Petal in the Rain

Chapter 37 – A Tenacious Witch

"Permanence, perseverance and persistence in spite of all obstacles, discouragements and impossibilities: it is this, that in all things distinguishes the strong soul from the weak."

-Thomas Carlyle

Lily, Nymphadora and Amelia huddled around a table smothered with books, crumpled parchment and inkpots in a remote nook of Hogwarts' grandiose library. The trio poured over Defense manuals, putting the finishing touches on their 10-inch essays on non-verbal spells for Professor Merrythought's morning class.

Amelia leafed through a dust-coated tome that'd made the entire table wobble when she'd deposited it there earlier. While the scholarly witch hunted for an elusive footnote, her purple-haired counterpart sucked on the end of a quill, daydreaming eyes staring out a nearby window.

Essay complete, Lily fidgeted in her chair while the others worked, muscles bleating after a morning spent jogging around the lake in frosty November temperatures. Nymphadora had been increasing the intensity of the trio's workouts as of late, adding in push-ups, crunches, and lunges. Each time Lily thought she'd gotten a handle on the training regime, she made their morning activities even more grueling to accomplish.

Earlier, while toweling off from a scalding shower meant to ease her soreness, she'd discovered their training was beginning to yield actual results. In addition to feeling quicker and stronger, Lily had detected hints that her body was becoming leaner—perhaps even more defined—the foundations of muscle beginning to shape her arms, legs, and abdominals. Inspecting herself in the steamy mirror, she'd felt a sense of triumph blossom, comforted that her efforts were helping her aspire to be a formidable opponent against her enemies.

Despite the accomplishment, she now felt it would be near-impossible to rise from her chair without her knees giving out. Stiff and achy, it seemed likelier she'd become a permanent relic of the library floor…

The girls' attention amalgamated when Mimi apparated into the middle of the table, the cheerful house-elf touting a platter of egg sandwiches and coffee. "Mimi thought Mistress Rockford might be hungry?"

"You're a godsend, Mimi," Lily breathed, reaching for the coffee like it was liquid gold. While it wouldn't ease her physical discomfort, it would certainly help to dispel her mental anguish at being awake when most students were still fast asleep.

"Who's this?" Nymphadora plucked a sandwich off Mimi's tray and took a bite, grease coating her fingertips. She seemed unfazed by the creature standing atop her essay.

"Mimi is Mistress Rockford's house-elf," Mimi dutifully placed sandwiches before Lily and Amelia, next procuring linen napkins. "Mimi loves to be helpful to Mistress Rockford."

"One of the many perks of being the headmaster's niece," Nymphadora snorted, though it held no ire. "Can I borrow Mimi to do the mountain of laundry piling up in my dormitory?"

"Mimi would be honoured to help a friend of the Mistress," she squeaked, her bulbous eyes growing wide with pleasure, oblivious to the girl's sarcasm.

"Hallelujah, it was being to reek," Amelia muttered, making Lily chuckle.

"I do a lot of physical activity," Nymphadora huffed, reaching for the pot of coffee after scarfing down the rest of her meal. "Are you going to eat that sandwich, Bones?"

"Food and drink aren't permitted in the library," Amelia argued, loose strands of hair falling across her uncompromising eyes.

"For Merlin's sake, do you really think you'll be expelled for drinking coffee in the library?" Nymphadora dribbled java on her essay, arms flailing to drive home her point. "Live a little, would you?"

"I spend a lot of time here. The last thing I need is to be on Madam Pince's hit list," Amelia countered, her gaze extending over Lily's shoulder to ensure the unpleasant librarian hadn't materialized like an angry specter.

"If you're not going to eat it…" Nymphadora grabbed Amelia's sandwich, inelegantly stuffing it into her mouth.

Lily grinned, sipping her coffee as the two friends continued to spar, warmth wrapping around her like a knit blanket. It wasn't just pleasant bitterness giving her the jitters; it was being around people she didn't have to playact with. As scholarship students, Nymphadora and Amelia didn't put on airs, allowing her to lower her guard more than she could with her other student friends. In truth, she enjoyed their company immensely, especially as the girls' dynamic reminded her of how she and Roxanne once were together.

"While you cram another sandwich down your gullet, I'm going to look for one more book," Amelia rolled her eyes at her best friend, exasperated as she slipped between the stacks again. Mimi collected their discarded dishes and disappeared too.

"That girl needs to loosen up a bit. No sense of adventure," Nymphadora took another draught of coffee. "So, when are we going to talk about the fact that you're shagging a teacher?"

Lily clamped a hand over her mouth to stop herself from spewing coffee everywhere. Swallowing, she leveled a glare at the unruly witch. "Would you keep your voice down? I'm not shagging him."

Nymphadora sniggered, entertained by Lily's discomfort. "You looked on the brink of it when I interrupted your little rendezvous."

"I admit, that was…unwise," Lily chose her words carefully. While they'd sworn Nymphadora to secrecy on the spot, she and James had decided later that night what to tell her if she asked any questions. After empathic assurances from Sirius about her character, the decision was made to be as honest as was possible given the situation. "It isn't how it looks."

