Petal in the Rain

Chapter 38 – Scheming

When walls start to close in
Your heart is frozen over
Just show 'em what you're made of
When sun light is fading
The world will be waiting for you
Just show 'em what you're made of

-Backstreet Boys

Hogsmeade was heavy-eyed that November day. In most crooked shop windows hung "Closed" signs, though the distinct aroma of espresso drifted along High Street on a chilly breeze. Outfitted in a smart dress coat and velvet beret with matching gloves, Lily slipped through the wizarding village toward The Three Broomsticks, knowing she would go unnoticed on a quiet Thursday morning.

As promised, the door to the cozy inn was unlocked, a frizzy-haired Madam Rosmerta wiping glassware with a rag behind her bar. A robust fire roared in the hearth, snapping logs, but there were no patrons occupying the bar stools or tucked into their eggs and toast. It was only seven in the morning.

"Coffee?" Rosmerta said by way of greeting, tapping her wand on a silver pot. The fragrant brew poured into a China cup. "How do you take it?"

"A spot of cream, please," Lily quirked a sympathetic smile; the barkeep was struggling to hide her irritation at being summoned to open early. The cup and saucer floated into Lily's awaiting hands. "I really appreciate this. Privacy is hard to come by in the castle."

"That little house-elf of yours is very persistent," Rosmerta tutted as she busied herself with stacking plates and wrapping flatware in paper napkins. "I've set up the backroom for you, my lady."

"It's Aurora—just Aurora," Lily felt a stab of guilt at the easy persuasion she now wielded: the privilege of the aristocracy. "Thank you. He should be here any moment. Please show him in when he arrives."

Rosmerta nodded and waved her into a secluded area with its own fireplace, two wing-backed chairs and a small table for private diners. Lily dropped into one of the leather chairs, propping up her boots near the shimmering coals to warm her toes. As she took a long drink of coffee, she resolved to settle her nerves. Her carefully curated persona was essential, as was her concentration on the task ahead.

The past week had been utter madness. Since the announcement of the Defense Games, Lily had barely found a waking moment to think—largely due to her fanatical friend, Nymphadora, who had transformed into a drill sergeant. The metamorphagus had increased the frequency of the girls' workouts in addition to tightly controlling everything they put into their mouths. Lily was so fed up with a week of boiled chicken she could scream.

Interestingly, their physical preparation had inspired the rest of their Defense class. Rudolf had willingly joined their runs—even opting into Nymphadora's rigorous food plan—and the other boys from Gryffindor and Hufflepuff had been spotted exercising on the grounds too. Regulus and his Slytherin cronies were conspicuously missing, however; rumour had it they'd taken the week to train on the Black Estate, empowering them to practice unsavoury spell work without consequence of expulsion.

Mealtimes and occasions between classes were also devoted to strategies and spells. Along with Rudolf, the girls talked through every scenario they might face in the Games. Though the arena on the Quidditch Pitch was now fully constructed, from the outside there was still no indication what they were up against. Rudolf, Nymphadora and Amelia had reminisced about what obstacles they'd seen or heard of in previous Games, hoping elements might be repeated—yet it did nothing to reassure Lily, who considered it yet another disadvantage specific to her circumstances.

Then there was Snape. Her Potions professor had redoubled her practice sessions leading up to the big day. Following her evening runs, Lily went into each of his lessons exhausted and desperate for carbs, but it did nothing to dissuade Snape from running her into the ground. She was sure their practice area in the Forbidden Forest was permanently imprinted from her backside hitting the ground repeatedly—the product of his wicked knock-back jinx.

If it weren't for Nymphadora's physical preparation and Snape's demanding teachings on defensive and offensive spells, footwork, agility and—most important—assessing an opponent's weakness, she well knew she wouldn't have a chance of making it in the Games. Her eidetic memory would only take her so far this time. Yet, the Games themselves weren't her greatest obstacle: it was convincing her stubborn Defense Against the Dark Arts professor she was worthy of competing in the first place.

The door to the back room creaked open, admitting a wolfish, medium-built man wearing a tattered overcoat and mud-splattered boots. His angular face slackened as his crystalline eyes found her seated by the fire. Though twice her age, she saw his flicker of recognition and reticence—the result of being in the presence of someone he believed to be superior to himself. She felt a shiver of discomfort at the realization.

"Mr. Grimsby, please do come in," Lily said, keeping her manner formal, yet cordial. "May I offer you something to drink?"

Doing as he was bid, the wizard shuffled into the chair across from Lily, his gaze falling to the shiny buttons on her dress coat. "It's Griffin, miss…I mean, pardon, Lady Rockford…thank you, I'm fine," he said, looping a thumb through a hole in the cuff of his overcoat as he searched the room. "I…well…I was surprised by your owl asking to meet here, if you don't mind me saying."

