All of the signs had been there from the moment she met the reclusive man. How could she miss them? Or, did she simply not wish to see them? Hermione knew he had a secret. Her overactive imagination fashioned him into some tragic romantic figure without even bothering to learn all of the facts first.
Rod… no, Rodolphus should have been shivering in an Azkaban cell, not warm and naked in her bed. One of the most notorious of all of Lord Voldemort's Death Eaters, she didn't even understand how he was still alive. No one had seen or heard from him in years. Not since the night Harry was moved to the Burrow and a battle raged in the sky. His niece Tonks claimed she knocked him off his broom. When he wasn't seen again during the war or in the chaos when it was over, it was assumed he was dead, his body lost forever.
Hermione sat up, pulling the blankets tightly around her trembling body. Never had she felt so completely vulnerable or exposed. The things they had done… her cheeks burned with the shame. She had been foolish to invite a man into her bed without knowing who he truly was first. He hadn't even told her his last name!
The Death Eater stared at her, unblinking, unmoving, not even trying to sit up from his lounging position. Like helpless wildlife caught in a Muggle's head lamps. No doubt he was waiting for the curses to his bollocks from her wand or the slaps to his face from her hand.
"How did you..?"
"Are you going to deny that you're actually Rodolphus Lestrange?"
She hardly recognized the chilling tone coming out of her mouth as belonging to her. Certainly she'd never heard it before. Not even when struggling with the frustration that was her husband.
"I see no reason to deny the truth."
Maybe it would've been easier for both of them if he lied about his identity. Not only would it give her the opportunity to delude herself into believing she hadn't committed such acts with a known murderer and it would have been less confusing all around. Death Eaters weren't exactly known for their honesty, were they? Hermione was having trouble reconciling the gentle, quiet man who loved dogs and who was painfully shy with madwoman Bellatrix Lestrange's husband. How was it possible that the man who could so carefully cradle a pure, innocent being like Millie in his arms could also be a part of torturing two people into insanity?
She couldn't bear to sit another moment in the same bed with the monster. Dragging most of the bedcovers off with her, Hermione rose to her feet. A startled Millie slipped to the floor in a puddle of blankets. Yipping at the indignity, the puppy laid down in the midst of the fabric shielding Hermione's nakedness from the wizard still lying as if frozen. Frustrated, she dropped the blankets and rushed into the bathroom for a bathrobe and a few moments to catch her breath.
What was she supposed to do next? Logic would tell her that she needed to stupefy the man or figure out some manner in which to restrain him and call the aurors. Harry would be there in a second if she told him. But, for a reason she couldn't quite understand, she didn't want to. At least not yet. If he was still such a dangerous murderer, wouldn't he have tried to hurt her by then? Even with plenty of opportunity, all he'd done was hurt feelings and injure her pride. And he had already tried to atone for that. The repeated apologies he made and pleas for forgiveness while his face had been buried between her thighs had been fairly convincing.
She shook her head to dislodge those thoughts from her mind. The last thing she needed was to let her hormones and memories of the delicious flick of his tongue distract her from the very serious problem at hand. There was no way she could just ignore what she'd discovered. Not even if the man had a sad remorsefulness to him that seemed to indicate a life filled with regrets. Her life might not have been as long as his, but she could recognize a kindred spirit. Given the opportunity, they would both go back in time to make different choices.
"Don't be ridiculous, Granger."
Her mind reeled from the revelations of the previous few minutes. Ignoring that she was still quite naked, she stared at her reflection in the mirror above the sink, seeking answers of what she needed to do next. Could she just conveniently forget what she learned because he'd shown himself to be so kind and warm in her short time at the cottages? The urge to seek out some resolution that didn't involve the man being dragged off to Azkaban was strong. Had lack of proper sex for so long addled her brain to the point where she was incapable of making good decisions?
Nothing was going to be resolved hiding in the bathroom. Dressing in her fluffy bathrobe, she took a deep breath before stepping back into the bedroom. Rodolphus was seated on the edge of the bed, facing the door she just walked out of. In her absence he'd had the presence of mind to get dressed. At least there wouldn't be the distraction of too much bare flesh on display when they had the discussion that needed to happen.
