She felt a bit like Little Red Riding Hood trying to tiptoe through an entire sleeping pack of Big Bad Wolves, and more than a bit ridiculous. Three pairs of socks were layered to muffle even the slightest hint of footstep, black gloves shielded the sparkle of the glittering crimson Ruby Slippers nail varnish that had seemed so adorable yesterday, and she was wrapped in Parvati's borrowed school-issue cloak with the hood up because she had made her own herself and it was too identifiable if, Merlin forbid, someone caught a glimpse of her.

The basket tapped against her bum with every tentative step, jolting her nerves a little each time, but threading the belt of her dressing gown through the handle had been the only option that would leave her hands and wand completely free. It was madness, absolute madness to be sneaking alone through the castle less than a week after half the Senior Staff had been captured, crazier still that no one at all knew about it, but if no one else knew, no one else could get in trouble for her idea, and Lavender supposed it was practically a House obligation to pull off a bit of deranged bravado now and again.

And it wasn't like she hadn't taken precautions. Brave didn't have to mean entirely stupid, even if mostly. She'd waited until almost two in the morning, and she'd made it all the way down to the kitchen successfully, used the code word that the Runcorn kid had passed on to get past the guard armor at the door, filled her basket, and she was already back up six out of seven floors. As long as she didn't get cocky now, didn't let her guard down or rush or -


A nanosecond, maybe. Definitely less than a heartbeat. Totally how close that goddamned cat came to being a few floating atoms, a lingering ozone smell, and six singed hairs fused to the floor.

It was a standoff now, and as they faced each other down with matched, vicious glares, she found herself thinking, ludicrously, of the roar of a crowd and the mocking clang of a bell. In the red corner, we have Lavender Brown! 5'5ish with good posture, 110 - ok, maybe 120lbs - locked and loaded with both hands on her wand and the tip of that fucker glowing hot and dead on sight with the exact center of the most hated feline face in recent wizarding history! And in the grimy grayish brownish tabbyish corner, we have Mrs. Norris! 1 foot 1 if you don't include the tail, 7lbs if we're being generous to the skinny little cunt, and one good yowl away from a KO of Ms. Brown!

Her first thought was to tell the cat what to do with itself, and what a zillion or so volts of bioelectricity would feel like if it didn't, but while she had no doubt that Mrs. Norris would understand every single word, she had just as little doubt that she would accept her own death out of pure spite if she got to take Lavender with her. She took a deep breath, knowing she had almost no time, knowing she couldn't risk...

She was still a cat. Slowly, holding her breath, praying that it wouldn't arouse suspicion, keeping the eye contact, wand unwavering, she brought her other hand up to her head behind the hood, found the hairband, and slipped it carefully off her ponytail, more grateful than ever that she didn't have Hermione's bushy curls. It wasn't anything special, nothing that would give away more than her house at most - it was red - but there was a tiny bit of shiny gold where the elastic clamped together, and she flicked it in her fingers, letting it catch the light of her wand and so grateful she almost laughed and sobbed aloud when Mrs. Norris' attention pricked instantly.

A quick tease back and forth, just enough to make sure that her ears were up and her eyes dilated and her tail flicking before she stretched it quickly over finger and thumb and sent it snapping as far away down the corridor as she could. Mrs. Norris bolted after it and Lavender, no longer giving a shit about tiptoeing, dashed off in the opposite direction before it could be caught and proclaimed a boring ruse.

End of the hallway. Left turn. Second right. Twenty two stairs. First right. End of the hall again and barely gasping a noise to the Fat Lady that was supposed to be "just a second" but oh, bless her, she decided with a wink and wave was close enough to the password and feeling the basket almost upend as she scrambled through and barked her shin oh OW that would bruise but nevermind the uniform had knee socks any way. Up half the stairs before she realized that she was going the wrong way and by the time she was up the right stairs and to the right door she was so winded it hurt and disgustingly sweaty and her heart was pounding so loud that the Headmaster could have been singing opera two inches from her right ear and it wouldn't have mattered and ok, fine, maybe Rowan had a point. But she was still a complete little bitch.

She had to knock twice before the answer came, and then the door opened and Seamus was standing there, his almost buzzed hair still managing to be plastered flat on one side and sticking up on the other as he scrubbed sleep out of his eyes with the back of his hand. "T'feck ya doin' up here come this mad hour, Brown?"