"Listen, if you want to sh—fine, snog a teacher, I'm not judging you," Nymphadora quipped, the smirk never leaving her face. "In fact, I commend you. James might not be my type, but anyone with eyes knows he's gorgeous."

Lily winced. "The whole reason he's a teacher is because of me—that's what I'm trying to explain to you. We didn't meet at Hogwarts and become tangled in some sordid affair. We met long ago and began seeing one another in secret because we aren't interested in our relationship being splashed across the society pages. When it was decided I'd attend Hogwarts this year, James asked Dumbledore for a teaching position so he could still be close to me."

Nymphadora raised a brow. "Is that even allowed?"

"It's a gray area," Lily admitted. "My uncle agreed to give him a position so long as it meant I wouldn't be in any of his classes. We've done our best to try and keep his teaching and our relationship as separate as possible."

"You're so infatuated with one another you can't wait until weekends to be together?" Nymphadora levelled at her, tone heavy with disapproval. "Or does James want to keep an eye on you to make sure other lords aren't chasing you around the castle?"

"It's not like that. He trusts me," Lily bit back; Nymphadora raised her hands in surrender. "Though as you'll have noticed, Sirius' feigned interest in me is helping to keep suitors at bay and the tabloids off the scent. Frank did the same for me at the beginning of the term."

"You're saying Sirius has martyred his love life to help you navigate the rest of the year?" Nymphadora's candor was a punch to Lily's gut. "Well, at least it makes better sense now. Sirius' interest in you was puzzling."

"Gee, thanks," Lily muttered, folding her arms.

Nymphadora chuckled, "I don't mean you personally. I mean who you are and what you represent. Sirius isn't conventional. He's rebelled against everything our family has ever wanted him to be. It's a scandal that he gave up his position as heir to the infamous House of Black," Nymphadora's mocking tone was sour. "Courting a society darling—someone from an old pureblood house with a celebrated family name—that is exactly what his mother would want, though perhaps Dumbledore's viewpoints make it a less-than desirable match. But what matters most to my aunt and uncle is that he's with someone who will give him pureblood children that keep the Black family line unpolluted."

"That's disgusting," Lily grimaced, the topic making her uncomfortable. She wasn't sure which was worse: growing up an orphan or growing up in a twisted family like the Blacks.

"Can you blame him for wanting out?" Nymphadora agreed. "If Sirius were courting you, he'd only do it with the intention of marriage—he doesn't string people along. And marriage is another thing he's said he could care less about. Understand why I was confused?"

"I see your point," Lily conceded. "I want you to know that Sirius has become one of my closest friends and confidants. I don't like the sacrifices he's making to help shield my relationship with James either. Please know we didn't ask it of him lightly."

"I suppose it's lucky it was me who stumbled upon you and James and not someone who could've toppled your carefully construed house of cards," Nymphadora declared, eyes twinkling. "I'll tease you mercilessly about this 'till kingdom come, but I promise your secret is safe with me."

Lily reached over to squeeze her hand. As a caring cousin looking out for a family member, she could forgive some of her barbs. Afterall, it was easy to see that at her core, Nymphadora was as loyal as they came. "You're a pain in the ass—thank you."

The metamorphagus burst out laughing as Amelia rejoined their table. "Did I miss something funny?"

"And what, pray tell, have you been up to this morning?" Rudolf raised an amused brow when Lily dropped into the seat beside him, cringing as her stiff body protested at the slightest exertion.

"Only genteel and refined pursuits befitting my sex," Lily groaned, rolling her head back and forth between her shoulders to work the kinks out. She heard Nymphadora snort from her seat behind them.

Rudolf crossed his arms and leaned back in his chair as more bleary-eyed seventh years filtered into Classroom 3C. "Perhaps I should consider joining you for these morning workouts. If it wasn't for my Quidditch training, you'd probably have me outpaced by now."

"Flying a broom is considered exercise?" Lily tormented, grinning as she busied herself with unpacking the contents of her book bag.

"You'd be surprised how many muscles you have to work just to keep from falling off a broom," Rudolf poked her, making her giggle. "Potter is working us into the ground this year. In fact, you should come watch a practice sometime. We have a match against Hufflepuff coming up."

"Hmm, perhaps I could be persuaded to watch the strapping wizards of Gryffindor demonstrate their flying prowess," Lily teased, the idea of watching James coaching the team from atop his own broomstick making her stomach twist.

It struck her how shocking it was that she hadn't seen a game of Quidditch yet, considering she'd been at Hogwarts since the summer. All she knew about it came from reading the magical history books she'd memorized for Professor Binn's dreary classes, and they hardly brought the sport to life for her.

"Looks like showboating at your Quidditch practice will have to wait, Brand—though no amount of practice will help you become more than a sub-pare player," a silky voice sounded from behind the pair.

Lily sighed, taking her time to bestow a withering look upon the boy she hadn't seen since their ordeal at the Halloween Ball. "Eavesdropping, Regulus?"

