And we return to her with thirsty eyes,
With history burning between our thighs,
With naked longing trembling behind our smiles…
—"There's Not A Step We Can Take That Does Not Bring Us Closer," Jason Webley
For the first week after the ritual, Snape barely looked at her—avoided her study, refused to eat dinner with her, would even stand to leave when she entered a room. She began to believe that everything she had supposed, everything she had hoped but not dared to think had been a figment of her imagination, and that there was nothing to do but stand back and let him live his life as he would.
The position of Department Head in Mysteries was made vacant in the space of a day—rumours wound their way through the cracks of the Ministry's walls that Kingsley Shacklebolt had struck a deal with Henry Popplington to take an early retirement for various ridiculous sums of Galleons—and Hermione accepted her promotion after several tearful protests from Theo without feeling much of anything at all.
Some of the ache eased from her chest during the second week, and by the third week she could talk to Snape civilly and not fling herself onto her bed with dramatic sobs immediately afterwards. Nevertheless, she was relieved to find that work mostly remained firmly in the category of inevitable paperwork that had to be completed by the newly promoted head of the department.
"You'd hate it," she shouted to Theo over the sound of open mic night at their usual pub. "Lots of reading, and the occasional signature."
"You ought to get one of those stamps with your signature on it," he replied. "I hear the Muggle Prime Minister has one—and you're practically as important as him now."
"Please never equate me with Tony Blair again. I like to think I'm better than that."
When they found themselves in the exact same place the next night, he leaned over and said, "So I suppose the fact that you've been drinking every night means that you and Snape still aren't shagging."
"If Harry told you, I'll kill him."
"He didn't—but Pansy started a betting pool, and he owes me ten sickles. I knew the two of you would spend at least three weeks circling round each other pointlessly without so much as talking."
"What did Harry think?" she asked, stealing a chip off of his plate.
"A week and a half. Pansy said about five minutes—because that's what she would do—and I think Ron said two weeks. So that leaves me."
"And if we don't sleep together?"
He shoved his hair out of his eyes to give her the full force of his narrowed eyes. "You will—I'm always right about these things."
"I wish I were that confident."
She arrived home that night to find Snape sitting in her study, book in hand, almost as though nothing had changed. But she could see the rise and fall of his shoulders, hear the sharp pattern of breath from where she stood, and something in her chest tightened; for a moment, her heart fluttered dangerously, and she had to brace herself on the solid wood of the door frame to keep herself grounded.
"This is silly," she said. "We're both being ridiculous."
She gestured back and forth between them with hands that she seemed to have lost control of. "You know. This. Us."
Silence stretched between them, and, rather than watch his expression harden over as he searched for the words to turn her down, she turned and fled, thinking no further ahead than to hide in her bedroom with a book.
She would finish the necessary paperwork to return control of his estate to him, and let him walk away. It really was that simple—and probably less painful, in the end, than trying repeatedly to break through his barriers and continuing to fail.
Once she had heard his footsteps retreat, she slunk from her room and down the stairs—tea and more reading would solve her problems—to find that he hadn't retreated to his temporary room on the third floor after all.
"I knew you'd be down here eventually."
"Yes," she said icily. "I have been known to eat on occasion. The kitchen seems the ideal place for that to occur."
"And I have every reason to enjoy excessive use of my recently reacquired digestive faculties."
"I didn't say otherwise."
She flung the refrigerator door open with more force than was strictly necessary, and snatched out the first thing that she saw.
"You're planning to eat a brick of blue cheese by itself?"
The door slammed shut as she opened a cupboard and hunted for a clean plate. "I like cheese."
"It's probably started to mould—how long has it been sitting there? A month?"
"It's blue cheese—mould is one of the key ingredients."
Even though she knew better, she turned her head to look at him—that was her first mistake. Her second was to let her eyes linger, taking in the lines between his eyebrows, the fold of his arms across his chest. Rather than imposing, he looked small and desperate; she rotated the rest of her body until it was squared with his and drew her chin up.
"I don't want to make you feel indebted to me," she said. "I didn't really do anything—I don't want you to make any decisions on the basis of that assumption." She didn't want to be his reason for being.
For a moment, silence hovered over them, and she felt as she had in the study: like a presumptuous fool.
"How like you, to assume everything is your fault."
He tried to sneer but it faded when she took a single cautious step towards him, as though she were balancing on a thread that held them together and if she looked away, she would crash back into reality.
"Isn't it, though?"
The second step was his. "Did you ever consider that I needed time to think? I didn't expect to live, and it's so much easier to spend on a budget."
"I'm so glad I was your impulse purchase."
He sighed, and she had to stop herself from feeling giddy at the fact that he was breathing. "You're being difficult."
"Difficult is your job," she said. "I'm just here to point out the flaws in your metaphors."
"I don't know what I want. I've never had the opportunity to find out, and I can't promise—"
She silenced him with a finger on his lips. "I didn't ask for a promise—I'd rather you didn't make any at all. I am asking for a chance."