Admittedly, she'd never woken him up from a sound sleep before, but the thickness of the almost-unintelligible brogue took her by surprise, and she was suddenly annoyed for no reason that she could really explain even to herself. "I thought you might be lonely," she snapped. Or, well, tried to snap. It wound up a bit breathier than she'd intended, and broken in the middle, but she tried to blow that off by sweeping past him and into the room with a satisfyingly grandiose flounce.

"With Neville being held, and you...alone up here." The cloak cracked beautifully as she swirled it off and onto the nearest bed, and she had the belt off and the basket out and on the bed beside her and she crossed her legs, huffing her now-loose hair out of her face as she started snatching off extra socks. "So, are you going to say anything? Like, you know, thank you?"

Seamus was still standing by the door, and her words seemed to startle him out of his shocked, gaping stare, at least enough that he shut the door, went to lock it, remembered that it didn't have a lock, and didn't fumble all that much as he turned back to her. "I...I...sweet Jesus..."

It was something in his look. Somewhere between kneed in the groin and winning the lottery, and she was this close to asking him if he was completely stupid when the part of her own brain that was usually a lot more attuned to such things caught up from where she had apparently left it back in the hallway with her hair band. Sweaty, gasping, flushed girl with notorious reputation shows up at boy's door in wee hours of morning, says she's there because boy is alone, starts removing clothing, has mysterious covered basket and not a lot of nightie under her dressing gown.

Well, shit, no wonder he'd just pinched himself.

Lavender sighed, sitting up straight and tying the dressing gown securely shut again. "Close your mouth, Seamus. I'm sorry, I didn't mean to give you the wrong impression, but that's not how I'm here to make you feel better."

He slumped back against the door with a dramatic sigh, one hand over his heart and a grin of pure, lewd, brazen cheek sparking his eyes. "Aw, come on, darlin', I won't tell Corner if you want to just give a lad a bit of a -"

"No, and that's one." Her voice was ice, her wand back in her hand and aimed squarely at a point on his body that stopped the grin and whatever suggestion had been coming with it dead in its tracks.

Seamus did not miss her aim, and he cleared his throat, his hand meandering nervously down to the pocket of his pajamas. There was no sleep left in his voice or face at all, the brogue right back to where she was accustomed to it being. Amazing how that worked. "One what?"

"One of you being an offensive little shit," she clarified bluntly, wand never wavering. "I'll give it to you because I woke you up and got your hopes up, even if I didn't mean to, but two and I punch you where it hurts, three and I hex you into a permanent soprano and leave. Clear?"

He nodded immediately. "Like crystal."

His stare didn't leave the wand until it was all the way down and tucked back in the pocket of her dressing gown, and the standoff lingered in the air a long breath beyond that. It was oddly almost like facing Mrs. Norris in the hallway all over again, the uncertainty as to who would make the next move or how or how much of a disaster would result, but Seamus acted first, sidling away from the door with a forced casual air and climbing up on the bed just a little too far away to be taken as potentially a liberty.

There was still a kind of tension etched in the faint beginnings of lines that she was surprised were already starting to show at the edges of his eyes at seventeen and maybe more surprised that she had never noticed, but his voice wouldn't have betrayed them in the breezy least. "If you're not...everything ok, then? Didn't get in a fight with Parvati or nothin'?"

"No, nothing like that." The reminder of why she had come eased the moment that had almost been she wasn't even sure what, putting her back on the solid, certain footing of knowing what to say that she much preferred. "Like I said, I was just thinking about how much it must suck to be alone up here, especially if you're half as worried about Neville and Ginny and Luna as I am."

She had hoped that the honesty of her concern would come through, even after the threat she'd just made - and meant every word of – and yes, his shoulders loosened visibly, the smile back to softly quirk the newly-scarred corner of his lip. "Fair enough, and aye, but that ain't what had you blowin' like the Hogwarts Express, and it don't tell me what's in the basket."

There was no attempt to hide the smugness of her grin as she twisted to pull the basket onto her lap, whisk off the covering, and reveal the contents with a performative flourish. "I raided the kitchen. Had a bit of a run-in with Mrs. Norris on the way back, but I think it's ok, and I thought maybe...well, Fiona and us girls used to do it sometimes when we had all-night study sessions, and I've heard rumors you can cook."

For a few seconds, she thought that she'd made a mistake, that Dean had been wrong or just messing with her, but the silence was nothing more than short-lived surprise, and Seamus was already nodding in eagerly hopeful pride. "That I can. And now I'm propercurious what you got there."