She didn't know where to sit. Joining him on the bed felt too familiar. Spending a lazy day and night with him had been more incredible than she imagined it would be. Even all of those days trying to catch a glimpse of him through his kitchen window hadn't prepared her for what it actually felt like to be with him. If he hadn't turned out to be a secret Death Eater in hiding, she would've looked forward to many more days like that. Maybe even for years to come. But, his unglamoured Dark Mark had to go and ruin a perfectly good Sunday morning. In order to prevent getting too comfortable and sending a message she didn't intend, Hermione kept to her feet. Besides, it would be easier to run out of there if she was standing.
"Were you planning on ever telling me who you really were?"
Rodolphus sighed. Resting his elbows on his knees, he leaned his entire body forward. Far from being a dominant position, he was making himself seem as non-threatening as possible. She found it strange that even knowing who he was, she didn't feel frightened to be around him. Shocked, yes. Angry, absolutely. But not afraid. Of course, she thought it was probably difficult to be terrified of someone when she'd ripped her own knickers in the rush to get them off.
"I never planned on getting close enough to you that my true identity would matter."
It was Hermione's turn to sigh. That was why he'd run off the morning after they kissed. Not because he was regretting his actions or because she was unlovable and disgusting. In his own way, he was trying to spare her the inevitable backlash that knowing who he truly was would bring. Hurting her and embarrassing her in the moment was how he planned to protect her.
Except he couldn't stay away. That was what she struggled to understand. Why would he come back to a place where he could knowingly expose his secret? It made little sense. What was so important that he couldn't just walk away and stay gone?
He should have never come back. Why did he do it? He was almost free and yet, he gave up a chance to continue his life in secret for what? The chance to show off to a witch young enough to be his daughter? If he'd truly done what he did for selfless reasons, he wouldn't have come back to brag to the enchantress about buying the Daily Prophet and hexing her horrible husband. No, everything he'd done had been for purely selfish reasons. Though he never expected her reaction would be to pull him inside to her bedroom, he certainly wasn't going to complain about it. And yet one more time in his life that thinking with his trousers got him into serious trouble.
"That's why you ran off the other morning."
Only a nod of his head was his answer. He didn't trust himself yet. If he wasn't careful, he was apt to do something truly humiliating, like beg her for her silence. There was never a question whether or not he would hurt the fascinating creature. If she called for the aurors, he would go quietly. It was what he deserved after all. One couldn't go through their lives without being expected to pay for their crimes. He would never deny that he was once a Death Eater. Never deny that he wasn't there when those poor souls were tortured into insanity. Not a day went by that he didn't hear their screams or regret the waste of their lives.
"You disappeared after the night we moved Harry with polyjuice potion."
"Where did you go?"
She had him cornered in a trap he didn't know how to get out of. To tell the complete truth would reveal his other secret and he wasn't prepared to share that yet. Somehow that was an even larger breach of trust than his past allegiance to the Dark Lord. He'd seen her naked before she'd given him permission, slept in her bed without her knowing what he really was. Sighing in resignation, Hermione gave him an out.
"You can't tell me because that would betray those you kept you hidden."
Rodolphus nodded again. It was a partial truth. Of course, to be fair, Rosmerta didn't know the stray dog she gave a home to was actually a fugitive Death Eater. She would be more surprised than anyone to discover that fact. Being a firsthand observer of how she treated the men she believed betrayed her, he didn't like his chances against Rosmerta. He had been a witness to her own private moments and encounters. Nothing but a dirty old dog, he was.
"I guess that explains why you prefer to keep yourself hidden."
To his surprise, she moved to sit down on the bed next to him. There was still a great deal of empty space between them, but it was a start. Maybe it was a sign that all was not lost. At least she hadn't screamed and run away to alert the authorities. Perhaps he could also count that as a small victory. If he could somehow encourage her to not turn him in immediately, there might be hope after all that he would make it out of the pickle he created for himself.
"I know your crimes, Lestrange."
