The Twelve Days of Christmas

Chapter 11—The Tenth Day of Christmas

December 22, 1980

There was a commotion. She didn't know if it was happening around her or in her head. Snippets of rapid conversation; harried footsteps; deep-throated groans; chanting as silky as a lullaby. Then there was the acrid smell. It was like charred wood, yet lacked a sense of comfort. It faded in and out of her nostrils, eventually becoming overpowered by something fresher, more fragrant. Catmint perhaps? And then, the cold—she felt so cold, though rather than make her feel numb, it made her skin prickle and dance.

She tried to open her eyes but they throbbed in their sockets, making her grit her teeth and shut them closed again. They felt like charbroiled grapes. Panic began to well inside her, causing a warbled cry to escape. Trapped…she felt trapped, like she was wrapped in a coat so tight it was squeezing her to death, right down to the bones.

"Would you DO something?" a deep, familiar voice rang out, louder and clearer than anything she'd deciphered thus far. He sounded almost as terrified as she felt. Sobs sounded from somewhere in the background. "Can't you see she's in distress?"

"Better in distress than dead, Mr. Potter," an authoritative female voice commanded. "Now stand aside and let the curse breakers do their work."

Hearing the words made her heart leap, though she wasn't sure why. She tried to open her eyes again. This time light flickered in her vision and she started to make out the contour of figures standing above her. Were there two or three? One looked to be standing on a chair, his wand raised above her. He was chanting—they all were, in fact. She shut her eyes, pain ebbing and flowing throughout her body.

"We're almost there Lily…" a voice squeaked from above her, a small hand covering hers. "We've almost got it out, but you need to help us. You need to release the dark energy clinging to you. Drive it out—tell it to let you go."

She screamed in agony as the chanting grew louder, pain stabbing all over her body. She couldn't breathe—like a spindly hand had taken a fistful of each lung and was squeezing until they were emptied.

"It's killing her!" a female voice shrieked. She felt a clammy hand grip her shoulder. "Lily, hold on!"

"You can do this," sounded the male voice again, though she could barely hear him over her own screams. "Don't leave us, Lily. Don't leave me."

The words made her heart ache, igniting a spark of determination. Get out get out get out! she internally roared, becoming more aware of the shadowy organism desperately latching onto her. She honed in on it, her senses beginning to return. It writhed in response, a parasitic power born from the dark spell casting of death eaters and absorbed into her mortal form by means of an ancient shield. Rather than protect her, the charm had infected her—and now she had to cast it out.

The voices of the chanters grew louder and louder, working towards an epic crescendo. She knew them now: Professor Flitwick, Professor Dumbledore and Professor McGonagall.

The pain was near unbearable. She could feel her grip on reality wavering, her conscious mind seeking escape from the physical agony. Yet, she did not let go; she clung with all her might to what made her life worth fighting for—the people who loved her and who she would not give up on.

She wasn't sure if it was only in her head or if everyone in the room had heard it too, but she let out a mighty war cry—her violent command to the parasitic power possessing her to abscond and feast on something else. She felt the powerful entity's skeletal fingers relax their grip, though it scraped at her as it began to depart, desperate to burrow deep in its human vessel.

Her body convulsed upward—one last tug from the cursed power before it left her body in a noir mist, hovering above her only a moment before it dissipated, scurrying into the wide-open world to find its new home.

She shuddered a breath, relief washing over her entire body: her own again. The voices around her sounded joyous, but she couldn't make out what they were saying anymore, her mind closing down again, consciousness retreating.

The last thing she felt was the squeeze of a hand and lips pressed against her cheek.

It was like emerging from a fog: she progressed from being consumed by opaqueness to feeling her way through thick translucence to gasping awake to a transparent, yet still discombobulated world.

When Lily opened her eyes she found herself looking up at a brass chandelier bathed in morning light. She blinked, focusing on the magical flames that flickered in their glass encasements. Swallowing, she found her throat cotton-dry. Next she wiggled her toes and fingers, discovering them encased in soft, downy fabric that smelled of patchouli.