Lily's smile was genteel and reassuring. "I can imagine. Thank you for agreeing to meet with me. I know it was late notice. I was eager to speak with you in advance of tomorrow."

Griffin joggled in his seat; she could already detect the cogs in his mind whirling. "That too surprises me, my lady. I'm shocked you even know who I am."

"Griffin Grimsby, beat reporter for The Daily Prophet specializing in domestic politics and Ministry affairs. I do read, Mr. Grimsby," Lily smirked.

He flushed. "I didn't mean—"

"I'm teasing you," Lily took a sip of her coffee, falling into step with her disguise—who she really was, mixed with a dash of confident, curt socialite. "I admire your reporting, which is why I wanted to give you a story—an exclusive, if you like."

The reporter's face crumpled, though a glimpse of his humour surfaced: "If you're a secret Ministry insider, my lady, I'm all ears."

"Not quite," she winked. "Should you agree to my terms, it's a story about me."

"You?" Griffin blinked, taken aback. "But…you…I don't know anything about society, Lady Rockford. In fact, I couldn't tell you the right fork or spoon to use for supper if my life depended on it. That's the domain of colleagues like—"

"Please do not evoke the name of that wretched Skeeter woman, Mr. Grimsby," Lily held up a hand, pursing her lips. "I have something I need in tomorrow's papers and the last person I'd entrust this story to is a society-hungry harpy like her. Excuse my language."

Griffin snorted, agreeing with her assessment of his associate. "I still don't see why you'd pick a chap like me."

"You're a good reporter, Mr. Grimsby. I believe if I give you an exclusive, it'll not only serve what I need, but help to elevate your name recognition and career," Lily coaxed, a twinkle in her eye. "I'd like to do that for someone who deserves it…and I'm tired of having my story controlled by the ill-informed gossip of others. Do this for me, promise to portray me honestly, and you'll be the first I turn for any future interviews or photo ops. Do we have a bargain?"

Still bemused, the reporter pulled a small notepad and quill from his coat pocket, flipping it open to a blank page. "Lady Rockford, you've got my attention—and my discretion. I'll be needing that coffee after all."

An hour later, Lily relaxed in the main lounge of The Three Broomsticks, nose-deep in one of her Defense texts with a fresh cup of coffee swirling tendrils of steam. Though she was skimming a paragraph about manticores, she kept returning to the sound bites she'd given during her interview, obsessing about whether they would incite the intended reactions. She'd gambled with Griffin Grimsby—who had embraced her tale and, to his credit, asked some excellent questions—and she would soon learn if the risk would reap the reward.

While the village started to come alive with shoppers, it still made her jolt when the little bell above the inn's door jingled, admitting a third of her Defense class.

"Well, well, well, if it isn't our sleepy-head delinquent," Nymphadora mused, bundled in a thick wool cloak with Rudolf and Amelia flanking her. "Skipping our morning run the day before the Games for a java craving? You disappoint me."

"Hello darling," Rudolf breezed past her, kissing Lily on the cheek before unravelling his scarf and taking a seat at the table. Rosmerta sauntered over to offer the table tea or coffee before disappearing behind the bar. "Isn't this exciting, an invite to Hogsmeade for a secret rendezvous?"

Lily chuckled at the caramel-skinned boy. "We deserve a morning to ourselves after all our preparations, don't you think? Coffee is the corrector of all things, including my aching back and frequent bouts of anxiety."

"You make a terrible Englishwoman," Rudolf teased, stirred a sugar cube into the steaming contents of his teacup.

Though Lily had serious misgivings about Professor Merrythought, she was relieved the severe witch had disbanded Defense classes for the week, giving them time to study and prime themselves for the task ahead. She'd even allowed them temporary use of the Defense classroom to practice their spell work. With the Games taking place tomorrow, the rest of their professors had blessedly followed suit.

"Now is hardly the time to relax," Nymphadora cut in, fervor turning her corn-yellow hair into a deep pumpkin. "It's make or break time—we need to use every moment to get ready—physically and mentally—before tomorrow. In fact, we'll do an extra-long run tonight to make up for this little summit."

"Shouldn't we use tonight to rest?" Amelia rose a brow at the intensity of her best mate. "We'll need a good night's sleep to save our energy."

"Exercise helps you sleep better," Nymphadora maintained. She narrowed her hawkish eyes as Rosmerta came over with a tray laden with sticky buns. "And no carbs. We need protein—it stimulates muscle repair."

Lily groaned. "No more chicken…you're going to make me sick. Coffee is all I can stomach today."

"Feeling nervous?" Rudolf's face softened. "Have you made your final decision about tomorrow yet?"