He craned his neck to see, but she did him one better, pulling out first the bowl and then the pile of offerings beneath it, lining them up neatly on the coverlet between them. "Butter, eggs, sugar, flour, bicarb, vanilla, a bit of salt..."

Lines and scars seemed to vanish completely, and suddenly, even with his shirt off, he was all rosy cheeks and mussy hair and freckles and no more than maybe four years old. "Cookies?"

Lavender fought the urge to pinch his cheeks, contenting herself with a warm smile as she held out the butter. "If you know how it all goes together."

He took it immediately, and she barely muffled the giggle behind her hand as he burst out into a shamelessly happy sort of wiggly dance in place, waving the butter like the Quidditch Cup. "Anyone ever tell you you're an angel?"


"Not often enough." He had already unwrapped the butter and dumped it into the bowl, and he was measuring out the sugar onto it with his hands when he stopped, glancing up at her with a pensive bit of a frown. "Don't know if I can bake 'em, though."

"That's ok." She thought about it for a moment, wondering if she could remember the thing that Hermione did, and then deciding she didn't care. "Dough's good too."

"That it is."

Seamus had finished with the sugar and was rummaging around in the basket for something, and she watched him for a while, wondering if she should say it before deciding that whether or not it was comfortable, she couldn't let it go. "For the record, by the way, Corner and I are just friends."

He looked up so quickly that he nearly tipped the basket, catching it in a last-second fumble, genuine shock painted clearly over every plane of his expression. "Seriously? I thought...I mean, you're always..." The embarrassed flush was visible even in the dimly blued moonlight.

Lavender spread her hands, shrugging. "Just friends. He's funny, he's brilliant, and I like to dress him."

"And undress sometimes."

It was a weak attempt to find his footing again on the familiarity of innuendo, and she raised a finger in warning. "That's one and a half. Just friends, just dress him. He's practically married to Boot, but he's gorgeously proportioned." She stopped, worried abruptly of how easily that could be misunderstood, but explanations of preferred model dimensions seemed like they'd only glaze over Seamus' eyes and make the whole thing worse, so she pushed ahead to the point of it with a jut of her chin and a challenge in the crisp edges of the consonants. "I made him that coat, you know. The blue one with the cream lining."

To her rather pleasant surprise, there was no attempt to continue the coarse humor, and the respect that widened his eyes appeared completely genuine and tinged, if anything, only with envy. Though whether of her or Michael, she didn't know and frankly didn't care. "That's a wickedcoat."

"Thank you."

Seamus nodded from inside the basket that he had now turned upside down and was all but wearing as a hat as he shook it. "I mean it. Sorry."

Lavender tilted her head in confusion at both words and actions, trying to look inside for herself and see what could be so fascinating. "For?"

"I don't mean anythin' by it." His head emerged from the basket barely long enough for her to see a glimpse of actual shame in his eyes before they vanished again not at all coincidentally. "Just got a bit of a mouth on me." There was a huff of frustration, and the basket was tossed to the end of the bed as he turned on her with what was almost accusation. "You didn't get a spoon by any chance?"

Oh was that all? This time, Lavender made no attempt to hide the giggles as she lifted the cloth that was the first thing he had tossed aside and shook the wooden spoon from its folds. He snatched it away with a sharp grunt, gripping the bowl firmly between his knees and starting in after the butter and sugar as though they had committed a deep and personal offense against him, or possibly even his mother.

She watched him work, trying not to notice, much less admire the way that the muscles moved beneath the skin of his back and shoulders that were so sunlessly fair that the freckles seemed like coy, secret rewards only offered for staring far too closely. He was shorter than she was, slender, but there was nothing fragile about him when you stripped away the uniform that made them all look like sexless children, and that line of thought needed to stop right now.

"I still can't quite believe you shot off to Alecto like that;" she interrupted herself deliberately. "Did you have any idea it would end up like this?"

Seamus shrugged, not looking up from his frenzied assault on the butter. "Didn't really think how it would end."

Lavender laughed despite herself. "That I can believe."

The butter must have screamed for mercy in a secret pathetic dairy language audible only to Irishmen who knew how to hear it, because he made a noise of satisfaction and grabbed the eggs, cracking them into the mixture before resuming the attack. It wasn't until that round was satisfied and the flour and salt had been added to the bowl that he seemed to remember she was there, much less that they'd been having a conversation. "Do you think they're all right; Fearless Leader and them?"

