whatever knowledge the Order had acquired had been half-right—a public attack had been staged, but rather than in multiple locations, they'd focused all their forces in one place—a place where care-free children were enjoying a fall weekend between their studies—with the intent of maximum damage and fear.

When they all had time to reflect back, they'd certainly consider that whatever information had been gathered had in fact been planted. In fact, if the Order hadn't been spread out over various locations, reinforcements would've arrived much fast—but patronuses only travelled so fast, and taking the time to conjure one took away from important efforts to apparate, shield and attack.

The eventual appearance of Dumbledore—one of the last Order members to receive news of the attack due to his presence in the Dolomites, where he was leading an envoy to barter peace with the giants—had been enough to spook some of the death eaters into retreating. But it had also prompted one death eater to take a terrible risk and unleash a bout of poorly-executed fiendfyre. Rather than the enchanted flames hungrily devouring Order members—and likely then turning on death eaters—Dumbledore had contained the dark curse and deflected it toward a building behind them, far enough from the alleys where hiding children huddled to not cause as human damage. The building, however, had exploded into a thousand pieces, some bricks and mortar even reaching their battle line.

One death eater after another disapparated after the display of power, leaving three of their dead comrades behind. On the ally side, there were two dead, though James wasn't sure who just yet. All he knew is it wasn't Sirius or Remus. It truly amazing that they'd suffered fewer casualties than the death eaters, considering their numbers.

"Professor Flitwick, McGonagall, Sprout and Potter, you will begin to evacuate students back to the castle, with the injured ones taken care of first," Dumbledore called out as the dust of battle began to settle, Order members taking stock of one another and the state of the village square. "Weasley, Lupin, Bones, you take care of our fallen comrades…see to it they are transported to St. Mungo's and their families informed quietly. Shacklebolt and Moody, do the same with our enemies, but see their bodies are not left unguarded until we determine what to do with them. Whoever requires medical attention is welcome at Hogwarts, though I ask those of you who are still undamaged to stay here and monitor the square."

James felt Sirius clap him on the back as they began to disperse, taking on the roles they were assigned. "What a fight. One minute I'd pummeling Regulus, the next I'm in an all-out brawl with death eaters. I could've done with that second firewhiskey after all."

He shook his head, taking in the carnage of the square. It was reduced to rubble—blood splattered across cobblestone, and smoke curling from piles of rubbish. He watched as Remus stooped over one of the fallen nearby, conjuring a sheet to pull over the body out of respect. "No child should have to witness this. How could anyone do something so sick as to target kids?"

"Don't try to understand it—it'll only give you nightmares," Sirius murmured, his eyes skimming the grim landscape and befalling a bedraggled figure wading through the debris. "Looks like that photographer got more than he bargained for. Doubt Lily and I will make the front page now."

"I'm going to find her," was all James said before turning on his heel and apparating to the alley where he'd hidden her. Upon arrival, he found a scowling Regulus, a tear-stained Alice and another student with her head buried in her lap.

"James!" Alice cried, flinging herself toward him; he steadied her by grabbing her shoulders. "You have to go find Aurora and Rudolf and make sure they're alright!"

Though his heart dropped into his stomach, he couldn't let the dread show, instead adopting lethal calm. "Tell me where they are."

"Aurora and Rudolf decided to play hero," Regulus chimed in, folding his arms. His words seemed to lack their usual bite. "They went tearing through the square in the middle of the battle to save a group of students who were too thick to shield themselves or get out of the way."

"They were only young kids!" Alice turned on him, anger bubbling over to hysteria as she turned back to James. "With the debris and the dust, we lost sight of them!"

"The square is safe now, Alice. Get back to the station to get a coach home," James instructed briskly, apparating to the other side of the square a second later.

As he neared the alleyways populated with students who were only just beginning to surface from their hiding places, James spotted Sirius and three others rapidly clearing a gigantic pile of wreckage—what was the result of the fiendfyre consuming the building behind it.

Breath rushing from his lungs, he ran over to the mass and began removing enormous heaps of debris alongside them. It only took one sidelong glance from Sirius to confirm his worst fear.

"Work faster!" James hollered furiously at all the Order members gathered, reduced to using his bare hands to move stone as the pile got smaller and smaller. Sirius sank to his knees beside him, his fingers and knuckles bloody from prying boulders loose.

"There they are!" an Order member shouted in reply.

Moving to where the others continued shift stone, James beheld two pairs of eyes blinking up at him from beneath a wobbly shield charm: that of Lily and Rudolf.

"Thank Merlin," he gasped, locking eyes with Lily, hers filled with an emotion he couldn't decipher. Was it love, relief, fear, guilt…or perhaps a mixture of all four? "We've got you! Hang on just a moment longer while we clear the rest!"