While Lily had trained and prepared alongside her friends, she'd also had to groom them for the possibility she wouldn't be participating in the Games. She'd been tight-lipped about her reasoning, unwilling to divulge that not only was Merrythought against her, but that both James and Frank had strongly advised her to opt for caution over glory. Even after all the work she'd put in, she wasn't sure it was worth it—especially as her plan to convince Merrythought to allow her to join was shaky at best. It was likelier she'd humiliate herself before her peers and spectators…

"I change my mind from hour to hour," Lily eddied the contents of her cup, forgetting decorum as she supported her chin under her hand in a pout. "I'm reminded over and over that I don't have the practical experience everyone else does, as well as the fact that it'll cause a society stir if I participate…and I'm sick of being featured in that trashy gossip magazine."

The latest headline of Witch Weekly had been one of the most horrific—Is Lady Rockford Pitting the Black Brothers Against One Another For Her Affection?—following news she'd accompanied Regulus to the Halloween Ball, yet left it with Sirius.

"Fuck being a lady," Nymphadora replied, making Rudolf nearly spit out his tea. "You're going to turn up a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity because of what people will think of you? I never took you for a coward."

"Dora," Amelia warned, trying to reign in her friend's directness.

The door to the inn jingled again. Looking up, Rudolf remarked, "Is that Sirius?"

The table occupants turned their attention to the casually attired, yet always dapper figures of lords Sirius Black and Remus Lupin, who strode into The Three Broomsticks towards them. When Amelia shot her a curious look, Lily answered her wordless question, "I asked Sirius and Remus to give us a pep talk for tomorrow."

As the handsome wizards approached, Nymphadora's ears went beet red, while Rudolf's eyes sparkled with delight.

"I must say, the four of you look much calmer than I suspected you'd be," Sirius mocked by way of greeting, sidling up to Lily by sitting atop the table. His biceps bulged as he crossed his arms, grinning. "Ready to get your arses kicked tomorrow?"

"This isn't sounding very inspirational so far," Amelia mumbled.

"Sirius is just being his charming self as usual," Lily glared up at him, making his grin widen. As Sirius thieved one of the sticky buns, Lily turned to his counterpart instead. "Thanks so much for coming, Remus. We could use your wisdom right about now."

"It's my pleasure, Aurora," the ashy blonde smiled, falling into easy step with her disguise. "I remember how it feels to be on the eve of the Games…it's equal parts nerve-wracking and invigorating. How is everyone feeling?"

As Remus began chatting with the group, capturing their attention, Sirius leaned into Lily's ear. "He wishes he could be here, but teachers can't be seen as helping students. It would appear biased."

"I know," Lily's stomach knotted.

James had been in close contact with her all week. Many a night were spent conversing beneath the covers of her four-poster bed until the small hours of the morning, weighing the pros and cons of joining the Games. Lily knew exactly how James felt about her desire to join—positively terrified—yet he hadn't outright forbidden her participation. She couldn't express how much it meant that he let the choice rest with her.

Ever since the night she'd asked him to teach her the Patronus Charm, Lily had felt closer to James than ever before—which in turn made her deception with Snape even harder to bear…

"Let's start by discussing some key points to keep in mind when you're in the arena," Remus transitioned into formalities, sinking onto a chair beside Nymphadora. For once, she was completely silent, engrossed in the presence of the Marauder. "The most important thing to remember is to always be on alert. Never let your guard down. Though things in the Games progress quickly, do not feel you need to speed through the course, as you need time to process and assess. Charging in full force may blind you to ways to get around an obstacle and rob you of the imagination needed to subdue your opponents."

As Remus continued, Lily noticed two Gryffindor scholarship students, Broderick Bode and Quentin Trimble, enter the Three Broomsticks with Lord Basil Horton of Hufflepuff close on their tail. They looked out of place, having been mysteriously invited to the inn via owl. When they spotted her, Lily beckoned them over, indicating her desire for them to join the group.

She wasn't sure what had inspired her to invite the three other Defense students to learn from Sirius and Remus too. Was it a sense of amity? Fairness? Or worry that Regulus and his three Slytherin brethren—Rowle, Rosier and Dillonsby—might be approaching the Games as a unit. If they were, she'd endeavor to build a bigger army…

"What other advice do you have for getting to the end?" Amelia asked when Remus paused to greet the new members of the group.

"Here's an easy one: everyone seated here can promise not to hex the other," Sirius cut in, a smirk playing on his lips. "The more you can reduce your distractions—and the obstacles you face—the better. You lot should make a pact to protect one another, and when faced with an insurmountable obstacle, choose to work together."

"Is even that allowed?" Nymphadora challenged, finding her voice again.

"Merrythought said there were no rules…that we could duel one another," Quentin Trimble said, eyeing the group hopefully as he settled in with a cup of tea and bun.

"Exactly, and she didn't say you couldn't work as a team," Sirius continued. "When you're told you can duel, it conditions you to think that you have to watch your back, that you're only out for yourself—but in an arena like this, the more help you can get, the better."