"I'm pretty sure Ginny would come waltzing out of hell with the Devil's balls for earrings, and you can never tell anything about Luna, but Neville..." The bravado slipped away, and she looked down, playing with the lace edge of her nightie, rubbing it between her fingers so hard that the roughness hurt just a little. "I don't know. I don't feel like I know him any more. He's changed so much already, and he's been so distant since they..."

She couldn't say it. Thank Merlin she didn't need to. It was strange, the things that had already grown as shall-not-be-named among them; the words that they had all never agreed to agree not to ever say and barely think. Flogged. Whipped. Beaten. Lashed. Shredded. Torn to godawful pieces that I'll never get out of my nightmares for the rest of my life and I can't even wear my dress with the laced back right now because of the criss-cross of it.

But he knew, and it was there in the way his back tightened in sympathy beneath no marks harsher than the near-invisible freckles. "I think we've all changed since then."

"It scares me sometimes." The lace tore. She would have to fix that. She let go and switched to rubbing the far sturdier plush of the edge of the dressing gown. "Last week, I was working with Rowan and the girls, and there was this moment where I had Morag bloody MacDougal in a chokehold and it was just...sweet Merlin, what am I turning into? Do I even want to have to be this person? But I don't think we have a choice any more."

"Never did, maybe."

"Is it like that for you?"

He jabbed the spoon in so hard that it struck against the bottom of the bowl with a sound like teeth clacking under a punch. "A bit, but it's more the worry that I can't un-be than that I'm becomin'."

"I don't -"

Seamus cut her off with a catch of eyes that felt like pinning her heart to a piece of leather. "Lav, lamb, you know where I've grown up. Do I truly need spell it out?"

She didn't, wouldn't look away. If he could live it she could live with the idea of it. "I didn't think your family was involved in that mess."

The scar turned white beneath the pressure of his lips in the moment before he answered. "When it's your world, there ain't no such thing as it not touchin' you. You know that, though, or you're learnin' it now. Even if the life you want's makin' dresses, the life you've got's chokeholds and counter-charms, ain't it?"

She hated it. It was all the worst parts of the ways boys talked to her that weren't about sex, that tone that said it was such a pity she had to worry her pretty little head, and her voice cut back with the slash of shears that took canvas duck like chiffon. "I can still make dresses. And cookie dough. I'm not going to let it change me that much. That'd be letting them win too, you know. It's why I fight Rowan about getting to wear nail varnish and still take the time afterwards to curl my hair and put my makeup on again, even if I'm so tired I'm shaking."

There was supposed to be the indulgent little smile now. She knew how this went. The patronizing nod that said she was welcome to her silly little fripperies, but it wasn't there. It was supposed to be 'wise' and 'protective' and full of shit, and it wasn't a smile at all and it was something sheer and unnameable layered over honestly vulnerable. "All to you for that, and I mean it. For me, though, this were where it don't come. Here my best mate's English and no one says boo for it, there's no spookin' at parcels left about or a lorry where it don't seem to belong, and no wonderin' what side someone's on and if what's safe to say. Or it weren't. Now there is, and it scares me sometimes how easy it is to go home without leavin' school, if you follow me."

Lavender rolled her eyes, cocking a hip to her hand with a practice that didn't need standing. "I don't think you're about to start leaving pipe bombs in Snape's office, Seamus."

His smirk was just as well-studied. "Depends what happens to Fearless Leader and them, don't it?"

And now her answer was supposed to be witty and catty and he was supposed to laugh but have it sting a little and they'd change the subject, probably to cookie dough that was looking pretty damned good and had almost all the flour worked in. So why did her should have go the way of his should have from a minute ago without her permission? Why did she hold his gaze without a sneer and why was there nothing sarcastic or subtle or sassy, just "No, I don't think it does" that came from somewhere that hadn't gotten authorization from mouth or brain or habit.

The spoon was standing on its own in the dough, both of Seamus' hands flat on the bed to either side of him as he watched it cant slowly to the side. "You've more faith in me than I do."

"Maybe someone needs to."

"I wouldn't put your dress shop fund on it."

"I would, but then again, I'm stubborn that way."


"We're all mad, you know."

The spoon clacked dully against the edge of the bowl. Seamus picked it up, turned it over, poked at the dough again, tasted a bit, then gave her the spoon. "No shite."

Lavender took it, aware in ways that were new and not entirely comfortable of his eyes on her, watching her go through the motions of licking and nibbling that should have been comfortable in their power and weren't. It was strange, watching herself watch him watch her and wondering where the people she thought she knew they were had gotten lost in the night. There was still plenty of dough on the spoon when she put it back in the basket, staring at the simple wooden utensil as if it had grown an eyeball. "You're a thug as much as I'm a flirt." She didn't look up, not even really sure if she was talking to him or not. "It's something we both wear because it gives us the power we're scared we don't really have."

