The river was unlike any Severus had ever seen.
For one thing, its size was staggering. The three of them had boarded the little motorized launch just upstream of an area where construction was beginning on a massive bridge; Severus had stood on the wooden pier and looked across the water in the predawn light and had barely been able to discern the low profile of the trees on the opposite bank. Two miles at least, he thought, perhaps three—and if they were building a bridge here, this would presumably be one of the narrower stretches.
Furthermore, this river, Moacir told him (in Portuguese, but with enough gesturing that Severus's rudimentary grasp of Spanish enabled him to get the gist), was not even the Amazon itself: it was the Rio Negro, which joined the Solimões about five miles farther downstream to effectively double its volume and form the Amazon. The sheer power and wildness of it was so far removed from Britain's gentle and civilized waterways that it hardly seemed fair to use the same word to refer to them.
And then there was its color. Rivers, in Severus's admittedly limited experience, were either a muddy brown or a muddy green. From any distance, the surface of the Rio Negro looked like ink; close to, it was a deep transparent brown, like very strong tea or even black coffee.
He had seen the juncture of the Solimões and the Negro from the air, he now realized, as their aeroplane had made its approach into Manaus; but the sight was so odd, and he had been so fatigued, that it had failed to register at the time. The Solimões was the more familiar café-au-lait color, and where the two rivers joined, the waters ran side by side, unmingled, for perhaps another fifty miles: black on one side and tan on the other.
The bustle of urban activity that was Manaus had disappeared in shockingly short order: fifteen minutes upstream there was nothing left of civilization, and the vegetation crowded forward over the riverbank and spilled drunkenly out into the water.
As soon as the first bend in the river was behind them, Hermione had drawn her wand and silenced the blat-blat-blat of the outboard motor, so that the launch now glided noiselessly through the dark water. Looking over the edge, Severus could see the shapes of fishes darting to and fro, their silver tinted amber by the water. As he watched, the surface was pocked by the first fat raindrops, and within a few seconds the tin canopy of the launch was drumming with a steady rainfall.
Hermione, who had been leaning back on her elbows in the prow of the boat, ducked back under the canopy and lay down on the bench in front of him, closing her eyes with a little hum of contentment. Her arm slid between the two broad planks that formed the seat and backrest of the bench and dangled loosely, little rills of water trickling down it and dripping from her fingertips onto the deck. Severus took a handkerchief from his trouser pocket and nudged it gently against her hand; she opened her eyes and took it from him.
"Thanks," she murmured, wiping first her arms, and then each raised leg in turn, with the folded square of cloth. She had taken off the gaudy Wellingtons she'd worn to board the boat and was now barefoot; Severus saw with amusement and a little pulse of adolescent lust that her toenails were painted pink.
All the way aft, Moacir sat unperturbed at the tiller, the downpour plastering his hair to his skull and soaking his t-shirt and shorts clean through in a matter of seconds.
"Not a verbose chap," said Severus.
"The Indians usually aren't," she said. "They generally think white people make a lot of unnecessary noise."
This hardly seemed an invitation to further conversation, so he withdrew into silence and lay back on the wooden bench. Just aft of him, the four small owls slept in their cage, looking oddly headless with their beaks tucked under their wings. As soon as they had got underway, Hermione had released the frigatebird, and it glided now alongside them, impelled by the slow, steady pumping of its powerful wings, as apparently unfazed by the downpour as Moacir. As Severus watched, his head resting on one folded arm, it dropped suddenly to the water as if shot, only to reappear a second later with a struggling fish in its beak. With a single snap, the fish was gone, and the great bird stroked on as before.
A pleasant lassitude began to steal over him, and he closed his eyes and gave himself over to the sound of the rainfall on the metal canopy, and the smooth motion of the boat through the warm, humid air. He was aware of Hermione stretched out next to him, and indulged himself in a fantasy that they were lying together in a bed instead of on the narrow wooden benches, separated not by the seat backs and a layer of social convention and inhibition but by a few insignificant inches of space.
It came to him with a twinge that he would no more know how to advance his suit in that situation than in his present one. While he had certainly fucked his share of women, he had never actually had a proper girlfriend. Had never, in fact, invited a woman into his own bed or woken up next to one in hers. And he'd certainly never navigated the transition from friend and companion to lover; the pain of his one failed venture in that arena had been enough to put him off repeated attempts.
Sex had been one of the perquisites of membership in Voldemort's entourage, a tangible contributor to the sense of belonging that had so easily and thoroughly seduced his pathetic teen-aged self. If on those occasions he had closed his eyes and thought helplessly of Lily, well, no one had been the wiser, and even so the business had been an order of magnitude more thrilling and satisfying than the desperate late-night wanks under cover of a Muffliato charm that had punctuated his lonely existence in the Slytherin dormitories.
And then once he'd been on staff at Hogwarts, his sexual liaisons had all been of the professional sort. Lucius had introduced him to a Hog's Head chambermaid who, once a fortnight, gave him a cheerful and matter-of-fact three-galleon blowjob, and every couple of months he visited a more exclusive establishment in Knockturn Alley where he had a longstanding barter arrangement with the proprietress: in exchange for a steady supply of contraceptive, lubricant, and performance-enhancing potions, he spent an afternoon with one (or, on one memorable occasion, two) of the girls who worked there.
And then there had been the final few years in the Dark Lord's service, about which the less remembered the better.