When the rest of the stone was blasted away, Lily and Rudolf were finally able to lower their wands and release their shield charms. Lying flat on their backs, their arms fell to their sides like dead weights, and both gasped for clean air. Covered head to toe in dust and debris, they looked more like ghosts than people.

"Are you alright?" James demanded, his voice hoarse as he climbed over rubble to rest beside Lily, whose eyes were almost closed. He placed a hand on her cheek, moving to cradle her head in his lap. "Somebody get me medical attention, NOW!"

"I'm so tired…" she rasped, shutting her eyes.

"It took all of our…strength…to keep the shield intact," Rudolf murmured, his eyes like slits as he watched James and Lily together. "She saved me, you know…"

Sirius came to rest beside Rudolf just as the lord passed out. "Let's get these two to the infirmary. They've depleted all their energy, but other than being a bit banged up, they look like they'll be fine."

"What was she thinking?" James swore under his breath, looking down at Lily's peaceful face. "She could have been killed…"

"Isn't the first time, and I doubt it'll be the last. Stubborn girl," Sirius sighed, moving to pick up Lily. When James bristled territorially, his tone grew sensible. "There's still a photographer here, Prongs, and we're surrounded by students. Retract the hackles and let me take her back to the castle."

Maddened, James reluctantly conceded, allowing Sirius to collect Lily in his arms. Seeing him carrying her from the rubble, students around them cheering and weeping, he reminded himself of the words he'd uttered not an hour ago: I have her heart, and that's all that matters in the end.

James sat slumped in a plastic chair in a private room of Hogwarts' hospital wing, his eyes trained on Lily's sleeping form. Moonlight peeked through the shades he had drawn over the large window across from her bed, illuminating pale skin that had been cleaned and magically knit together with one of Madam Pomfrey's salves. It had previously been pocked with scraps and cuts from the falling debris—not to mention a nasty cut across one ear, sliced-up knees and hands, and a generous smattering of bruises.

Something instead of him cried out seeing her in such a state, looking like she'd been on her hands and knees, crawling through warzones being bombed from overhead. Worse was not being able to keep vigil at her bedside for the rest of the afternoon—not being able to hold her hand as healers worked on her. The hospital wing had been on the brink of anarchy, almost every bed filled with a student in need of mending, though Lily, Rudolf and a few Order members had required the most urgent attention. His knew his presence at her side would've been questioned straight off, rendering their plotting and scheming utterly useless. Sirius had volunteered to remain at her side on his behalf.

Thanks to her perceived connection to Dumbledore, Lily had blessedly received a private room to rest for the remainder of the day, allowing him a secluded place to be at her side, invisibility cloak on hand. He watched with unease as her chest rose and fell, concerned that she had yet to wake up, even with Madam Pomfrey assuring Dumbledore that both she and Rudolf were suffering from a powerful type of exhaustion.

I guess keeping a ton of debris from crushing you to death does that to a person, James thought without humour.

Truth be told, it was an impressive feat that the two friends had managed it—not to mention that they'd both put themselves in danger to save young students in peril. Could he really come down on Lily for jeopardizing herself to help others? From the information he'd gathered from witnesses, she'd defended against the attacks of wizards far older than her, inspired the aid of other students to help save the younger children, and then flung herself into danger again to protect Rudolf. The young lord himself had told James that she'd saved his life.

James bristled in his chair: Was it was selfish of him to want her to stay the hell out of it all? To save herself, be damned the consequences? Yet, would he not do exactly as she had done?

He rubbed at his temples, removing the glasses from his face. Lily probably would've stayed curled up in the library all day—the little content bookworm she was—had he not told her to go to lunch with Sirius. Had he not pushed her to follow a plan he wasn't even sure was worth it. In trying to protect her, he'd risked her.

Right then, it seemed there was no right answer—no solution to any of it.

He jumped to attention when the doorknob providing entry to Lily's room slowly turned. Throwing a cloak over his head, should Madam Pomfrey be conducting nighttime checks, James backed into the corner opposite Lily's bed, finding a place where he wasn't likely to be bumped into.

It quickly became apparent that whoever was trying to enter was proceeding with the utmost caution—likely trying to determine if someone were already at Lily's bedside. James held his breath as the lanky figure finally entered, fingering his wand in his pocket.

It was Severus Snape. Severus fucking Snape. One of his bitterest enemies—and someone he considered a prime death eater candidate.

Blood heating to molten fire, James watched as the slippery professor noiselessly closed the door behind him, then turned to regard the shadowed room. His black eyes surveyed back and forth, hunting for any hint of movement or sound, ready to pounce if he scented prey. Little did he know, James was the lion in the grass, ready to devour him whole.

Just give me a reason, James thought, in desperate need of an outlet to vent his pent-up fury. But, considering his intense loathing for the wizard, as well as how damn good it would feel to catch him in his own sly movements, he was surprised to find his instincts screamed for him to wait…just wait.