There was a cough of nervous almost derision. "That's takin' it a bit far, don't you think?"

She shoved a finger through the remaining dough on the rim of the spoon, gathering it up into a harsh wad and smashing it in her hand and hating the voice in the back of her head that calculated whether the gracelessness of it would buy her the leeway to shrug off the dressing gown because it really was suddenly too warm in here. "If I wore a burqua, boys would still stare at my tits and pinch my arse. If you hid in your room, someone might still decide your tower block needed blowing up. So we both fight back and take it head on and I cut my shirts low enough to put a binder on every lap and you accuse Alecto of screwing her land-slug brother and we both pretend it's on our terms."

And she had looked up now. The dressing gown came off her shoulders like a thrown gauntlet, her head mounted high and taut, but it was met with eyes that were armored in the color of a blued gun barrel in the dimness. He took the wad from her hand without looking and put it in her mouth without flirting. "Eat dough, Brown."

She was too proud to retreat back into the folds of the dressing gown, not even sure what that would mean when he wasn't looking anyway, but she had other armor to meet his, and she snatched it up again, unable to remember why she'd dropped it in the first place. "Demoted from 'Lav, lamb,' to 'Brown', am I?"

Seamus nipped a bit of dough from her spoon, rolling it into a ball and popping it in his mouth. "Dancin' a bit too close to the fire, aren't you?"

"Where else is there to dance?"

"Sometimes it can be fun all the way in the flames, I've found."

"Sometimes you get burned."

"But then it's by your choice, like's you just said, ain't it, though?"

"Got me there."

The naughty tilt of an eyebrow that was part of the game. "Do I?"

The something in the pit of her stomach that wasn't. "Not yet."

"But maybe?"

"Are you asking?"


"Why?" It was honest, and she didn't mean it to be, and it shocked them both. Her hand went to the edge of the dressing gown. His went to hers. She froze. Her eyes came up with questions she couldn't say. His didn't have answers, but they didn't have the armor either, and they hadn't been caught looking down even though she was bent forward. That was worse.

"You're lookin' for an answer that ain't packed in that little red number, ain't you?"

"Do you have one?"

Seamus took a deep breath and let it out slowly, closing his eyes over a long moment before allowing her into them again. "I ain't gonna lie to you and say it's not definitely at least the sugar in this mix."

"What else is in the bowl, then?"

"That you're not datin' Corner like I thought you was, because I'm gettin' the idea on our side o' things with Bagman that there's a library lily what could take your head off easier than he could sew it back on again if he so felt like it." Seamus pushed off the bed, paced away, turned on a completely understood axis of tightly controlled panic and paced back, hands in the pockets and out and spread and through his hair and back in the pockets again. "That you're smarter than I gave you credit for. That you're a touch scary, and that's hot...and I know, yeah, one and three quarters, but like's I said, dancin' in the flames."

And he was stopped now, posed, poised, waiting at the edge of his courage to do she had no idea what. Lavender swallowed hard, holding herself to calm and back from cutting. "Is that all?"

His head cocked in a flash through the armored smile and out again that came as a warning that he still had it like a switchblade up a shirt cuff. "Don't want you to get burned, I don't."

Oh, but that was a challenge, and even if she was still half uncertain as to just what field they were on, she'd never turn down a dare to play. Her own blade glinted at his in answer across the teasing pout of her lips. "Try me."

"That you're right, maybe, about me. About what I could be. And I think you're right because of what you could be. That you're testin' out what it's like to have a reputation like you do to see if you can handle it and wonderin' how much easier your life would be after if you paved your way with what folks'll be assumin' of you anyway, and you want that dress shop real bad."

Damn him, and damn her for starting it, and damned if she'd back down now. She stood to match him, not bothering not to enjoy just a little bit that she was technically the taller. "I think your hair's getting singed, Finnigan."

Steel again. "'Finnigan' now, am I?"

On steel. A flick of her fingers, the wad summoned into her hand, and she popped into his mouth with a flawless purr. "Eat dough."

Seamus took it, didn't spit it out, swallowed it. His hand reached out, stopped an inch above her hip, retreated. "You don't have to do it, you know."

Hers did not, took the small of his back, but pulled him no closer. "Neither do you."