"Just trying to be helpful," Regulus sidled into a nearby desk, his black eyes dancing as he beheld her. There seemed to be something lighter about him than usual—but rather than relieve her, it put her on guard. "I'd hate to see you wasting your attentions on the unworthy, Lady Rockford."

"Unfortunately, she did just that at the Halloween Ball," Rudolf interjected, temper flaring. "Now what's this about Quidditch practice being delayed?"

"Observation isn't one of your strongest qualities, is it Brand?" Regulus purred, settling into his natural state of malice. "Look out the window, you dolt."

Rudolf was saved from the indignity of rising from his chair by the appearance of Professor Merrythought. The wiry-haired witch wasted no time dumping her things on her desk, tapping her wand on the blackboard to clear chalk dust and turning to address the class: "Your classmate is referring to the obstacle course being constructed on the Quidditch Pitch for our annual Mid-Semester Defense Games, Mr. Brand."

A squeal of excitement sounded behind her from Nymphadora, followed by frenzied fragments of conversation being traded among the class. Perplexed, Lily looked to Rudolf for clarity, finding his annoyance had dissolved into excitement.

"As most of you know," Merrythought continued, ignoring the tension palpitating from her students. "A rite of passage for our Advanced Defense Against the Dark Arts students is the Games. This is your opportunity to demonstrate to me and your peers your aptitude in the discipline following years-worth of study. While involvement in the Games isn't mandatory to pass this course, those who participate earn a special distinction upon graduation, should you make it to the end of the Games."

Every nerve in Lily's body began to hum as Merrythought described what the Defense Games entailed: "For those of you unfamiliar with the Games, it involves an obstacle course complete with magical enchantments and—in some cases—magical beasts designed to keep you from reaching the finish line. Your opponent isn't only the course, however, but each other. There are no rules in the Games, save a list of prohibited spells you are forbidden from using against one another."

Lily's rapture was interrupted when Thorfinn Rowle grunted, "Are we allowed to dual one another, Professor?"

"You may—though you are forbidden from using spells meant to inflict any serious damage to one another," Merrythought replied evenly, looking down her nose at him to assess whether her edict had sunk in. "The purpose of the Games is to make it to the end, but it isn't expressly prohibited to try and keep your peers from making it to the end too. These Games aren't for the faint of heart, but neither are they an excuse to attack one another. Be warned that injuries are common, though typically not significant enough to cause any…permanent damage. Medi-witches will be on scene to attend to the injured."

"Isn't that reassuring?" Rudolf mumbled, causing Lily to wriggle in her chair.

"For those of you who've witnessed the Games before and think you know what you're up against, think again: the obstacles are newly-designed each year to avoid giving anyone a clear advantage."

"When are the Games, Professor?" Nymphadora blurted out impatiently.

"Friday afternoon. That gives you very little time to prepare, so if you aren't confident in your skills as a proficient dualist who can think on your feet and endure the physical application necessary to make it to the end, I suggest you refrain from participating," Merrythought said sternly, her hawkish eyes travelling from student to student, except for Lily. It was as if she were invisible. "I will leave a sign-up scroll on my desk for those who wish to join. You may also owl an invitation to family who wish to attend the Games to watch your performance."

Concluding her speech, Merrythought turned and tapped the blackboard with her wand, causing loopy script to appear on their next topic of learning: dementors.

The lecture following went by in a blur. Lily didn't absorb a word, though she was confident she knew enough about dementors after finishing the course textbook weeks ago. Even though she could barely move without flinching, all she wanted to do was fly out of her seat and write her name down on Merrythought's sign-up scroll—but should she?

Lily could think of no better way of proving whether her rigorous studies on the subject—both inside and outside of the classroom—and the covert training with Snape had amounted to anything. If the Games were meant to test participants by simulating the potential foes and situations encountered in real life—situations that were frankly becoming more commonplace with the mounting death eater uprising—shouldn't she see what she was capable of? How else would she understand what she needed to improve so she could one day face Voldemort as was prophesized?

It all seemed entirely logical to her, yet she knew it was anything but. What would James say if she signed up? She knew he'd be borderline apoplectic, wanting to keep her magical skills under wraps and her aristocratic disguise pristine—but would he stop her if it came to it? Furthermore, would Dumbledore intervene?

Lily wasn't the only one distracted by thoughts of the Games as Rudolf leaned in and whispered: "Aurors from the Ministry attend the Games to scope out new recruits among the scholarship students. Your uncle also attends…some say to do some of his own recruiting. Know anything about that?"

Lily met Rudolf's eyes, which searched hers for any hint of a reaction. Did he know about the Order of the Phoenix? And if so, did the Order really use the Games to recruit new members?

"I'm not sure what you mean," Lily replied under her breath, her expression neutral; lying had become like second nature. "Will you sign up?"

"I wouldn't miss it for the world," Rudolf's fervor was infectious. "Beating the Games is a badge of honour I've been working towards for seven years. My father beat the Games when he was a student."