The use of his surname instead of his first hurt him more profoundly than the content of her statement. She was distancing herself from him. He didn't like it, not one bit. From the moment he laid eyes on her, crying on the front steps of her cottage, he wanted nothing more than to get closer. A ridiculous notion, under the circumstances, but one he desired nonetheless.
"You would be locked up in Azkaban in a second if anyone knew you lived here."
His ears perked up and his spirits buoyed slightly. This wasn't the sound of someone about to turn him in. Was it possible that she was considering ignoring the truth of his real identity? Perhaps, she could even look past… no, no, he shook his head. Even assuming that she could forget what a monster he was, he couldn't. He tainted and ruined everything and everyone he touched. If he wasn't such a bloody coward, he'd hand Millie over to Hermione's keeping and drown himself in the nearest lake. No, he needed to take her reluctance to reveal his whereabouts as the gift that it was. Best not to get carried away. He should just pack up and do exactly what he'd already planned to do.
"Did you know that Nymphadora Tonks was a friend of mine?"
Whatever he expected her to say next, that certainly wasn't it. With his eyes wide, he turned to face her head-on. Why would she bring her up? It all seemed so random. When he learned the fate of poor Andromeda's girl, he'd been gutted. There had been a time when he was a part of Dromeda's life, part of her family. She hadn't run off with her Muggle-born until Rodolphus had been engaged to Trixie for a few years. She had always been the favorite of his in-laws. When she was no longer allowed to be a part of their family, he'd mourned the loss. Though he never knew her daughter, he mourned her loss as well. She was his niece, no matter what the Black family tapestry had to say about it.
"She told me a curious story when we were alone that night after Harry was safe and we learned that Mad-Eye was dead."
Rodolphus felt his stomach twist into knots. He could only imagine what she was about to reveal. So much of what happened that night had been a blur. Bits and pieces of it remained in his memory, but not the whole picture. Maybe he didn't want to know.
"She told me that your wife seemed determined to kill her that night. Wanted to make it painful even. Tonks said that Bellatrix shouted over and over again how she was going to knock her off her broom. I imagine falling from such a great height would be infinitely more painful than a simple killing curse."
The pounding of his heart in his ears drowned out much of what she said. He had a suspicion that he knew where she was taking her tale. If he was correct, his actions would take a great deal more explaining than he was prepared to offer. Some actions were better left undisturbed, unanalyzed.
"Tonks claimed that her aunt was almost successful. A spell came hurtling at her that would've no doubt knocked her off her broom, perhaps even killing Ron at the same time. At the last second, just before it made impact, you flew in front of it. You saved her by taking the curse meant for her."
It was the least he could do. Stopping Trixie when she had her mind set to something was damn near impossible. He'd learned that lesson countless times over years of an unhappy marriage. His act of taking the curse meant for Dromeda's girl was unexpected, done only in the very last moments without thought. The loss of a life at such a young age was a tragedy to be avoided at all cost. He only wished he'd been able to do something to prevent her end months later at the final battle. By the time he heard the news from the safety of his rug in front of the fire at The Three Broomsticks, it was too late.
"You saved her life."
He stood to his feet, unable to look at her any longer. The walls of the room seemed to be closing in around him. If he didn't get out into some fresh air soon, he feared he might go mad or suffocate. He wasn't sure what her point was exactly. Saving one person in the midst of battle didn't exactly clear his slate of all of the other wrongdoings he'd committed in his life.
"Because of what you did for Tonks that day, I wouldn't feel right turning you in."
The words were spoken in hardly a whisper. If he hadn't had excellent hearing thanks to his animagus form, it was likely that Rodolphus wouldn't have even heard her utter them at all. Was she really going to let him go after discovering his true identity? Could one person be that genuinely compassionate? Very few people in his life had ever shown him any true kindness. It was difficult to accept. He would do what he could to prove himself worthy of the generosity. First, he knew that he had to walk away. The longer he stayed in her presence, the harder it would be to leave, and she deserved better than him. Deserved more than the stench that further association with him would leave upon her soul. He would cherish the afternoon and night they had together for as long as he lived, but that would be it.