Lily moved to sit up in the bed, blearily taking in the architecture of the room. It took a moment, but realization eventually dawned: it was James Potter's bedroom at Godric's Hollow.

She rubbed at her eyes and temples, willing her mental murkiness to subside. Voices sounded from beyond the slightly-ajar door. Lily swung her legs out from under the covers and jumped to her feet, the quickness making her reach out for a bed post to steady herself. Feeling a chill, she realized all she was wearing was a man's oversized flannel shirt, her legs exposed.

Spotting her wand on a side table, Lily scooped it up and headed toward the ensuite bathroom, planting herself in front of the mirror. She blinked multiple times, pressing her fingers to her face: it felt tight and was a rosy pink, while her hair looked an iridescent auburn. She touched the soft, vibrant tresses, surprised to find them looking so healthy. It clicked into place.

They've had to regrow my hair and skin.

When she shut her eyes, memories flashed of James lying on top of her, a waterfall of flames pouring over his protective shield. Despite it, the intensity of the curse must have cloaked them in burns hot enough to singe away hair, skin and likely clothing.

Sighing, Lily turned on the tap and splashed water into her face, finding the sensation calming. Procuring her wand, she performed a trivial make-up charm to even out her skin tone and braid her newly-grown hair. She departed the bathroom and opened up James' chest of drawers, pulling out a pair of too-big pajama bottoms. She put them on and pulled the drawstrings tight.

Moving toward the door, Lily gently eased it open. She paused in the doorframe, the muffled voices below becoming more audible: Sirius, Remus and Peter. She lowered herself into a seated position at the top of the stairs, listening to the conversation they exchanged in the front sitting room.

"…a wonder is was only Benjy that went down," Peter said, his voice shaky.

"How did they know? They had the entire fucking armada at the ready," Sirius swore, banging his fist on a table, rattling its contents. "I hope my dear cousin lost a limb or two in that explosion. Maybe she'll get even worse from You-Know-Who when he finds out what a mess up that was. Both Dolohov and Rockwood rotting away in Azkaban now because of it…that's sweet at least."

"It would've gone a lot differently if it hadn't been for Lily," Remus said, his tone solemn. "I almost lost two of my best friends in a single night. I'll forever be indebted to her, however you feel about it, Prongs."

There was a dragging silence before Lily became aware of James' presence. He sounded more grave than she'd ever heard him before. "She almost died too. You should've never let her go out to find us."

"I care for Lily too, but there would've been no stopping her. It's because of her power and intellect that you and Sirius are both standing here. We're all worse for wear because of that night, but we're also all still alive, and that's something."

"He's right," Lily said, padding down the stairs to lean in the sitting room's doorframe.

"You're awake!" James jumped to his feet, his glasses falling down his nose. "How are you feeling? Sirius, owl Madam Pomfrey—"

"I'm fine," Lily insisted, allowing the frazzled man to take her elbow and guide her to the couch. "I think I've been poked and prodded enough. Though I must commend Madam Pomfrey for her handy work—my hair has never looked so good."

"Can we get you something, Lily? Some tea? Something to eat?" Remus offered as James wrapped a thick woolen blanket around her shoulders. She blushed, realizing he was probably trying to hide the fact that she wasn't wearing a bra.

"I'd love a coffee," she smiled at Remus. When Lily turned her attention back to James, she saw a face creased with worry. "You can stop fussing over me now, James."

She put a hand over his: their eyes instantly locked, fingers intertwining. For a moment, all they could do was stare at one another, unspoken words passing between them. Fear, relief, happiness, exhaustion…Peter danced from foot to foot, watching it nervously play out, while Sirius smirked like a Cheshire cat. When Remus came back in with a mug of coffee swirling with steam, he cast his snooping friends warning glances.

"Here you go, Lily," Remus cut in, also depositing a plate full of biscuits. "Chocolate will help to relax you—consider it an official prescription. We'll get out of your hair and let you settle in. It's been a trying night, but you didn't let it overcome you. Everyone is so relieved you're alright."

Breaking away from James' intense, flutter-inducing stare, she offered Remus a grateful smile. "Thank you, Remus. We made a good team. I hope everyone else is recovering well?"