The pit of indecision forming in Lily's gut had her feeling bloated by the time the lecture ended. She recoiled at the noise of students scrapping back their chairs and collecting their things, Merrythought bellowing above the commotion, "Don't forget to leave your essays on non-verbal spells on my desk before you leave. Any late submissions and you can say goodbye to 25% of your grade."

Lily took her time organizing her books and notes as the rest of the students—including Rudolf, Nymphadora and Amelia—hastily cued in front of the professor's desk to drop off their essays and sign up for the Games. Merrythought patted each student on the back as they provided their signature, a surprising gesture of encouragement seldom seen from the professor.

"You better sit this one out," Regulus materialized beside Lily, his tone condescending, yet clipped. The jittery racket coming from their peers masked their exchange. "You heard Rowle—no one will be holding back in that arena."

"I think you've seen what I'm capable of," Lily replied, obstinance marring her features. "I'm afraid of the likes of Rowle as much as I'm afraid of you."

"Underestimating your opponents is imprudent, Aurora," Regulus observed; she couldn't decipher if he meant it as a warning or a threat. "Your sex and status will do little to protect you in the Games. Now they will make you a target."

"Are you trying to intimidate me, Regulus? Afraid I'll beat you in front of mummy and daddy?" Lily countered, trying to hone her temper into an offense. If she'd learned anything from their experience at the Ball, any reference to his family landed like a hammer drop.

Regulus' irascibility rose to the surface as expected. "Your recklessness is truly astounding."

"I thought my recklessness suited you well?" Lily hedged, a veiled reference to their duel and subsequent Halloween date.

He recovered the oiliness in his voice. "I can't decide if it's pride or the intrinsic drive to prove you're more than a useless debutante that's your weak spot. Either way, you make it far too easy to manipulate you, Aurora."

The comment stung more than Lily expected. What game was Regulus playing with her now? He liked any reason to ruffle her feathers: what better way to achieve that than in the Games, where he had license to torment her? Was he goading her into bowing out because he believed it would achieve the opposite?

While she knew her willingness to engage with Regulus had been a means to an end—deflecting cruelty from Nymphadora or spying for the Order—she couldn't deny that his observance was partially true. Could she disagree feeling drawn to situations that put to the test what she was capable of?

Lily didn't have a chance to reply as signed-up students moved to leave the classroom, causing them to break apart. She watched as Regulus approached the desk and confidently added his signature. As he brushed past with his cronies in tow, he offered her a final glower.

"I'm instituting a strict diet and workout for the rest of the week to prepare for Friday," Nymphadora declared, emerging from the crowd of students with Amelia at her side. "If I catch you with a sweet, Rockford, I'll slap it out of your hand. You'll thank me later."

"Harsh," Rudolf laughed. For three people who'd just signed up for a terrifying challenge, they seemed on top of the world. "Let's plan for a stiff drink Friday night—either to celebrate or drink away our sorrows."

"That's if we don't end up in the Hospital Wing," Amelia pointed out, pragmatic as always.

"What are the chances I'll break both my hands?" Rudolf threw an arm around Lily's shoulder. "I'll count on you to get the glass to my lips if that happens."

As her friends breezed out of the classroom abuzz with strategies and excitement, Lily lingered behind, her gaze fixed on the sign-up sheet on Merrythought's desk. 3C was now empty save for her and the professor, who was busy filing essays into her book bag.

Despite her better judgement, Lily moved toward the desk.

"Don't bother," Merrythought ordered, her hard voice echoing in the cavernous room. She seemed aware of Lily's presence there without having to look up from her papers. "The Games is no place for someone like you."

Lily steadied herself and walked the rest of the way to the teacher's desk, refusing to utter a word in response until the odious woman deigned to acknowledge her. Persistence won out when Merrythought straightened, glaring at her.

"If I get hurt in the Games, do you bear any responsibility for me?" Lily asked, keeping her tone neural.

"No," Merrythought replied.

"And should I fail to make it to the end and Nymphadora and Amelia do, will my failure diminish their victory?"

"Certainly not," Merrythought cut in: she saw exactly where Lily was going with her argument. "I have every reason to believe they will both make it to the end. But you have given me no reason to believe you will do anything but embarrass yourself and—by extension—your uncle."

"Is it my uncle's reputation or your own that you've decided to protect over my opportunity to learn?" Lily challenged. She squared her shoulders as Merrythought's yellow-brown eyes sharpened to a knife's edge; although she'd devoted her short lifetime to opposing authority, the likes of Sister Agatha had nothing on this witch.

"I won't begin to recount the number of reasons you're unworthy to be in this class, Ms. Rockford, never mind participate in these esteemed Games that require seven years of discipline to work towards," Merrythought snapped, her tone lethal. "You may be accustomed to getting everything you want in your privileged, spoilt life, but no amount of argument or ego will persuade me to offer you an opportunity you haven't earned. Book smarts will only get you so far in life, and yours aren't enough to convince me."

Lily knew a losing argument when she saw one. She'd anticipated the teacher's obduracy, considering she still wasn't allowed to participate in classroom duels; yet she'd held onto a glimmer of hope that logic and fair play would win out in the end. Merrythought was clearly prejudiced against her—for what reason, she didn't know—but it meant another approach was in order.