"Thank you, Hermione. I think it best, under the circumstances, that I take my leave from you."
Whistling to Millie to get her to follow, he rushed out of the bedroom that had been the scene of so many blissful hours such a short time earlier. Words seemed too inadequate. He wouldn't have known what to say even if he tried. She didn't follow him or call to him to stop. Only when he was outside in the crisp winter air was he able to take a deep breath again.
By the following Saturday morning, Hermione hadn't seen a single clue to indicate that Rodolphus was still living in the cottage near hers except for the plume of smoke that continuously rose from the chimney. Since the Sunday morning that had gone so terribly wrong, she had been tempted many times to cross the short distance to the matching cottage to make certain that he still existed within its walls. Each time she stepped towards the front door, she stopped herself. What good would it do to forge any kind of friendship or relationship with the reclusive man? The mystery had been replaced with a reality that she didn't know what to do with.
She hadn't been lying to him when she told him that she didn't feel right about turning him in after sacrificing his life for the daughter of his disgraced sister-in-law. Up until the moment that they were both seated on the bed, she hadn't even recalled Tonks' story about that night for years. What seemed like such an inconsequential, yet unbelievable, fact of that night might have saved the simple life he'd built for himself following the war. Stealing his second chance didn't sit well within her gut.
Not once had she felt frightened in the man's presence. Priding herself on having an excellent judge of character, Hermione had yet to feel threatened. It was only a series of innocent moments that even allowed their paths to cross. She had been the pushy one. Left up to his own devices, they probably would've never even spoken. If he was still a danger to society, wouldn't he have tried to do something by then? He had plenty of opportunity. Not even when she was naked and underneath the crush of his larger body did she worry that he would harm her. Surely this was a man whose remorse and regret had shaped into a different person. At least that's what she tried to convince herself of every time she stopped to reconsider whether or not letting him continue to live outside of Azkaban was right or wrong.
After almost a week of seeing nothing of the man or either of his dogs, she was growing restless of being cooped up inside the cottage. She could only stand at the kitchen window hoping to see his shadow cross the glass so many times before she went absolutely mad. Deciding that a walk to the village would do her some good, she bundled up into her warmest coat and headed down the path.
Her time away from the Ministry and from her husband had been a good idea. Even she had to admit that Kingsley was correct in his assertion that she required a long break before she was fit to return to polite society again. Though it had been difficult in the beginning to see the appeal of such an existence, after three weeks in Sada Shafiq's country cottage, she was beginning to understand why Rodolphus hadn't fled the country at first chance. A simple life seemed infinitely better than the stress and overwork she'd known working in London. The exhausting thirst to prove herself worthy of being a witch to those who would condemn her for her heritage had taken its toll.
She kept her head down all the way to the village. There was a great deal on her mind. With her forced sabbatical half-over, she needed to start thinking about what she was going to do next. Hiding in the countryside sounded lovely, but it was impractical. She couldn't keep running from her problems. Taking a break from them for a little while was perfectly acceptable as long as she eventually returned.
Her marriage with Ron needed to be officially absolved. It was a pity too. They'd both started off with so much hope for the future. Perhaps that had been the problem. Neither of them were truly over the events of their adolescence, especially the last few years. Rushing into marriage had been foolish. They loved each other certainly. It just, unfortunately, wasn't the right kind of love to keep a marriage sustained. Maybe if they hadn't tried to find solace in the other person, they would've been able to at least remain friends. That hardly seemed like an option. Each of them had done their damndest to hurt the other. It was long past time to cut their losses and run.
The stillness of the sleepy village provided ample time to continue her deep thinking as she moved through the streets. A break in the weather meant that no new snow had fallen in days, but the temperature was still quite low. Hermione loved the cold weather. Seemed fitting with the way her life had been going. She took her time going from shop to shop looking at everything they had to offer. As much as she usually loathed meandering about with no set purpose in mind, she had a great deal of time to kill and little options. Staying hunkered down in her temporary home wouldn't be a suitable solution forever.