Now, however, he had no earthly idea how to suggest to Hermione that their relationship move in the direction of the physical. He supposed he might begin by encouraging her to drink too much, as unsporting as that might seem. But if he was honest, he was angling for more than a single night, so manipulating her into doing something she'd regret the next morning seemed a bit short-sighted. It was all going to end soon enough anyway, and that end would likely be ugly if she discovered, before he had a chance to make his exit, that he'd been spying on her for the Ministry. He'd like to get a few good weeks out of it at least before the inevitable happened.
There were bound to be books on the subject of seduction, but at the moment he was arguably about as far away from a useful library or bookshop as it was possible to get. Common sense would suggest that the best approach would be gradual, measured, and vigilant. Preliminary reconnaissance, followed by a first tentative sortie (a double-entendre remark, perhaps, or a longer-than-necessary touch when passing her a beaker, that sort of thing), and then a watchful retreat to see whether she would respond in kind.
An irritatingly military analogy, he realized—as if he were mounting a campaign of destruction instead of trying to get into a girl's knickers. Christ, why did this have to be so difficult?
He imagined just reaching for her hand now and taking it, stroking his fingers against her palm, and then gently drawing one fingertip up her arm. He wouldn't need to say anything; she would understand instantly (because of course she would have been thinking about the same thing all along) and would reach for him, perhaps murmur his name. In one smooth motion (no awkward clambering, because this was his fantasy, after all) he would be kneeling in front of her, would lean over and press his mouth to hers (gently at first, then with increasing forcefulness, the dominant male asserting his right), one hand cradling the nape of her neck, the other snaking downward and slipping under the fabric of her blouse to cup one small, round, perfect breast, his thumb brushing lightly over her hardening nipple…
Shit. Something was getting hard, and it wasn't her nipple. He slid his foot along the bench to raise his right knee, and reached back in his memory for the techniques that teen-aged boys use to rid themselves of spontaneous and unwelcome erections. Hold your breath (hard-ons need oxygen). Clench your arse-cheeks (muscles take precedence in the blood supply). Think about collecting rat spleens.
Jesus. What a minefield this was. (And we're back, he thought wryly, to the war metaphor.) Given time, he could pick his way across safely, could gauge her reactions, find out the things she liked and do them, breach her defenses, woo her, seduce her…
But, fuck it all, he didn't have time.
She'd been annoyed when he'd flirted with her friend, and he supposed that was a hopeful sign.
There had also been a couple of occasions when the two of them had seemed on the verge of a quantum shift in the intimacy of their friendship.
When she had healed his arse-cheek from the wound left by the Vorapulpam, she'd seemed genuinely concerned (oh, stop equivocating, you twat, she clearly was concerned), both when she ministered to his injury and later, when she insisted that he not brew a replacement batch whilst he was alone in the lab. Of course, that could have been simple human decency—he often forgot that such a thing existed, was indeed even commonplace in normal people—and she had definitely not risen to the bait when he had suggested, under cover of facetiousness, that she take off her clothes. She had just rolled her eyes at him and said, "Prat," and they had talked some more about etymologies, and then he had gone home.
Then, week before last, things had progressed a bit further when they'd had that intense conversation about the episode in the Shrieking Shack and its immediate sequelae. (Even now, a part of him was sneering at himself for his retreat into scholarly language when he recalled those things, as if doing so could distance him from the wretchedness of them.) She hadn't flinched away from him when he had touched her face, and although he had intended the conversation to go in a different direction (he'd had no idea that her scar had anything to do with that gruesome afternoon; was, in fact, his own fault, another bit of tragic detritus scattered along the trajectory of the mayhem set in motion by his adolescent perfidy), the more passionate she had become, the more he had felt the connection between them intensifying. It all might actually have led somewhere, had he not panicked and fled, overcome by his own helplessness and shame.
He knew he had a tendency to overcerebrate, to try to reduce every dilemma or human problem to a mathematical formula or puzzle of logic that could be approached and solved methodically. He didn't really know any other way, and the few occasions when he had allowed free rein to his baser impulses had turned out so disastrously that it still seemed the safest course. He was thus deep in consideration of how he might maneuver Hermione into another intense emotional conversation when he was jerked back into the present by the touch of her hand on his arm.
In the fraction of a second it took him to open his eyes and look at her, he had already processed the touch (warm, damp, tentative) and his mind had raced ahead to imagine that somehow, hers had been traveling along a parallel track as the two of them had lain side by side, half-asleep on the wooden benches. This was it, then: there was no need for him to agonize over making his move, because, oh god, she was making hers.
He turned his head to see her lift a finger to her lips and point, with the hand that had touched his arm and now no longer did, towards the near bank, where a cluster of animals that looked like nothing so much as grotesquely overgrown guinea pigs were grazing.
"Capybara," she whispered, and reached slowly for an embroidered bag that lay at the far end of the bench. The largest of the beasts lifted its blunt head and sniffed the air. Hermione took a small camera from the bag and raised it in front of her face, then gave a snort of exasperation, which prompted the whole group of capybara to startle and dive into the water.
"No battery," she said disgustedly. "Well, fuck me."
"That could be arranged," said Severus, without thinking.
She looked sharply at him, and he was at once horrified and hopeful, but then she smirked and said, "In your dreams, Snape," and turned to put the camera away.
Yes, he wanted to say, I do dream of it, but what of course came automatically to his lips was "Just the nightmares, actually."
Hermione turned back around and fixed him with a penetrating look, and he watched, helpless and mortified, as awareness dawned on her.
"Severus," she began, and stopped.
He cleared his throat. "Never mind," he said. "I was joking."
"No," she said slowly. "No, I don't believe you were."