"There are several Order members still recovering at the cottage, Alice's brothers included. Frank cracked a rib or two but you'd never know it. Their cottage has turned into a temporary respite home of sorts," Remus explained, folding his arms as he perched on the couch's arm. "It was getting overcrowded, so we had you and a few others moved to other locations. Dumbledore himself apparated you here so you wouldn't splinch. He's got a good track record with that sort of thing."

James ran fingers through his messy hair, even thicker than before. "Alice will have my balls if she finds out you're awake and I haven't owled her yet. She was very reluctant to have you moved."

Sirius snorted. "Reluctant? She was in meltdown territory."

Lily sighed. "She's always been a mother hen. I appreciate you taking me in."

The boys moved to collect their coats and pull on their boots. Before they departed, Sirius enveloped Lily in a tight hug. "Remus is right. We'll always be indebted to you and your bad-ass charm work," he released her, squeezing her shoulders. "Being the smartest witch in school paid off this time. I'm getting you a huge Christmas gift."

"As long as it's not a bathtub of flowers," Lily said, making him snigger. "Happy to do my bit."

"See you two later," Sirius said, his eyes sparkling as he looked between Lily and James. "And do me a favour, Lily: see if you can get this guy to crack a smile. I've never seen such a grim-looking prat in my entire life."

"Goodbye, Sirius," James grumbled, shoving his best mate towards the door.

"Don't do anything I wouldn't do—which is nearly nothing as you know!" Sirius merrily proclaimed.

James rolled his eyes and closed the door on him, turning back to Lily. The clock at the top of the stairs gonged, filling the momentary silence between them. "He's a git."

Feeling a flutter of nerves, Lily cocooned in her woolly blanket, pulling it towards her ears. From the Marauders' reactions—not to mention the fact that she was now recuperating in James' house—she knew her plans for discretion were quickly unspooling. "Should I assume this whole debacle has given us away…"

James sunk back onto the plush couch beside her, the ghost of a smirk returning. "I think it's safe to say the boys have a strong inkling at this point. I was interrogated while you were asleep," he said, somewhat sheepish. "And I might have shown my cards during your whole curse exorcism thing. What a scene that was…"

A nervous laugh emitted from Lily. "Perhaps I should've done a bit more experimentation with that particular charm before field deployment…parasitic dark magic might be a deterrent for future use. Will jot that one down."

James gathered up one of Lily's hands and planted a kiss on it. "Astonishing charm work aside, I can't fathom why you thought it was a good idea to put yourself in that kind of danger for me," he swallowed, staring down as their entwined hands. "To think…to think you could have been…"

Lily placed a palm on James' cheek, causing his chocolate eyes to meet her emerald ones again. "Would you have done it for me?"

"Of course, but that doesn't mean you—"

Lily's hand curved around James' neck, pulling him in for a soft kiss. She could feel some of his tension recede and his control waver as he gradually melted into her caress. Feeling somehow fortified by the connection, Lily let the blanket around her slip away as she moved onto James' lap, never breaking the kiss.

"Easy tiger," James' chuckle was low as he broke the kiss, planting his hands on her hips. "You're supposed to be resting. Doctor's orders."

"I'm tired of resting," Lily returned, her tone honeyed as she moved to kiss him again. "Somehow we survived. I want to celebrate…to feel close to you."

Wondering if it would be possible to deny her anything, James slid his hands under the flannel shirt she wore, his touch cool against her warm skin, and raked his fingers down her smooth back. Her nipples hardened in response, skin singing, and he stiffened beneath her.

Lily breathed deeply, feeling a jolt of exhilaration when she met James' stare, his eyes clouded with arousal. She licked her lips, taking her time to undo each button on her shirt, starting from the top down. "Please consider this my apology for what happened at Alice's bachelorette party."

She watched James swallow as she discarded the shirt on the floor, baring her breasts to him. He groaned, looking physically pained, before placing his hands on her, his thumbs moving in methodical circles. He angled his head so he could trail kisses down her neck and shoulder. "You drive me mad, Lily Evans…"

He protested as she broke away from him, though it was only to wrestle his own shirt over his head. Looking half crazed with desire, James shifted Lily onto her back so she laid on the couch. He aptly pulled her too-big pajama pants off so she lay bare beneath him.