He didn't move. His bare flesh was too warm on her palm. "That's assumin' we've choices in the matter."

She didn't move. He wore his pajama trousers too low. She didn't dare. "We always have choices."

He dared. "Like Fearless Leader had a choice to give us all an anatomy lesson in all the bits o' a man's back?"

She dared. Her fingers at the edge of his waistband, letting him feel that she was thinking about lower but not doing and wouldn't do. She needed the control back.

He'd crossed the wrong taboos, and she needed to bring this back to more familiar ground, her ground. To where they thought they sneered at her but she was the one who could stop their very breath with the flick of a tongue tip over a pencil eraser. To where she took their unspoken threats to make her an object and victim and made them toys who would do what she wanted. Control. All of it. Prey turned predator. Simple. Studied.

Her desire never entered into it, never could, not after she'd made that mistake once and wound up hurt in ways that mattered. The rules said even a girl who played with desire and the pretense of her own couldn't want for real, and she wasn't even sure if what she was feeling now was a violation of those rules or a hundred others she'd never codified as needed. Did she want, yes, and she hadn't expected that, but it was different than a simple ache and tingle and flush. She didn't even know what it was or meant other than that she wanted to slap him for it with one hand while the other kept going and how goddamned dare him that she didn't even know which he'd feel how about.

And how dare he look just as panicked in the back of his eyes as she felt and for none of the reasons she'd seen a hundred times in boys and too many of the ones she'd felt too often in the mirror. Her hand moved no further and she met him on the more comfortable ground of the unspeakable. "Like how he had the choice to stand up and say damned what would happen next."

His hand on her hip now. But just her hip. Professor McGonagall would have allowed it with perfect civility as a waltz. "Dance in the flames."

She didn't move away. Her hand slid along his side, no lower, no higher, mirroring his. "Better in than not to dance at all, though."

"Ain't it? We ain't the sort for the sidelines."

At some point, their voices had dropped to what was only breath away from whispering. "Parvati, you know, her grandfather is a fakir. He walks on coals, sometimes, in just his bare feet."

The instant's surprise was already gone in a puff of a laugh. At some point, they had wound up close enough that she felt it. "I seen that once. Mad."

"She says the difference between the ones who burn and the ones who don't is faith."

His body tensed nothing flippant under her fingers against his scornfully laughing tone. "Sorry, but I'm long done with that. Papist and Proddy's half the cause o' that whole -"

Lavender cut him off, the courage to say it coming from maybe the same place of madness that everything else was or maybe the truth that they had known each other for more than six years and maybe some of that still mattered or not among the total stranger she was maybe maybe not almost holding. "Not that kind of faith. Maybe just faith that you can be better than that."

His eyes closed, like changing into dry socks during a typhoon. "Ain't got that kind neither."

She closed hers as well. "No, but you've got it in me."

"And you've got it in me, you sayin'?"

"I'm saying."

"Firewalkers, then. I could like that."

"I think I could too."

"So, if we're goin' to walk this, we doin' it together?"

She opened her eyes and pulled back her hand. It didn't feel like too much, and that made it too much. "Maybe just through the fire."

Seamus laughed, and there was nothing calculated about it, and it rippled through her like a spell. "Lav, lamb, I ain't plannin' no after."



"You'll be looking for something to do, then. And I'll need a stock boy." It had been the last thing she'd expected to laugh back, and she couldn't remember the last time she'd teased a boy - other than Michael who didn't really count because you just don't play those games with other people who are having to live through enough of that shit - without actually trying to make him feel diminished. It felt good, and it felt like at least a cousin of the mysterious other thing that wanted her hand to go back and was glad his hadn't left.

He raised both eyebrows high, the offense feigned, the conviction not. "The hell I'll be."

"We'll see." She let her hand go back.

Seamus caught a breath at the touch. A moment passed. The tension gathered in his arm just shy of enough to pull her in closer. "How close am I to two?"

"Your shoes are on fire." She stepped forward herself. They were literally toe to toe, nothing else but the palms of hands touching the edges of hips in contact.

He closed the rest of the inches with everything that didn't matter. "I'll chance it."

She closed her eyes again. "Cocky little thug."

"Shameless slut."

"Scared. Homesick. Lonely. Rebel."

"Scared. Defensive. Lonely. Dreamer."

Three breaths, and he tasted like butter cookie dough that she hadn't remembered being that sharp or hot or good, and then their eyes were open again but their foreheads still together, and she smiled. "I'll give you two."