"And that's exactly how Sirius, James and I got through it," Remus harmonized, making Lily's heart flutter. "We managed to find one another in the Games, and when we did, we stuck together."

"That didn't diminish your glory when you finished?" Rudolf wiggled his eyebrows, voicing the question no one had the guts to ask.

"The glory is in finishing, Brand, and your likelihood of that is exponentially increased if you aren't going it alone," Sirius winked.

"Do we all make an agreement then?" Amelia was the first to whisper, capturing the attention of the students gathered. Everyone leaned in, searching faces. "Do we help out one another if the opportunity arises, or at the very least abstain from sabotaging each other?"

Rudolf was the first to nod. "Something tells me the Slytherins will stick together and aren't above preventing any of us from reaching the finish line. In fact, I think they'd enjoy that."

"Trust me, this will be one of the hardest things you'll ever do," Remus' eyes momentarily flitted to Lily, trying to communicate the gravity of the task ahead. "You'll need the help of friends to make it through in one piece."

As the group finished the dregs of their beverages and headed toward the outskirts of the village to catch a carriage back to the castle, Lily hung back to pay the tab. She made sure to leave a few extra galleons as thanks for Madam Rosmerta's secret morning arrangements.

When she headed into the fresh air, she found Sirius waiting for her: "That was witty, welcoming the other boys into the fold. There's strength in numbers."

"I'm not sure if that decision was purely strategic or not," Lily admitted, taking Sirius' proffered arm as they headed down High Street. Their breath clung in the air around them. "How is he?"

"You see him every night, don't you?" Sirius wiggled his eyebrows, chuckling at her warning glare. "He's concerned and impatient and uneasy—what you'd expect."

Lily exhaled, tightening her grip on his arm. "Tell me honestly…how selfish am I, putting James through the worry of this?"

"It may be selfish…but you'll find much of your life now will be in service of things you have little control over. When you get a chance to do something for yourself and you want it badly enough, you do it," Sirius guided Lily away from the awaiting carriages toward the winding road along the forest's edge. "Come, let's walk instead."

Glad of the opportunity to clear her head, or at the very least get it straight, she relented. "Is that why James isn't preventing me from participating? Because he thinks so much of my life is already controlled?"

"It's the burden of the aristocracy. Our membership in such an exclusive club shackles us in many ways, and he knows that," Sirius lamented, his eyes dimming. "Plus, you're female and hunted by a dark wizard. Rubbish luck if you ask me."

Lily gave him a shove, making Sirius grin. "And what do you think? About me entering?"

"You've got talent, Lily, that's plain to see. Probably more than is good for you, though it's certainly helping to cement your Dumbledore pedigree," he guffawed. "If you accept this will be dangerous and difficult, who am I to tell you what to do?"

"James is most worried about bodily harm…but Frank thinks the damage to my reputation will be the true calamity," Lily frowned, kicking a pebble down the dirt road. Dead leaves swirled around them. "I keep telling them it's not the first time a female student has competed."

"Ah, but it's the first time a society lady has competed," Sirius smirked. "Don't pretend you don't understand the difference. Frank is worried you're breaking the mold too much this time—that it's too far a departure from societal norms and will mark you as fundamentally different from the rest of them."

"Haven't I done that already?" Lily complained, clutching at her arms for heat. "I'm a Defense and Charms major; people don't see me prancing around the castle in a ballet frock like the Dance students, do they? They know I'm different."

"And why do they accept it?"

Lily paused, the question catching her off balance: "Because…because they think I'm a Dumbledore."

"It's more than that," Sirius stopped in the middle of the road to face her. He flicked the end of her nose, making her swat at him in irritation. "Think harder, muggle-bumpkin. What do people envy about the aristocracy?"

Lily screwed up her face, trying to decipher where Sirius was trying to lead her. "Money…connections…power."

"Now think of it like this: what do male aristocrats covet in a female?"

"Big breasts, tiny brains, and docile temperaments?" she snorted.

"How very pessimistic of you…although perhaps not totally off the mark," Sirius grinned like a cat. "Noble-blooded men want what all men want—a beautiful woman. But what makes them different is they also want an accomplished woman admired by her peers and coveted by other men—it makes her more attractive, and thus a prize worth winning. A challenge."

"And?" Lily scowled, uninterested in dissecting the chauvinist mentality.

"And Lady Aurora Rockford is exactly that and more—beautiful, accomplished, well-bred, popular, and most of all, desired—but with an unlikely fondness for breaking the rules," Sirius explained, his mouth narrowing into a slick smile. Lily knew he was speaking about her invented persona, so she didn't feel too embarrassed by his admission. "You're only able to get away with it because of the factors I've just mentioned. Which is why you would do well to enhance and display those aspects of yourself tomorrow if you hope to convince people to admire your twist on society darling."