She'd have to take a leaf out of Regulus' book: pinpoint weakness and manipulate accordingly.

Snape glided past the gamekeeper's dilapidated cottage towards the Quidditch Pitch, clutching his woolen cloak closed against the biting wind that swept drapes of black hair out of his face. Crows cawed overhead, circling the rotting pumpkin patch to scavenge for their next meal.

He made for Ravenclaw's viewing tower, careful to keep to the perimeter of the arena to evade notice by the construction wizards erecting the obstacle course. The once grassy pitch was now littered with piles of building material—wood, rock, metal, and brick—and he also spotted large cages on the premises.

Snape stole into the shadows beneath the spectator stands. It was too early to deduce what surprises were in store for DADA students in the Games, all manner of charm and creature kept well concealed in the lead up to Friday to keep participants from snooping.

He'd been informed of the Games in the morning faculty meeting, though Merrythought had been decidedly tight-lipped about the design of the course. Snape supposed it possible she suspected some of the professors in attendance might slip a particular student information to give her an upper hand, though he very much doubted the DADA teacher presumed he'd be the one to do so.

After the meeting, he'd spent the better part of the morning wondering if Aurora would come to him when news of the Games found her. He'd made a point of scanning the Great Hall for her at lunchtime, hopeful she'd glance his way so he could figure out what she was thinking. But though he was certain she knew about the Games after eavesdropping on Brand and his Gryffindors peers discussing the revelation, she wasn't there.

Her absence had served to blacken his mood for the rest of the afternoon. Fourth-year Potions students had felt the brunt of his ire, his patience at an historic low. There'd been more than a few with un-spilled tears rushing out of the dungeons when his classes had finished for the day.

Yet, when he'd retired to his office and found a note on his desk with Severus scrawled in flawless, feminine handwriting, his irritation had transformed into gratification.

She needed him.

"You're late," Snape commented when Aurora finally found his hiding spot beneath the bleachers. She wore a thick winter cloak and riding boots, though the apparel left a sliver of bare knees visible. The wind had tousled her hair and flushed her cheeks, giving him the urge to brush errant strands of chestnut out of her vivid eyes.

"I had to wait for students to go into dinner before I could slip out unnoticed," Aurora said, out of breath from her hurried journey. "Thanks for meeting me. You've heard?"

"Yes," Snape replied, sensitive to her restless energy.

"Are the Games as brutal as Merrythought portrays them?" she probed, impatience forming delicate lines across her forehead.

"Yes," he repeated. Amusement tugged at the corners of his mouth as she rolled her eyes at him.

"Would it kill you to utter more than one syllable?"

"No…but I suspect it might kill you."

She snorted, an inelegant noise that somehow sounded charming coming from her: "If one could die from exasperation, yes. Now quit being annoying and tell me what I'm up against."

"You've signed up then?" he pressed, ignoring the insult to process the answer he'd been craving all day.

She wants to participate in the Games. The knowledge came with a dichotomy of feeling. On one hand, he was relieved to know she hadn't shied away from a challenge, sure the very foundations of his opinion of her would've cracked at the revelation she was a coward. Yet, on the other, knowing the likelihood of her emerging from the Games unscathed served to unsettle him.

"I've encountered a problem with that," she bit her bottom lip, storm clouds forming behind her eyes.

Tearing his gaze away from her lips, he rebuked sharply, "Don't tell me the chauvinist attitudes of Potter and Black are holding you back."

"You never cease to take shots at them, do you?" she squared her shoulders, his comment putting her on the defensive. He almost regretted the taunt when she looked away from him, peering through the bleachers toward the Quidditch Pitch. "I'm talking about Merrythought. Will you call her a chauvinist too?"

"I've called her worst things than that—though never to her face," Snape's remark restored some warmth in Aurora. "What's her excuse for preventing your entry?"

"I'm privileged and spoilt. I haven't earned the opportunity. My book smarts aren't enough. The list goes on," she sighed, the light in her eyes dimming as she recounted the conversation. Seeing her distressed by the asinine assertions fanned Snape's anger. "I believe she's worried my performance will reflect poorly on her."

"Why care about the biased opinion of a washed-out theoretician?" he replied coolly, though his hands fisted beneath his cloak. He tamped down a flood of revengeful imaginings to focus on the present. "Can't you see she's envious? You have everything she wants—youth, prestige, talent. She's trying to block you from demonstrating your abilities so you can't bruise her ego by proving her wrong."

Aurora's frown communicated her disbelief—as if the prospect of someone being envious of her were unfathomable, rather than the reality of many at Hogwarts. "That can't be it."

"Why else would she hamper your efforts but favour your female classmates? It's because she sees herself in them: scholarship students who had to overcome and earn their place on merit alone. She belittles and holds you back because she doesn't want to give you an occasion where you may succeed. She wants you to experience the injustice she did."

"How could you know that?"