That small brush of contact woke something in her that had lain dormant far too long. Heat flooded her and made her skin tingle as she pulled him in towards her, grateful for his warmth, for the scent of cologne mingled with wool scratching the back of her throat, for the fact that she was finally allowed to touch his face, his hands, his throat without having to plan it and brace herself for the loss of energy.
He lifted her, letting her rest on the table where her eyes were level with his, and touched his lips against hers, uncertainly at first, and then with more pressure until she thought they both might be bruised in the morning. Her hands found the hem of his sweater and slid under it and up his ribcage until he had to let go of her to pull it over his head.
She giggled into his mouth, and traced the outline of his shoulder blades with the tips of her fingers.
"Upstairs? Reluctant as I am to move, I love the boys too much to force them to eat off this table after we've had sex on it."
Pushing strands of hair from her eyes, he murmured, "Must we? It would be a lovely bit of revenge…"
"Surely you must have some source of irritation, something that makes you want to make them suffer…"
"I like my retribution to be swift and painful—it rather takes the fun out of it when they do something to remind me why I'm so fond of them in between."
Wrapping her arms around his neck, legs around his thighs, she let his hands slip around her lower back and pull her close; she inhaled in time to his ragged breathing, their bodies pressing into each other, each filling the valleys of the other until she wasn't certain where she ended and he began.
"You could carry me up the stairs," she said between gasps. "Fulfil the female fantasy of the physically overpowering male…"
"Complete with the occasional punishing kiss? You're too heavy, and I can't seem to breathe. I could probably make it as far as the wall—"
"That could be fun."
"—at which point we would be faced with the unfortunate reality that both of us are still wearing too many articles of clothing for this to go quite far enough to satisfy me."
"Besides, I thought that you wanted to force me to your bedchamber and have your wicked way with me—rather, I was counting on it."
"We have plenty of time for both."
He loosened his grip on her enough that she slid until her feet were touching the floor, and bent down to retrieve his sweater. Catching him by the arm, she tugged him towards the staircase, not wanting to break the contact; it was the key to the dizziness that was giving her the courage to continue on, to let his hands wander, teasing her skin through the cotton of her t-shirt, and to shove him against the banister, mouth on his. As soon as she was allowed to crawl back inside her skin, she knew that fear would push her back again, away from this soaring, tumbling sensation; just then, she couldn't bear the thought of behaving sensibly.
Then it was her turn to be pushed against the railing, and straddle him as he collapsed onto one of the stairs, teasing his lips with hers—she only noticed that she had lost her shirt when he had unhooked her bra and hitched her up, using teeth and tongue to tug her forward and bring her hips into him.
"I'm not sure I like you calling another man's name right now."
"If you're still trying for witty banter, I'm obviously doing something wrong."
Somehow, through bursts of movement punctuated by frantic moments in which they clutched and tore at each other, they made it up the first flight of stairs.
"Your place or mine?" Hermione asked, trying to sound collected, in control; she only managed breathless.
"Yours is closer."
They stumbled down the corridor and into the bedroom, sensations battling with the presence of mind she had managed to cling to: the flitting of his fingers along the inside of her wrist, the chuckle that echoed through the cavity of her chest when she pressed herself again, the burning sensation that spread from her stomach into her thighs, that made her collapse into him before they reached the bed.
Except for the trembling that ran through him, just under his skin, he had grown still. Buried within the intensity of his gaze, she saw something akin to terror; it brought her back into herself, reminded her that she wasn't the only one spinning out of control.
It took a conscious effort to remain playful—pushing him onto the bed, tugging off his trousers and then hers, climbing on top of him and pinning his hands to the bed—but some of the shaking ceased as she took control.
A gasp—a series of gasps—sent her control spiralling into nothing; her hand slid off his and he used it to grip her back until she felt the bite of nails.
He shifted his hips, driving up into her, filling her until there was barely room for shallow breaths, leaving her empty and slipping down, hunting for more. When she couldn't hold herself up any longer she collapsed forward, letting her forehead rest along the curve of his throat.
The haze shrouding her thoughts parted long enough to let one slide through, and some of the panic subsided—they didn't have forever, but they had the rest of their lives to sort this out, to make it work, if they wanted it; it was longer than they might have had.
She rolled closer, resting her head on his chest so that she could hear the thudding of his heart, slightly faster and not quite in tandem with hers. For a moment, a force seemed to be squeezing the air from her lungs—she wouldn't cry, that would be pathetic—but she realised that it was just his arm wrapping around her back and pulling her in close. He pressed his nose into her hair, and she felt the rise and fall of his chest that told her he was inhaling her scent.
His breath on her scalp tickled; she squealed and wriggled away from him, but he pinned her beneath him. The laughter faded from her breath as he lowered his lips down to hers, and for the moment she let herself sink into it, relinquishing control as he had done for her.
"What now?" she asked when he pulled away, breathing ragged.
A slow smile spread across his lips. "We could begin a second round—there is an awful lot of lost time to make up for."
He laughed softly. "Not quite, but that doesn't mean you can't enjoy yourself."