Her surprise at Sirius' sage advice must have shown on her face because this time he gave her a little shove. While her covert efforts this morning were devised to help her gain female support—a certain older female in particular—Sirius had provided her with a missing piece of the puzzle she hadn't realized she needed.

"I can't wait to inform James that there's more than just empty space between your ears," Lily teased, yelping as she avoided a smack to the bottom from the scoffing lord. "Really though…thank you for being such a good friend to me. Even when you know your best mate would prefer to lock me in my room to keep me safe."

"What can I say, I have a soft spot for rulebreakers," Sirius wrapped a brotherly arm around Lily's shoulder as they walked the rest of the way to the castle. "You've grown on me too, muggle-bumpkin, so be safe tomorrow. Success isn't worth getting that pretty head of yours blown off, or losing a leg, or an arm, or all five fingers…"

"Trust you to ruin a nice moment," Lily rolled her eyes, though the butterflies in her stomach roared at the thought. "And don't fret—Merrythought likely won't allow me to cross the starting line anyway."

"I take it you have a plan for that?" he asked as they stopped at the bottom of the stairs leading up to the castle.

"A plan A…a plan B…and a wobbly plan C," she answered, the picture of innocence as she offered him a docile smile. "And thank you in advance for your forgiveness."

"Forgiveness for what?" Sirius raised a brow.

Lily ran up the steps, turning on her heel before she disappeared through the gigantic double doors. Sirius' eyes narrowed. "You'll have to wait and find out, won't you?"

Sirius' wisdom, Remus' strategic intelligence, Snape's teachings, Nymphadora's rules and instructions…all of it knocked around inside of Lily's head, leaving her feeling husked out.

Despite Nymphadora's objections, Lily excused herself from another tasteless lunch with her friends and headed for her suite, desperate to shed her photo-ready attire for something loose and comfortable. An evening run and lesson with Snape were imminent, but what she really needed was to put it all aside and think. Not about the Games themselves, but the prudence of her choice.


Her heart leapt when she found James waiting in her room. The wizard was dressed in his crisp professorial robes, but his hair was mushed from fussing with it—his tell for when he was feeling anxious.

In the space of a moment, Lily was tightly encircled in his arms, her face buried against his shoulder. He smelled of musk and cedarwood. "I missed you."

His lips curved in a grin against her hair. "We've only been apart a few hours, love."

"Does it matter?" Lily looked up into his eyes—bright, but weary. "Are you alright?"

"I'm supposed to be asking you that," he pointed out, a curl of black hair falling across his forehead. "Have you made your decision?"

"Not yet," she sighed, shifting out of his arms. Anticipating her needs, James pulled off her hat and gloves and unbuttoned her dress coat. A smile twitched as he guided her to sit on the bed, where he bent at the knee to peel the riding boots off her feet. "Do I dare ask what the next article of clothing will be?"

There it was—the sexy smile he couldn't suppress when she surprised him with a teasing remark. "Don't tempt me, Lils…I only have a half hour until I'm back in class."

"And?" she provoked, playful.

"And you are like a fine wine—meant to be savoured, not gulped."

"Is that so?" Lily feigned disappointment, moving across the room to pull a pair of cashmere pajamas out of her wardrobe. James' gaze followed. "I suppose you're have to settle for a spectator event, then."

James sat on her bed, initially amused by her flirting, though he sobered quickly as Lily peeled her dress over her head, dropping it on the floor, and leaned over to painstakingly roll down her nylons. Left in only her lacy undergarments, she used her wand to sweep her hair into a loosely curled ponytail, then looked over her shoulder, "See something you like, professor?"

The trap had been sprung; James pounced, making Lily squeal as he threw her over his shoulder and dumped her back on the bed. He gracefully maneuvered on top of her, a predator eyeing his pretty, willing prey.

"You're going to get me fired," he growled in her ear as he pressed kisses down her neck, one hand exploring the planes of her stomach.

Pleasure skittered down her spine, wiping her mind blank, as she tangled her hands in his hair. She could feel him harden against her, a response that had once made her nervous, but now made her yearn for more. "I like that idea…then you never have to leave my bed."

"My lady…I'd gladly accept you as my jailor if it meant I got to worship you every day," James purred, snapping the back of her bra and tossing the garment aside. Groaning at the sight of her breasts, he traced his tongue around the swell of them, nipping gently.

Lily gasped, completely overcome by him. She didn't know what had made her so brazen in seducing him. Though they'd become better and better acquainted with one another's bodies, especially in the week following their Patronus lesson, their explorations had always been under the cover of nightfall. There was something different—more exciting—about touching one another with sunlight and student laughter filtering in through the open window.

"James," Lily cried out, and he answered by crushed his lips against hers, their desperation for one another merging.