His eyes narrowed as he watched Snape pause to look at Lily—who he thought to be Aurora Rockford—a shaft of moonlight still illuming her ashen features. After a moment, the Slytherin professor moved closer to her bedside, stopping at the footboard.

"Aurora?" he whispered, his voice barely audible. After her lack of response, Snape moved closer to her, coming to sit at the edge of her bed. James was gripping his wand so hard he thought it might snap in two. "Senseless girl, endangering yourself for those other students…they aren't worth you…not even close."

Fury shifted to surprise in James, especially as Snape tentatively reached out to ever-so-lightly stoke Lily's cheek. While he mentally prepared himself to kill Snape if he tried to hurt her—he was sure the assassination of Dumbledore's supposed niece would earn Snape a quick ticket to the Dark Lord's inner circle—he hadn't prepared himself to see the oily snake show genuine tenderness.

Lily's eyelashes fluttered in response, causing Snape to deftly rise to his feet and back away towards the door. Even under the cover of darkness, James recognized what glimmered in Snape's gaze as he stared at his fallen angel—love.

After Snape slipped out of the room, James pulled off his cloak, his hair and glasses askew. Staring into the darkness, he thought he should be angry…furious that Snape dared be in her presence unattended, never mind touch her while she slept. He should break his hand in a million shards of bone—make him regret ever daring to love someone so far above him in every way.

Yet, something inside him—that same thing that screamed and thrashed in agony when he saw her hurt—said that a death eater's love might save her life one day.

It was the smell of freshly-brewed coffee that eventually roused Lily.

"Mistress is finally awake!" Mimi squeaked happily, the tiny house-elf jumping up and down on the springy bed Lily was lying upon. She squinted, sunlight assaulting her eyes.

"Why does everything hurt?" Lily complained, her eyes still half-shut as she attempted to sit up in bed. She fumbled for the cup of coffee she thought was on her nightstand, but instead sent something foreign crashing to the floor. "What the devil…?"

"Mistress is ruining all of her presents!" Mimi clucked her tongue, leaping off the bed to pick up the parcels she'd knocked over, including a box of Bertie Bott's beans that had scattered across the floor. "From what Mimi can tell, most are from Master Sirius, but Mimi hasn't gone through all the notes yet."

Her vision adjusting, Lily realized she wasn't in her room; rather, she appeared to be in a hospital bed. Trying to remember how she'd gotten there, she was distracted by the outrageous mound of gifts piled up on both her nightstands, including a heap on the chair across the room. "What on earth are these all for?"

"Because Mistress Rockford saved all those students!" Mimi blurted, blushing. "Mimi read so on the cards…Mistress has so many admirers. Master Brand has received many presents, too, but not as many as my Mistress…"

Swinging her legs over the edge of her bed, Lily began reaching for brown-papered packages. As Mimi had confirmed, many were from Sirius, and almost all contained sweets. There was a note attached to a large box of salt water taffy that said, "You did say you were craving Honeydukes…you're welcome."

"Typical Sirius," Lily rolled her eyes, though she grinned as she tore open a chocolate frog and bit off a leg.

After shuffling through some hand-written cards penned by students she'd never met nor heard of, including some from classmates (or should she say, sycophants) like Emmeline and Hector, her eyes befell the most unusual gift of all—a rose crafted of pure gold.

"Who gave me this…er…elaborate gift?" Lily asked Mimi, frowning as she carefully handled the delicate treasure. What was she supposed to do with a thing like this? Paperweight?

"No card with that one, Mistress. Shall Mimi investigate?"

"Oh, no—there's a small slip of parchment wrapped around the stem of the rose," Lily replied, placing the ornament back on her side table and unraveling the note:

I wish you a full recovery, Lady Rockford, and hope you rest well—you'll need it for our dual. My terms? You'll be my date to the Halloween Ball.

Hope that pretty face of your heals by then—I can't have the lady on my arm looking tattered on October 31.


Author's Notes

Look how fast I updated. Don't you think I deserve a review for that? I tease, but really I'd like to give a big thank-you to all the fans that reviewed Chapter 33, and helped me to hit the 4,000+ review mark—yippee! I decided not to hold out for more reviews for that chapter (which was my lowest ever—darn!), as a number of fans mentioned reading this story while they were riding out Hurricane Irma, so I wanted to give them a bit more to keep them warm and cozy. I hope everyone out there is staying safe, no matter what part of the world you live in. xo

So was that an action-packed chapter or what? What do you think about James discovering Snape's secret? Will he tell Lily? Will he confront Snape? And that cheeky Regulus, he's certainly pushing his luck. What do you think his motives are for wanting Lily to go to the Halloween Ball with him, should he win the dual? Will James' head explode if that goes down?

Let me hear what you think!


PS – If you haven't already, join the 'Petal in the Rain' by pratty-prongs-princesse Facebook page for a sneak peek into future chapters and to bug me about updating!