"Does this mean you forgive me?" Lily breathed as James tracked kisses down her chest.

He stopped to look at her before making his way down her abdomen and between her thighs. "Forgive you for what?"

"You know…that drunken encounter with Fabian at the party," Lily's tone was tentative. She felt incredibly vulnerable, utterly at James' mercy thanks to the way he had her positioned.

His eyes darkened, but rather than trade angry words, he settled his face between her legs, tracing his tongue on the most sensitive parts of her. She sucked in a breath as he said, "Did you want him to kiss you?"

Lily writhed under his beautiful, tantalizing mouth, grabbing a fistful of pillow behind her head. Her back arched, breasts throbbing. He was trying to torture her, send her over the edge. "God no."

James' tone was naughty in response. "Have you ever imagined him doing this to you?"

Lily moaned, almost entirely overcome with pleasure. "Nevernever!"

"Good girl," James purred, stopping to plant kisses on her inner thigh.

"Don't stop," Lily pleaded.

"That depends…will you slap the bastard if he ever tries that again?" James demanded, though his eyes were playful as his fingers replaced the work of his tongue. "Will you tell him that only I'm allowed to kiss you? To play with you? To touch the parts of you no one else can see…"

Lily whimpered, overcome with pleasure as James' mouth dipped low again, his fingers entering her as she rode wave after wave of trembling desire. The way he touched her, teased her, wanted her all to himself—it was irresistibly sexy.

"Yes—yes," she cried, her while body bowing as she achieved euphoria. James climbed on top of her, kissing the crook of her neck as she tried to find her breath again. "That was so good…"

James' chuckle was a near growl as his fingers danced across her skin. "You'll get me in trouble if you tell Madam Pomfrey I'm compromising her patient."

"Technically you're her patient too," Lily pressed, some of her senses returning as she threaded her fingers through his mop of hair. "And I can't think of anything better for my health."

Pleased with himself, James moved to pull his shirt back on. Lily's frown was immediate. "Hey, I wasn't through with you?"

"Yes you are," James threw a blanket over her alluring form. "I need you to wrangle your inner temptress because you're taxing my willpower."

Lily's eyebrows knit together. "Did a death eater addle your brain, Potter? There's a naked woman on your living room couch and you're trying to employ willpower?"

James turned serious again. "You're still healing. I don't want you overexerting yourself."

Lily threw a pillow at James' head, huffing. "I'm not some China doll, James Potter! You're not going to break me, however you try. Last time I checked, I survived getting roasted like a Christmas turkey and turned inside-out by dark magic. I think I can handle you."

A grin danced along James' lips. "I have a lot of pent-up energy where you're concerned. You think you can handle me now…"

Lily's stomach did a flip-flop before her fury returned. "Merlin, you are so bloody full of yourself."

"And yet you love me anyway."

"I never said that."

"It was implied when you ran into a hoard of death eaters for me."

"Maybe it was for Sirius. He's very good looking."

"Nice try," James threw his flannel shirt at Lily and climbed off the couch. "Now, I'm going to make you lunch to get some food into you. Why don't you take a long bath and relax while I work on it?"

Her glower deepening, Lily pulled the shirt back over her head, crossing her arms. She felt thoroughly cheated by his sudden retreat. "Fine."

Still grinning, James watched as she dragged her feet up the stairs. "I also took the liberty of having your things sent here from the inn. In case you grew tired of wearing my clothes—though I'm certainly not complaining."

Indignant still, Lily stopped, turned and yanked his shirt off, letting it fall to the bottom of the stairs. His grin faded, replaced with something far more primal as his eyes canvassed every part of her. His look of pained desire returned again.

Her smile was sweet and mocking. "I guess you can have your shirt back then."