"I too have experienced the discrimination scholarship students face," he said, keeping his features devoid of emotion; he wanted to make it clear he wasn't looking for her pity by relating his own story. "Merrythought had the added inconvenience of being a woman. It isn't difficult to guess her motivations."

Aurora paced back and forth, running a hand through her curled hair. "Do you think she's right to deny me?"

You're worth more than anyone in this castle.

"I've seen my share of entitled lords and ladies parade through these halls, believing themselves better than everyone else and deserving of the lavish lifestyle they were born into" Snape paused, looking towards the castle. "You are not one of them."

He let out a surprised ooff when Aurora wrapped around his midsection, pinning his arms to his sides beneath his heavy cloak. At a loss of what to do, he looked down, finding only the top of her messy-haired head visible against his chest.

"Thank you for believing in me," she mumbled, extracting herself from the embrace. Her eyes looked wet, making his nerves sputter: was she going to cry? It hadn't been his intention to upset her, merely dispel the self-doubt that Merrythought had sown. Objectionable old hag that she is.

"I've seen what you can do," Snape's response to her sentiment was colorless, but only because he couldn't think straight.

The schoolgirl before him had an insufferable talent for incapacitating him whenever she showed the slightest hint of affection. He suspected he was still off balance due to the Halloween Ball, which had really sent him off the deep end. It had been her fault entirely: when she'd chosen him to dance, they'd joined hands and wrapped arms around one another, pressed chest-to-chest, their hips mere inches apart…and it had taken every ounce of self-control to suppress his physical excitement at the contact. Add to the circumstance the consciousness that her attention had been focused solely on him in a room full of people, plus the alluring dress that had given him a sensational view, and he'd been done in.

He hadn't slept a wink that night, craving release after release, his obsessive mind unable to stop fantasizing about Lady Aurora Rockford. The Sunday after he'd purposely become engrossed in some of the most difficult potion-brewing he could think of, believing it would help get her out of his head. But he'd been so, so wrong.

"What I mean is, I've seen firsthand that you have as much right as anyone else in that class to compete in the Games. The Sorting Hat deemed you worthy, and it isn't easily deceived," Snape added, trying to recover from his awkwardness.

"Any idea how I can convince Merrythought to reconsider?" Aurora blew out a breath, unaware of his internal struggle.

"Devise a way to demonstrate what you're capable of that makes it impossible for Merrythought to deny you," he pronounced, watching her scrunch up her nose in thought. "That plan is yours to devise. But what I can offer is helping you prepare for what you may face on Friday."

Atop a knoll scattered with ancient yew trees, nearby the cemetery where she and Regulus had dueled, Lily waited in the dark. She rubbed together her hands impatiently, willing them to warm, her breath suspended in the chilly air around her. Her wand lay on the ground, its tip alit, a blue-tinged beacon in the shadowed landscape.

Her mind was racing, thoughts disjointed like it had short circuited. Plans formed and re-formed, doubts sprouted and took root, excitement kindled and then fizzling out just as quickly…

Since Merrythought's class and her conversation with Severus, every brainwave centered on her participation in the Games—how she'd persuade Merrythought to allow her entry, how she'd convince James and her inner circle that she was capable, how she'd pull it off with her lady-like disguise intact if all the pieces fell into place…

A crunch of leaves and twigs sharpened her focus, causing her to snatch up her wand. From behind the spindly arms of the yew grove emerged James, his cheeks pink and glasses cloudy from the plummeting temperature.

"Your room would've done just fine as a rendezvous point," James said by way of greeting. Lily lowered her wand, welcoming his embrace as he enveloped her in a hug. "It's freezing out, Lils. Why the mysterious meet up?"

"Maybe I'm trying to keep you on your toes?" she teased, the mere presence of him making her feel grounded again, clearer. Angling to look into his chocolate eyes—the faintest trace of the moon above reflecting in his glasses—her heart skipped a beat.

"I know when you're up to something," James replied, his expression wise. It didn't stop him from bowing his head to capture her lips with his own, jumping at the opportunity regardless. When they surfaced for air, he scolded, "Even your lips are cold. This must be important?"

As James held her close, applying body heat to thaw her out, Lily reminded herself that she hadn't summoned James just for a snog. "I need your help with something…"

"Is everything alright?" he started, worry creasing his forehead.

"I've had an interesting—and frustrating—day," Lily sighed, though she brushed a kiss along his jawline to try and sooth him, his stubble rough against her lips. "Merrythought announced the Games in class…everyone is in a frenzy about it."

"I was afraid you were going to say that," James grimaced, a strand of hair falling across his face. As he broke apart from her, his absence allowed a chill to seep between them again. "We heard about it this morning in the faculty meeting."

"I knew you wouldn't like it and wouldn't agree with it, but I wanted to sign up," Lily divulged, trying not to shrink under James' penetrating stare. She held up a hand as he tried to interject, "Merrythought has blocked my attempt, just as she continues to do with dueling."

James' face instantly relaxed, his edgy expression transitioning to benevolence. "I'm sorry. I know this is an area of study you want to prove yourself in—and Merlin knows, I know you don't like being told what you can and cannot do. But I won't pretend that doesn't provide me with some relief."