"Merlin damn me, I want you," James broke their kiss, his voice hoarse as he moved back to her neck, nibbling her ear. "Can I touch you, Lily?"

Lily whimpered, words failing her as he continued to caress her. The timbre of his voice, begging to touch her, overrode all judgement. "James…"

It was a bidding to do as he wished. As he tugged her underwear toward her ankles, making her feel more exposed than she'd ever been before, James gently guided her legs apart. He stroked a finger down her centre and along her most sensitive parts, resting on the bundle of nerves that made her back arch from the intensity. She gasped, feeling part euphoric, part impish, and altogether too greedy, wanting more from him.

At James' mercy, naked beneath him, Lily's whole body was beholden to his focused touch. He had her mewling like a kitten, his skillful fingers building momentum between her legs with slow circles.

"I told myself I wouldn't corrupt your virtue like this until you were 18 or had a ring on your finger," James whispered, his tone aggrieved as he drank in her expressions of pleasure; the way she felt and relinquished to him. "You don't know how I've fantasized about this…about you. I have no willpower left…I'll give you whatever you want, Lily…whenever you'll have me."

Physical ecstasy suddenly overcame Lily's body like a dam bursting. She gasped James' name, over and over, closing her eyes as she rode waves of decadence. Her back straightened as it began to subside, making her relax back into the bed. When she opened her eyes again, James was watching her with carnal delight.

Her first words did nothing to diminish his ego. "That was…wow."

"For me too," James' sensual eyes feasted on her beautiful body. "I'm one lucky man."

He maneuvered beside her on the bed, collecting her into his arms and draping his professorial robe around her to make her feel at ease. How he managed to still have every piece of clothing on—including his shoes—was a mystery.

Lily rested her head in the crook of James' shoulder, trying to regulate her breathing. Happiness flooded through her as she tried to register what had just occurred. "What did you mean by…I'll give you whatever you want, whenever you'll have me…"

She watched his throat bob—why was he hesitating to answer? "I…there's no pressure, but…I think you know what I meant."

Her blush deepened. "You were thinking right now?"

"No!" he blurted, straightening; her face fell, mortification setting in. James corrected himself: "I don't mean I don't want to—Merlin, you have no idea how badly I need a cold shower right now—but I want more time…especially for our first time."

Relieved, Lily stroked a hand along his stubbled jaw. "Have you…before?"

James took her hand and placed a kiss to her palm. "Yes…but not with someone I loved…not with someone like you. You haven't…?"

"Not many opportunities in an all-girls school, Potter," Lily smirked, making him chuckle.

"Perhaps you were frequenting many lords' gardens before you found mine?"

Lily swatted at him, making them both snigger. "You're such a prat."

"In all seriousness, I'd like to make it special for you. If I had any self-control, I'd have safeguarded your virtue better…" James slipped a hand beneath the cloak covering Lily, cupping one of her soft breasts again. He swallowed hard, "But since you now know me for the scoundrel I am…"

They resumed kissing, passion rising again. "At least you don't have to feel guilty about one thing…I'm 18 already," she breathed.

James pulled back from her: "What? Since when?"

"My birthday was in September," Lily dismissed, eager to get his lips on hers again—he withheld, a frown creasing his brow. "I was counting down the days when I was at St. Madeline's: when I would be allowed to walk out the front door, a free woman. What's wrong?"

"Why didn't you tell me sooner?" James sat up, dismayed. "We would have celebrated…I would have lavished you with gifts, maybe tried to sneak you on a luxury holiday…dinner at the very least!"

"I don't need any of those things, James," Lily soothed, sitting up in bed beside him. "It's not important. I've never celebrated a birthday before to even miss it."

"Well now that's really upset me," he vexed, pinning Lily beneath him again so he could stare into her eyes and assess her reaction. He settled on kissing her cheek tenderly. "I'll make it up to you, I promise."

"You can make it up to me right now…" Lily attempted, earning a groan from James.

"I wish I could. This is why you aren't allowed to seduce me before I teach. My head is scrambled," James complained, though a grin appeared. "Saucy minx…"

"You make it too easy," Lily teased. "I suppose you'll be needing your robes back?"

"Don't," James pleaded, climbing off her and jumping to his feet like he'd been scalded. He turned his back, gaze averted. "I can't survive seeing you naked again…please just hand it to me."

Lily giggled and disrobed, placing it in James' outstretched hand. She tucked herself under her bedsheets, wrapping them firmly across her chest. "All clear."

James turned slowly, then flashed her his irresistible smile. "I love you, you know."

"I know," Lily smirked.

"Cruel girl," James grinned, leaning over to peck her on the lips one more time before straightening his robes, combing a hand through his hair, and disappearing through the doorway.

Lily spent the next hour trying to cast away daydreams of James Potter and replace them with a sense of purpose and determination. She showered, changed into her comfortable clothing, and ate a light meal of fruit and cheese as she poured over pages of Godelot's Magick Moste Evile.