Swallowing her small victory, Lily passed through James' bedroom into his ensuite bathroom, passing the Louis Vuitton luggage she hadn't noticed there before. She pulled her hair into a bun and leaned down to turn on the hot water in the claw-foot tub. When she straightened, she found a tidy pile of fluffy white towels set out on an antique chair near the tub, as well as a basket of expensive-looking glass bottles. Interest piqued, Lily popped the cork off of one of them, holding it to her nose: spiced cranberry bubble bath.

The man has good taste, I'll give him that, Lily thought as she poured some of the shimmery contents into the bath, the water beginning to foam into frothy bubbles.

Lily lowered herself into the porcelain tub, letting out a satisfied breath as she sunk below the scented water. Some of her frustration with James and his antiquated notions of feminine fragility slid away as her muscles loosened, the water lulling her back into calm. She closed her eyes and leaned her head against the tub, soothed by the wintery scent of the bubble bath.

Some of the events of the previous night resurfaced in her mind: Alice's panic before Frank and her brothers had arrived; Order members turning up bruised and bloodied; the realization that one of their own had fallen; James and Sirius a knife's edge away from the same fate…

Lily squeezed her eyes shut, unwilling to let any tears spill. What an utterly ridiculous time they were living in—that they all had to live in constant fear that someone they loved wouldn't come home. That Alice might not be celebrating a wedding in a few days, that a lifelong group of friends could be separated forever, that she might never have a stolen moment with James again…

She dunked her head underwater, holding her breath as she rubbed at her temples, trying to clear her mind. With odds stacked against them, they'd survived, and it was a powerful—if not cruel—lesson in never taking anything, or anyone, for granted.

Lily broke the surface, taking in a gulp of air. Her eyes found the frost-kissed window above the tub, glittering in the afternoon sunlight. In that moment she felt ready to start running towards her happiness, not away from it.

She wrapped herself in one of the fluffy towels and began to pull a brush through her hair, drying it with her wand. After styling it into loose waves, she fished another fancy bottle out of the basket and applied some silky body lotion, feeling thoroughly pampered.

Dressing in a beautiful sweater dress and leggings she'd pried out of her luggage (she was running out of clean clothing fast…) and applying some light makeup, Lily followed the scent of something delicious cooking in the cottage's kitchen.

Lily tiptoed down the stairs in thick cable-knit socks, imagining she'd find James toiling away over a hot stove. Instead, she found him shoving papers into a leather satchel at the front door, dressed in his best business-casual.

"Going somewhere?" she paused at the bottom step.

Visibly weary, James offered her an apologetic smile as he wound a woolly scarf around his neck. "Just received an owl from the Auror's Office. They've called an emergency meeting. My guess, they're considering what to do with Dolohov and Rockwood; if information can be extracted from them before they're shipped to Azkaban," James pulled on his pea coat. "Blasted timing of course, but I've got to be there as Sirius, Remus, Frank and I are part of the cover-up story the Order has fed the Ministry so they don't realize it was a non-sanctioned operation. I'm so sorry…hoping it won't take long."

Lily waved off his apology, trying to seem unfazed by his departure. Truthfully, a part of her wished she could go with him so she could hear what was going to happen to the death eaters she'd helped to take down. Her only regret was that Bellatrix Lestrange hadn't been captured too.

"Don't worry about me, it's important you're there. I'll just head back to the inn—"

"What?" James cut her off, his brows furrowing. "You're meant to rest. Apparition is out of the question for at least another day."

"You're comfortable with me just hanging around your house while you're out?" Lily bit at a nail.

James threw his messenger bag over his shoulder and walked to Lily, stopping almost nose-to-nose with her as she remained on the bottom stair. "I do wonder what goes on in that ginger head of yours. I want to find you here when I get back, if you're willing to stay. Besides, it'll save me the trouble of having to track you down and drag you back here so I can take care of you."

Lily rolled her eyes, trying to hide how his romantic declaration had affected her. "I don't need to be taken care of, Potter."

"Yes, yes, female empowerment and all that," James mocked lightly, wrapping his arms around her waist. "Having witnessed you take down a pack of death eaters, I know you're quite capable...but a part of me wants to care for you. It's just a matter of if you'll let me."

Lily flushed when James placed a kiss on her cheek, then her lips. "I'll take it into consideration."