"You don't think I could do it?" Lily folded her arms across her chest, looking away.

"I didn't say that," James' voice softened. He placed his hands on her shoulders to refocus her attention. "I know what it's like to be in the Games. Sirius, Remus and I all went through it. The challenges are brutal, created to test you in every way. Though we all made it through, I broke my arm, Sirius knocked out his front teeth and practically singed every hair off his head, and Remus had to re-grow three fingers on his left hand."

Lily paled before regaining her courage: "And I'm sure the pride you felt for overcoming it made all of those fixable things well worth it."

"That doesn't mean I'm eager to have those things happen to you, or worse," James held firm. "There's no denying your talent, Lils—I saw that firsthand with Regulus. You're clever and quick and your magic seems to respond to you like you've been its master for years. Perhaps no one has told you this yet, but that's not normal—it's extraordinary."

James' praise crushed against her like a tidal wave, wobbling her resolve. To know that he genuinely thought her capable was the validation she'd be craving from him. But was it enough?

"Entering these Games after only months of study, despite how naturally gifted you are, is rash—never mind the precarious nature of your disguise and the fact that at least three of your fellow participants are would-be death eaters. You know exactly what we've gleaned from Rowle and Rosier about their intentions, and Regulus remains a wild card. You don't need to prove yourself to anyone."

"It's not about anyone else," Lily muttered, wind making her hair dance behind her. His points were all sound—rock solid, in fact—yet common sense did nothing to diminish her desire to be more. "It's about proving to myself that I'm worthy of being a part of this world—that I belong to it, same as you do. What better way to test myself?"

And to prove whether this damnable prophecy has merit, she thought, but held back.

"We're trained in magic from the age of eleven, Lily," James tucked wild strands of hair behind her ear, staring deeply into her eyes; his gaze could stir her very soul. "Seven years later, most witches and wizards aren't even as accomplished as you are right now. The magic within you is potent, pliable—you play it like an instrument and make it sing for you. How you could question your belonging when your being is more attuned to magic than most is astonishing to me."

Surprised tears sprang to her eyes and threatened to trickle down her face. Lily swallowed her sob, "You really believe that?"

"I do," James kissed away a tear, his voice earnest. Around them, crickets chirruped and tree branches rustled in the breeze, the quiet symphony of night. "Don't ever misunderstand my overprotective nature as doubt in your abilities…you've known from the start I can be a bit, well, bullheaded."

Lily chuckled, wiping the remainder of her tears away with the sleeve of her coat. She appreciated his attempt at levity. "Don't I know it?"

"Cruel girl," he mocked, tracing her jaw with a forefinger, trying to tease out a smile. "Now why don't we move this meeting to the confines of your bedroom? I can continue to recite how wonderful you are as you slip into a warm bath…"

"James," Lily reproached, trying to chase away the kisses he planted along her neck, his breath hot against her skin. "I need your help with something, remember?"

"Cursing a fellow teacher is generally frowned up, if that's what you're asking," James smirked, making Lily roll her eyes.

"I don't want you to curse Merrythought—but I do want you to help me thwart her," Lily countered. She bit her lip—drawing his heavy gaze—before making her request. "I want you to help me show her that I'm in her class for a reason…that I'm not there by mistake because of my fictious association as a Dumbledore. She wants to stamp me out, and I want to glow brighter because of it."

James raised a brow, his interest piqued. As he considered, Lily saw something flash behind his eyes—was it surprise, relief, or happiness?

"How can I help?"

Lily steadied herself, unsure of what his reaction would be. It struck her that she'd never gone to him for help with magic before…only Snape. "I need you to teach me how to cast the Patronus Charm."

Rather than the shock or dismay she expected, James broke into a bemused grin, his white teeth gleaming. "Of course you do. It's only the most powerful and difficult defensive charm known to wizardkind."

"It should do the trick," Lily fought her own grin at his sarcasm.

"Lucky for you, I happen to be rather good at that charm," James sighed, shaking his head at her gleeful smile in return. "In the Order, we often use our patronus to communicate with one another in a hurry. What do you know about it?"

The tidbit of information he offered made Lily perk up; just another way learning the charm could work in her favour.

"Just what I've read in textbooks," Lily said, twirling her wand between her fingers, doing her best not to seem too keen. "It conjures a magical guardian that takes the shape of an animal the castor shares a deep affinity with, and protects against dementors and other magical creatures that feed on despair."

"What a little scholar you are," James condescended, chuckling when she narrowed her eyes, daring him to continue his mocking. He unearthed his wand from his jacket pocket, making Lily prickle with anticipation. "One of the most difficult aspects is producing a full, corporeal patronus. It's all to do with your ability to tap into your inner-most thoughts and feelings."

Lily watched as James took a few steps back and—as easily as he breathed—produced a steady stream of silvery liquid from the end of his wand. The hoary spell gently glided past them, as if travelling on an errant breeze, before pooling before them, the outline of an animal taking shape. She couldn't hold back her gasp as the guardian revealed himself, antlers forming upon his majestic head: a stag.