It was ridiculous to think anything in the tome would help her in the Games—the dark magic was so horrific it wouldn't ever be permitted in a school setting. In fact, she'd curl the toes of some of the worst types of wizards if she attempted any of the sickening spell work found sufficiently disappeared—as well as any lingering arousal—she stashed it back under her bed.

Just then, Mimi apparated into her suite, ruffling the temperament of her pet owl: "Mistress Aurora, Mimi fetched your friend!"

"Please show her in," Lily enthused, climbing to her feet.

When Alice walked in, dressed in her dance uniform from classes earlier in the day, her hair piled up in a stylish chignon, Lily could tell something was wrong. She flashed her characteristic sweet smile, but it didn't reach her baby-blue eyes.

"Hi Alice!" Lily greeted, infusing more eagerness than usual. "Thanks so much for coming up—did you just finish dinner?"

"Hello Aurora," Alice looked around the bedroom, eyes fixing on the mountain of books littered on the woven carpet before the hearth. "Yes. Did you miss dinner to study?"

"Doing some cramming before tomorrow—or maybe trying to distract myself," Lily replied, sheepish. "Can Mimi grab you a cup of tea?"

"That would be nice," the blonde nodded, sinking into one of armchairs. While she waited for her tea, Alice fidgeted with her dress, smoothing it over her knees, preferring to keep her gaze in her lap. It wasn't like the normally cheerful, chatty socialite.

"Is everything alright, Alice?" Lily's face was etched with uncertainty. It wasn't at all how she envisioned the conversation going.

Alice bit her bottom lip before meeting her stare. "I suppose…I suppose you've heard and you're wondering why I didn't ask your permission first?"

Lily blinked, mystified. "Permission for…?"

"I may have gotten caught up in the moment…I never told you this because I didn't think it was proper at the time, but I've had feelings for him for years, so when he asked me…"

"Who asked you what?" Lily pushed, without the faintest idea what Alice was going on about.

Alice frowned: "Oh…I thought Frank might have told you out of courtesy because of your history…he's…well, he's asked me on a date of sorts—dinner first, then to accompany him to a society function…"

"Finally!" Lily cried, catching Alice off guard as she sprang from her chair and enveloped her in a hug. "I'm so pleased—I see how he looks at you, Alice, it's plain as day Frank is smitten with you!"

"Really?" Alice brightened, relief washing away the tension marring her dainty features. "Oh Aurora, I thought you were upset with me! I've barely seen you all week, and I'd imagined Frank told you and you thought I'd betrayed our friendship…"

"He and I were always just friends, Alice, you know that!" Lily chided, genuinely pleased with the news that Frank had embraced his feelings for Alice. It was like everything was clicking into place. "And I'm sorry, I didn't mean to neglect you; I've been so focused on the Games. Of course, I want to hear all about it."

"The rumours are true?" Alice accepted her hot tea from Mimi, turning back to Aurora with a distressed look. "You're really going to enter? Aren't you afraid?"

Lily leaned back in her chair, sighing. "The snares and creatures in those Games are the least of my concerns right now. I'm more nervous about people's reactions to my participation. In fact, Frank has repeatedly warned me of the repercussions."

Alice shook her head. "I shouldn't be surprised anymore, Aurora. You might be the bravest person I've ever met. You run headlong into danger with barely a second thought."

"It makes me foolish, doesn't it?"

"Just a lot more confident than most people," Alice countered, quirking a grin.

"My self-assurance begins to fail me when it comes to society," Lily frowned, folding her arms. "I might be pushing the boundaries too far this time…and that's where I desperately need your help."

Perking up, Alice set aside her tea. "Me? What do you think I can help with?"

Lily's frown was comical. "Can we start with that over there?"

They turned: hanging on the inner door of Lily's wardrobe was an army-green jumpsuit with baggy arms and legs and a zipper that spanned from the bellybutton to the collared neck. The apparel was like the uniform the Royal Air Force wore—utilitarian in function, meant to be worn by parachuters who jumped from planes, but without the military patches. The unsightly garb was paired with no-frills combat boots and a belt to cinch the waist.

"My word…" Alice murmured, getting up so she could finger the thick, fire-retardant fabric. "This is what you're meant to wear? I suppose the good news is you won't have to try to preserve your modesty in a skirt…"

"And the bad?" Lily winced.

"You'll look like a bag of potatoes," Alice giggled, flashing her a conspiratorial grin. "Come on, let's get to work."

Severus Snape was nervous—actually nervous. It was a feeling so foreign to him, he had trouble pinpointing what it was at first, wondering if he'd eaten something sour at dinner. But it was unmistakable, stomach-churning nerves.