James chuckled, heading for the door. He called out over his shoulder as he ventured into the snow, "By the way, there's pasta for two waiting for you in the kitchen."

"For two?" Lily called back.

He turned, winking. "I've called in reinforcements to keep you company while I'm out."

"OH MY MERLIN," Alice shrieked, causing Lily to drop her fork mid-bite as the petit blonde flew into the kitchen and wrapped her in a fierce hug. She hadn't even heard her best friend apparate into the house, too distracted by the taste of James' excellent pasta puttanesca.

"Hi!" Lily managed through a mouthful of food, rubbing the back of her distraught friend.

"Are you alright?" Alice grasped Lily's shoulders and held her at arms' length to inspect her. "How do you manage to look so freaking pretty and well put together after a bloody ordeal like that?! Merlin Lily, you…you…"

Alice threw her arms around Lily again, tears pouring down her face. Lily held her tight, feeling a swell of love for her best friend. "There, there, Alice, everything is OK. We're all safe now."

"You could have d-d-died," Alice sniffled in her ear, allowing Lily to pry free. "I can't believe you took off into the battle like it was nothing! Frank had to put a full body-bind curse on me to stop me from chasing after you. Then my brothers had to stop Frank. Everyone was out of their minds with worry."

"I'm so sorry, I didn't mean to worry you and Frank like that. It was a split-second decision," Lily coaxed her friend onto the bar stool beside hers and piled pasta onto her plate. "Here, eat something."

Alice turned her red-rimmed eyes towards her plate and hesitated. "If you tell me you made this I'm going to fall off my chair."

Lily snorted. "James made it for us before he left."

Winding buttery pasta around her fork, Alice took a mouthful and visibly relaxed. "It's really good."

"No denying the man can cook," Lily agreed.

"I hope it didn't freak you out to wake up here," Alice said, staring into her plate of food. "It was bedlam at the cottage—not the right place for you to recover. James was so adamant that you be taken to his place, I just couldn't refuse him."

"I understand," Lily smiled weakly, taking their plates to the sink and using a spell to scrub them clean. "It was kind of him to offer."

On their way to the living room, Alice scooped a bottle of red from James' wine rack along with two bulbous glasses. She threw herself onto the couch, sinking into the pillows. "Hope you don't mind, I need a drink. It's noon, right?"

Lily snorted and cozied up on the couch beside Alice. The window behind them revealed a soft snowfall and a collection of bundled witches and wizards shopping down the lane. "I think I'm a bad influence on you, Prewett. There was a time you couldn't even handle a cup of tea that had been steeped too long."

Alice uncorked the bottle and poured two heaping glasses. Then she used her wand to send a ball of fire shooting into the hearth, setting the fragrant wood ablaze. "I think the past night calls for a drink, don't you?"

"Agreed," Lily said, clinking glasses with her. "How are you holding up?"

"You're the one who was almost burnt to a crisp, I should be asking you that," Alice sighed, propping her socked feet on the coffee table. "Honestly? I'm sleep deprived and emotionally spent. There's been Order members in and out of the cottage since last night, trying to patch up the wounded and move them back home. Thankfully, the last Order member was moved late this morning. As you can imagine, Frank's mother was in her element, barking orders at everyone, even Madam Pomfrey. I give her credit though, she's a natural at healing."

"How are Frank, Gideon and Fabian?"

"All a bit bruised and battered, but back to normal now," she said, taking a sip of her wine. "I was furious when I heard Frank was going to the Ministry today. He should be at home resting, same as you. James' owl was well-timed; when I heard you were awake I came straight here."

"Sounds like an important meeting from what I gathered," Lily chipped in. "Duty calls. But by rights, both James and Sirius should also be on bed rest. Sirius endured the Cruciatus curse for Merlin's sake, and James got scorched same as me. I don't know why I'm the only one under house arrest!"

Rather than laughing, Alice grew grave. "We all thought you were going to die, Lily."

Swallowing, Lily put her wine glass on the coffee table. "I was in and out of consciousness, but I think I remembering seeing Flitwick, Dumbledore and McGonagall."