By midday, she had done all of the shopping that she desired. The charming village boasted of a small cafe in the center. Hermione tried to forget the visit she'd made there once before when she didn't know the man seated across the table from her was actually a Death Eater. Strange how much could change in such a very short time. Not wishing to revisit those memories any longer, she took a seat at the counter, far away from the table they shared.
"This seat taken?"
Hermione looked up from the bowl of soup she'd been enjoying to face the man who belonged to the voice. She didn't recognize him, but he seemed harmless enough. A small smile and a wave to the chair with her hand encouraged the stranger to sit down. There were other open chairs up and down the counter. Asking to sit next to her was a deliberate move on the man's part. She wasn't sure if she should be flattered or annoyed.
"That any good?"
He gestured to her bowl. With a shrug of her shoulders, she explained she'd had worse. His smile was infectious. Not exactly handsome in what one might call the most conventional of ways, the Muggle had kind eyes and an openness about him that she found comforting. At least it was more so than the guarded man she'd recently been spending time with. While she finished up her meal and he waited for his to arrive, they passed the time in simple conversation about nothing of any great value or importance.
It felt good to be normal again. The man didn't know who she was. He wasn't watching her for some scrap of information that he could use to his advantage or sell to the papers. There was no way he could have even known she was famous. In his world, she was just another woman eating alone in a cafe. Bit pathetic, really. Hardly the actions of the Chosen One's best friend and traveling companion. More than a few times over the course of their conversation she thought perhaps dating Muggles would be a good idea. At least then she wouldn't have to worry that they would one day reveal they were fugitive Death Eaters.
It was creepy that he knew exactly how long she'd been gone from her cottage. Rodolphus knew that. He wished he wasn't aware of what time it had been when she walked out of the front door bundled up for a walk into the village. Staring out the window at her was just wrong.
But he couldn't help it. For the better part of a week, he had tried and failed repeatedly not to think about the girl next door. It seemed simple enough to accomplish until his devious, filthy mind remembered how she felt shuddering around him, panting for more. Or how she tasted and the passion that she threw herself into everything she did. He was a dirty, old dog who should've long ago been put out of his misery, but he still couldn't stop staring at the path he knew she disappeared down exactly three hours and forty-seven minutes earlier.
He'd spent the time apart trying to determine what his next move should be. Staying so close to someone who not only knew exactly who he was but had extremely powerful friends wasn't smart. Perhaps she wasn't tempted to turn him in yet. There was still time later for her to change her mind. Human beings were fickle creatures and entirely unpredictable. If he was smart, he would pack everything up again and leave. Of course, the cottage was paid up through the end of February and it did seem an awful waste of money to just leave it early. Hope still remained that he might be able to stay right where he was and resume a friendship at least with Hermione. His father had been correct to call him a sentimental fool.
Unable to remain inside the confining walls of the cottage, Rodolphus stepped outside for fresh air. Millie didn't even stir from the bed in front of the fireplace where she was asleep. Growing up was a tiring business. She spent most of the day dead to the world. Her master's sudden exit through the front door didn't even bother her. Life hadn't taught her yet that living was full of disappointments. Those lessons would come later and frequently.
Against his better judgement, he found his feet carrying him down the same path towards the village. It was silly to try to orchestrate an accidental meeting, even subconsciously. If he wanted to have words with her and spend any amount of time with her, he needed to gather his strength and just do it. Once upon a time he had confidence. Surely he could uncover it again.
He was only a few steps down the path when he heard the sound of her laughter. It was an unmistakable noise that never failed to put a smile on his lips. In his opinion, she didn't laugh nearly often enough. If he had his desires, she would spend every single day laughing. Feeling more confident about rushing out to meet her, Rodolphus sped up his pace. Just a few more steps and he heard the voices. She wasn't alone. A scowl marred his features when he picked a decidedly masculine tone out of the air. Not only was she not by herself, but she was walking towards her cottage with a man.
There was only one thing he could do to satisfy his curiosity. It was always possible that he was misinterpreting what he was hearing. Quickly, before anyone could see him, Rodolphus transformed into his animagus form. As a friendly, fluffy dog, no one felt threatened by his presence. He would be able to go anywhere he wished.