He paced the practice arena in the Forbidden Forest, the bright silver of the crescent moon filtering through the leaves, just barely illuminating his black-cloaked figure. He put his stanchly logical mind to the task of self-reflection: what was causing this absurd reaction in him?

He was determined that it couldn't be seeing Aurora, especially as he'd seen her every night this week. Was it because the Games were tomorrow, and a part of him worried for her? Perhaps as he was her primary tutor, he felt responsible for her performance…or his ego would be bruised if she didn't do well, somehow reflecting his teaching. Afterall, he had invested precious time in the girl these past months and was eager to see his education in action. As it seemed the most plausible explanation, he undertook to relax and instead set his mind to the task ahead.

When Aurora broke through the clearing, wild tresses cascading around her shoulders, Snape knew his assessment was dead wrong. He felt a surge of agitation when her beautiful eyes locked with his own, dancing with warmth and amusement. She was the only person who looked at him like that…without the fear, loathing, and disrespect he'd become so accustomed too. Even his colleagues regarded him with professional apathy. Not the genuine amity Aurora Rockford radiated.

As she strolled toward him, he thought his heart might've cracked. That dead, cold thing in his chest was racing…for her. And it wasn't just carnal desire…it ached in a way he couldn't describe, had never felt before.

"Just once, I want to find you dressed in lemon yellow or bright cerise," Aurora teased, coming to stand before him. Despite the trepidation he knew she harboured for the next day's events, he detected she was somehow buoyed from it. What had changed? "All that black and you're part shadow."

"Makes it easier to sneak up on my enemies," Snape remarked, trying to swallow down his galloping heart. He struggled for his usual composure, praying nothing on his face gave him away. The timing of his earth-shattering realization was inconvenient, to put it mildly.

"Oh dear…I hope you don't have too many," Aurora lilted, though a challenge laced her tone.

"It's certainly a longer list than my friends," he hedged, feeling off balance. He needed to regain control before he said something he'd regret. "You're late."

"You say that every time," she waved him off, rolling her shoulders and neck to ease throbbing muscles. Snape was attuned to Aurora now—both from their lessons and frequent observation from afar—and it didn't escape him how her body had gradually transitioned from lithe to toned. "Nymphadora scheduled an extra-long run tonight. I think she's trying to kill us before the Games can."

"I must admit, Miss Tonks' determination makes me despise her just a bit less," Snape said silkily; Aurora's answering grin gave him a small thrill.

"How you flatter her," she chuckled, pulling her wand from the DADA practice uniform she wore. "Well, what hexes have you saved up for me tonight? Surely, you've held onto your worst?"

"Now you flatter me," Snape quirked a reluctant smirk. "You've revealed yourself to be a bit of a masochist, coming here every night to meet the end of my wand."

"No pain, no gain…or so I've heard," Aurora mocked, grazing delicate fingers along her wand. "Perhaps my determination will make you despise me a bit less, too?"

I could never despise you…

"We'll see," he evaded, though a tinge of affection broke through. "But you'll be disappointed to hear that we won't be dueling tonight. Now that your friend has run out the last of your reserves, you'll need the rest of the night to recoup your energy for tomorrow."

Aurora's brows rose in surprise. "You think I'm ready?"

"As ready as you can be. You need a hot bath and a good night's sleep for a clear mind tomorrow," he maintained.

"Do I really smell that bad that you'd cancel a lesson?" Aurora chuckled, and for some reason the thought of her scent made him flush. "I'm grateful for all your preparations with me this week. I hope I prove worth the effort."

Snape swallowed, not daring to answer that question truthfully. He pivoted, "Do I dare ask how you plan to circumvent Merrythought? The Games were discussed in a faculty meeting today and your name did not come up on the list of participants."

Aurora huffed, eyes alighting with ire. "I shouldn't be surprised. That ruddy woman is more stubborn than you are."

"And what are you going to do about it?"

"I have a few tricks up my sleeve," she promised, mischief sparking. "If they work, even a cunning Slytherin like yourself will be impressed."

"I'm counting on it, Aurora," Snape said, devoid of any of his usual irritability. The words bubbled up before he could stop them. "Don't hold anything back tomorrow—show them—show her—exactly what you're capable of. You've more talent than most of the society toe rags in this school, and I want to see you pummel them into the ground…understood? Unleash yourself."

Aurora blinked, taken aback by his unusual surge of fervour. Heat began to rise around his collar…but it was unwarranted, as even in the darkness, her answering smile irradiated her delight.

"I'll make you proud, Severus…I promise."

There was no denying it now: Severus Snape was irrevocably in love with Lady Aurora Rockford. What he couldn't know was his love for her would be both his making, and his undoing.

Author's Notes

I hope you enjoyed the buildup in this chapter…the epic-ness of the Games is coming up next! Please leave a review if you're enjoying the story – or just to say hello! Miss you all.