"It took all three of them to get that cursed thing out of you," Alice shuddered, pulling a blanket around her shoulders. "It was bad…and it didn't look like you were going to make it."

"I'm sorry you went through that. I would have gone ballistic if it were you," Lily said, clasping Alice's hand. "I knew you were with me when I was fighting it. I could hear you, feel you near."

Alice blinked back tears at the memory, taking a big gulp of her wine. "I was hysterical, a total mess…but so was James. I've never seen him like that before."

Unsure of how to react, Lily grabbed for her wine glass again. Alice took her silence as license to continue. "He looked like he was ready to strangle somebody. I think he was as scared as I was…"

"I see…" Lily managed awkwardly.

Alice straightened, narrowing her eyes. Lily knew she was about to get the same interrogation James had gotten from his friends. "His reaction, you leaping into action to save him and Sirius…there's something going on between you two, isn't there?"

Lily iced over. She didn't know what to do—whether she should spill everything to Alice now, or continue to keep everything close to her chest until she felt more certain about how everything was going to play out. She wondered if it would be outright disrespectful to Alice and everyone else to deny that there was something going on between them after everything that had transpired. Their friends weren't idiots, after all.

"Well…" Lily began, clearing her throat. "I'll admit there has been flirtation…and we've grown—er—closer, I suppose, while helping you plan the wedding. You're right that James is quite changed—that he's grown up since our school days and turned into a nice bloke. And I guess I do find him attractive now…"

"And you're fully aware that he is head over heels for you, right?" Alice urged. "That he is quite obviously more in love with you now than he even was when we were at Hogwarts?"

Lily was certain her face had turned a violent shade of scarlet in response to Alice's matter-of-fact tone. Rather than tease her, her best friend almost seemed severe following her admission. "I…no, I don't think—"

"I was telling you that more than asking you," Alice remarked, dumping more wine into her glass. Lily wondered if the alcohol was lending to her rather out-of-character conviction. "It's so transparent to the rest of us, it really can't be escaping you too. James is utterly smitten with you and that's a fact."

Lily frowned. "If you're right—and I'm not admitting that you are, by the way—why is you telling me that sounding so accusatory right now?"

"Sorry," Alice's facial expression relaxed a touch. "You know you're my best friend, but James is one of my closest friends too. Of course you will always come first to me…I just don't want to see him get hurt. I saw the pain he was in at the thought of losing you—experienced it right alongside him."

"What are you saying?" Lily asked, growing quiet.

"Just…know it's real to him, Lily. If it's not real for you too, please don't string him along. It's just going to hurt him more," Alice said, her eyes pleading. "I love you both and I don't want to see either of you hurt. If it's just a mere flirtation for you, I think you've got to stop it."

Lily sighed, resting her head against the couch. "You think I'm bad for him?"

"No," Alice said with sincerity. "On the contrary, he'd be so lucky to have you, and you him. But I don't see you two having just a light, fun affair—I see you sharing a passionate romance that can stand the test of time; one that wouldn't work without a strong commitment. I know James, and he isn't the type of guy that dips his toe into the dating pool and changes his mind from one date to the next. That's Sirius, bless him. I've never seen James with a serious girlfriend since graduation, because he hasn't found anyone he wants to pour his time and energy into. And I think with you, he will be all in—he will dedicate and make plans for the future and make you his world. You need to know that, because if you're not ready for that…I'm asking you to please let him go."

Lily's hand clenched and unclenched at her chest, her heart beating as fast as the flap of a hummingbird's wing. What Alice had said had given her equal parts exhilaration and terror…maybe because she suspected everything her best friend said was exactly right. James was an intense guy beneath it all—someone capable of a depth of strong emotion—and he had indeed made it clear to her that he wanted her—all of her—nearly from the start. More and more, she realized she had come to a crossroads in her life, and that her decision couldn't be put off much longer.

Main Street had grown quiet and still as night descended on Godric's Hollow. Holiday lights cast a soft glow along the thoroughfare, wind causing whispers of snow to drift from dusted rooftops. Exhausted, James travelled past the sleepy shops, only pausing to offer the teenage barista a wave through the café window before arriving at his front door.