"I told you it wasn't necessary to walk me back. I knew the way."
"Nonsense. Any man who gives up the chance to accompany a pretty girl on a beautiful day like today is an idiot."
Jealousy stirred within Rodolphus' fuzzy breast. The bits and pieces of the conversation he was able to pick up as he ran towards them didn't sound innocent. It might have been a long time since he had a proper courtship of a young lady, but he knew the sound of flirtation when he heard it. Whoever the creature was, he wanted more than just a polite discussion with his witch.
"No, I insist on leaving you here. I know for a fact that you don't live up this path."
"All right, all right. You got me. I just wasn't in a hurry to end our afternoon. I've been enjoying our conversation."
The Saint Bernard was close enough to the couple on the path that he could see them even if they weren't yet aware of his presence. He didn't know the man. Muggle, most likely. Never seen him before. By the way he was leering at Hermione and how close he was standing to her, he knew he wasn't just going to walk away at her request.
"How about dinner tomorrow night? In the village?"
Her hesitation to commit rose Rodolphus' spirits just a bit. Though she didn't appear too distressed by the close proximity of the man, she wasn't overly eager to accept his invitation either. She seemed to be searching for a polite way to brush the Muggle's request off. The instant his hand touched Hermione's arm, he felt the urge to rip out his throat. How dare he be so bold! Not caring that he would be seen if he moved closer, the dog bounced towards them both. The cretin had the audacity to squeeze the witch's arm and lean in closer to her like he was going to try to steal a kiss.
If anyone was going to kiss Hermione, it was going to be Rodolphus. His sudden appearance made them both jump in fright. She laughed, but the Muggle didn't find anything amusing about the deep growl emanating from the back of the large dog's throat. His wide eyes proved his fear. Rodolphus used the moment of uncertainty to his advantage by placing his body between theirs. A gentle press against Hermione encouraged her to walk towards the cottages and away from the man who wasn't worthy of her time. She allowed him to herd her away from her would-be assailant. Did he even ask her if it was all right to kiss her first?
"Looks like someone is anxious to get me home," Hermione said, her voice full of laughter. "It was a pleasure meeting you, Andrew. Thank you for walking with me."
To ensure the man had no intention of following them up the path to home, Rodolphus opened his mouth wide enough to show him all of his sharp teeth. Evidently not a fan of dogs, the boy Andrew watched them disappear up the path without following. The sound of her amused laughter accompanied them all of the way back to the cottages.
"Thank you for rescuing me back there, Orville."
She leaned over to scratch behind his ears, right in the very place he loved most. He felt his eyes closing with the pleasure. When she approached the front steps to her cottage, she sat down on them in the exact spot she had that first day when she'd cried into his fur. Not wishing to let a moment pass him by to offer additional comfort, he followed to sit next to her.
"He seemed a nice enough bloke, but I'm not ready for that."
They sat in silence for a few minutes. Her hands never ceased their rub of his fur. If that was as close to being back in bed with her as he was going to get, Rodolphus gladly enjoyed every moment.
"I've missed you. Where have you been keeping yourself?"
Whining, he looked up into her eyes with the most pitiful expression he knew how to make as a dog. Far from being depressed, Hermione only laughed and kissed his right on the end of his snout.
"I miss your master too, but don't tell him I said so."
His ears perked up at her confession.
"I'd like to see him again, but I'm not sure it's possible to move past what he used to be."
There was more to what she wanted to say, he was certain. It was easy to tell that she was holding back. Unburdening one's self to a sympathetic canine had its limitations after all. Rising to her feet, Hermione opened the front door. Gesturing with her head, she extended a nonverbal invitation to join her inside. When he didn't budge, she smiled.
"Come inside, if you want. It's cold out here. We can snuggle on the couch in front of the fire."
Rodolphus longed for nothing more than the simple pleasure she was offering. He couldn't accept no matter how much he wished he could. It didn't feel right. He couldn't keep lying to her and betraying her trust. With a final whine, he ran off into the woods behind the cottage.