She watched breathlessly as the stag bowed his head toward her, an act of reverence that didn't seem warranted by such a magnificent creature. Lily took a step forward, reaching out toward it, trying to brush her fingers along its back; they traveled through him, like trying to touch smoke. The patronus angled its head, inquisitive.

"It's beautiful," Lily murmured, looking over her shoulder at James, who watched her with equal worship. It was astonishing how the stag seemed to match his very essence, as if they were one and the same.

James brandished his wand again, causing the patronus to fade back into darkness. The grove felt empty without its radiating glow.

"The most important part of the spell isn't the flick of your wrist or the pronunciation of the incantation, but the feelings that make it comes alive inside you," James explained, gently wrapping his arms around Lily from behind. Electricity snaked up her spine as he whispered in her ear, "Think of the happiest memory you've ever had. One that made you feel out of body, dizzy with elation. A memory that is so visceral, you can practically relive it with all four senses."

Lily breathed deeply and shut her eyes, trying to calm her mind and unlock a memory that made her feel all those things at once. She wasn't sure if James' presence was heightening her concentration or distracting her from it, his breath tickling her ear and his body warming her core.

"What's your happiest memory?" she probed.

"That would be telling," he replied mysteriously; she could feel his smile against her cheek. "Ready?"

She nodded, letting him puppet her wrist to show her the spell's movement. "You know the incantation…let yourself experience every part of the memory as you recite it aloud. Allow it flow through you—be an extension of you."

Lily exhaled, surrendering to the first memory that came to mind: that of a boy in the rain, discovered on her first day of freedom, his hair and shirt damp, the gardens around him shimmering with faerie lights and glistening trees. She could smell the earth and flowers, feel the dampness, taste the raindrops, hear the rhythmic pitter patter…and see the enigmatic eyes that could make her feel stripped bare with their simmering intensity…

"Expecto patronum," she annunciated, the words clear as a bell in the surrounding gloom. As she opened her eyes, she watched as wisps of hoary matter floated before her like lost little clouds. As quickly as they appeared, they disappeared again into the inky night.

"Well done," James praised, giving her a squeeze to try and loosen the glower that'd transformed her serene face. "It may not seem like much now, but you've already tapped into something strong enough to produce matter—you may have disconnected from the emotion too quickly. You need to let it burn inside you longer."

Lily wordlessly settled into the memory again, concentrating harder on that evening in the gardens of Potter Manor. As she explored the feelings wrapped tightly around the appearance of James, she tried to pinpoint exactly what they were: surprise, anxiety, intrigue, enthrallment, fear…

"Expecto patronum," Lily spoke again, feeling the prickle of power at her fingertips as she swam in the memory, analyzing every expression, movement, and word of the man she'd had no idea that she'd come to love. And yet, seeing him in that faraway moment, it seemed almost inevitable, like the hand of fate had intervened to change the course of her life forever…

"Look," James's deep voice commanded softly, rousing her. Her heart leapt, the beginnings of a form taking shape before her eyes—only to dissipate yet again.

"So close," Lily blew out a breath, annoyance replacing her dreamy reverie.

"That was an excellent first try," James said; she could tell he sincere in his commendation. "It was on the brink of taking form—you just need to push more, really cement the memory in your mind. It takes practice but look how much progress you've already made. What was it you thought of?"

Lily turned to face him, the ghost of a smile on her lips. "And why should I tell you mine if you won't tell me yours?"

James sighed, wrapping his arms around her waist. His initial pleasure with her results transitioned to a deeper emotion, one that made his features turn somber, passionate. "I thought of the night I found you in the gardens…the vision of you dancing, free and pure…the look of wonderment on your face. I think I fell in love with you the first moment I laid eyes on you, Lily."

She placed a hand on his stubbled cheek, eyes swimming with unspilled tears, the revelation that they considered the same memory their happiest making her feel complete in a way she couldn't express with words. Wrapping a hand around his neck, she kissed him like she never had before, trying to pour every emotion into him—even an ember of the inferno that was the devotion she felt for him.

James lifted Lily up to deepen the kiss, causing her to wrap her arms and legs around his sturdy frame, her right hand still clasping her wand. As they drank one another in, desire and ardor flowing between them, Lily committed every second to memory, bonding it to the incantation that repeated in her mind over and over: Expecto patronum.

Behind them, a fully corporeal patronus was born, a spirit animal glowing amongst the yew grove. Neither Lily nor James noticed, enraptured in a different kind of magic.

Author's Notes

Hello dear and loyal readers! I hope you enjoyed this chapter. I know it's been a long time between updates. Even in the business of life, this story lives on in my mind, pushing me to put in on the page when inspiration strikes. I'm very excited to write the next chapter—I promise it will be an epic one!

I hope everyone is keeping safe and well. Please drop me a hello in a review if you enjoyed the chapter. Looking forward to hearing from you!


P.S. For all those fans that used to follow my Facebook page so we could connect between updates…Facebook locked me out of it and closed it a while ago There was nothing I could do to recover it unfortunately.