Pushing in, James' heart sank: the cottage was doused in darkness, the only sound coming from the ticking grandfather clock at the top of the stair. Crushed, he didn't bother to light his wand, just dropped his bag to the floor and kicked off his damp boots.

He'd genuinely thought he'd come home to find Lily waiting for him. After all they'd been through—the flirtation and friendship, conflict and intimacy, not to mention the horrors and triumphs of the previous night—hope had sparked within him again. She'd risked her life for him, something he couldn't imagine her doing if she didn't love him the way he desperately loved her. And yet—after it all—she wasn't here. She was still running.

Bitter disappointment leaving a bad taste in his mouth, James ran his fingers through his hair and headed towards the kitchen to fill a large mug with whiskey and decide what the hell came next.

He startled when lights burst into existence in the living room as he walked by.

"Surprise," Lily beamed, the redhead nervously wringing her hands as she stood beside an enormous fir tree positioned in the corner of the room. The Christmas tree was ornamented with red, green and gold baubles and trimmed with sparkling tinsel. Multi-coloured flames bobbed among the branches, while christening the top of the tree was a glass star that contained a wispy, dark-blue substance that winked like the night sky.

Speechless, James walked into the room and took in the rest of the décor. Lily had wound garland along the mantle of the fireplace and the edges of the bookcases, festooning it with red bows and pine cones, and candles smelling of fresh peppermint burned on the coffee table. There was even a comical Santa-shaped throw pillow stuffed on one of the armchairs.

"Like it?" Lily prodded, her expression crinkled with uncertain optimism. "I hope I wasn't too presumptuous to—"

She whooped when James closed the distance between them and picked her up off her feet to spin her around. They both laughed gleefully.

"Like it?" James echoed when he finally put her down, his eyes shining. "I can't believe you did all of this for me. I'm in awe of it."

She didn't leave. She didn't run.

"Consider it my way of taking care of you," Lily said, her cheeks turning pink because of the way James was gazing at her—as if she'd just performed some kind of Christmas miracle. "You OK, Potter?"

James chuckled, his voice hoarse as he found it again. "Of course. Give a guy a minute to take it all in, would you?"

"Drink?" Lily disappeared into the kitchen and came back out with two martini glasses filled with a creamy beverage. "I may not know how to cook, but I know how to make a mean cocktail."

James accepted the glass and took a sip. There was no other way to describe it: it tasted like the holidays. "Wow, you're not kidding. I didn't realize I had liqueurs like this in the cellar."

"You don't," Lily moved toward the tree to straighten an ornament. She felt quite satisfied with her handy work, as well as James' reaction to it. "I may have popped out to do some shopping. I didn't conjure that tree from scratch you know."

"I thought you were resting," James chastised, coming up behind her and wrapping his arms around her midsection. He rested his head on her shoulder, admiring how the dancing flames made the decorations shimmer and wink. "I'll let it slide…this time."

A smile crept onto Lily's lips as James began to kiss her neck. She giggled, his unshaven whiskers tickling, happy to drink in his spicy scent and relish in his touch. A Bing Crosby song played on the magical record player in the background.

"Are you hungry? You had a long day. I can…well, probably the best I can do is put some cheese and crackers on a plate for you," Lily mused, James moving his hands over her abdomen.

"I'm famished, but food isn't going to do it for me…" he whispered in her ear, sending excitement skittering up her spine. "Come with me…"

Lily turned, disobediently looking up at him. "I couldn't possibly. A big man like you…what's a feeble little woman like me to do?"

"I'm an idiot, I get it," James relented, though his smirk was devious as he regarded her challenging, hands-on-hips stance. "Time to put the little woman to the test. You're coming with me to the bedroom."

Lily squealed more out of merriment than outrage when James effortless draped her over his shoulders, getting in a few cheeky spanks to her bottom as he carried her up the stairs to the master bedroom, the pair laughing all the way.

Author's Notes

Let the holiday season begin! Thank you to all who patiently waited for this update and reviewed the story in the past. Also a shout-out to all the readers who follow me on my Petal in the Rain Facebook page!

Please continue to read and review. xo