Chapter Two

Hermione Granger was a War Hero, so no one questioned her presence when she wanted to go somewhere in the Wizarding World, these days. However, her sudden and unannounced arrival at Azkaban—a parchment page clutched in one fist, her wand in the other—did cause the raising of more than a few eyebrows.

Though, she filled out all the necessary paperwork to be permitted time to speak with a prisoner, she did so in silence. Her expression was stern, her quill moved in sharp, angry strokes across the documents. She did wonder when, exactly, she'd gained the ability to quiet someone with a look, but somehow she had, because that was precisely what happened each time someone asked her why she wanted to see him.

All she did say, as she left to start her trek through the winding, ugly corridors, was, "I don't require an escort. My business is my own. If you have a problem, take it up with Minister Shacklebolt."

As she stormed along, she shook her head. Kingsley had no idea she was here—and he wouldn't be pleased when he eventually caught wind of it, either—but tossing around the Minister's name did, typically, stop unwanted inquiries, and often without anyone actually being brave enough to contact the Ministry, directly. It was hardly as though the man would rat her out, but he would have some serious words with her in private.

Her jaw was clenched so tight, Hermione considered it a wonder she didn't chip a tooth. She thought the parchment might just burst into flames in her grasp, she was so infuriated.

This . . . this rubbish!

The walk did nothing to quell her irritation; the winding path, the many steps and the echo of her own angry and plodding footfalls only managed to stoke her anger, further.

By the time she reached his cell she was fuming.

The prisoner climbed to his feet, a look of shock in his dark eyes. "You . . . you actually came to see me?" he asked, his voice barely above a whisper. He genuinely sounded happy.

She refused to let him think she bought his act. Tossing the letter into his pathetic cage—right where he deserved to be—she said, "What the bloody hell is the meaning of this, Dolohov?"

Frowning, he stooped to pick up the missive. He couldn't help that his expression shifted into a half-grin as he looked over the writing. "Oh, she must've written this as soon as she got settled yesterday in order for it to reach you so fast. She has lovely penmanship, doesn't she, my niece?"

Hermione wasn't fooled by his mildly gushing tone as he spoke of the young woman who'd written her. She'd not even met Katerina Dolohov, but she had no shortness of sympathy for someone with the misfortune of being related to a man like Antonin. "Spare me. How dare you involve anyone else in this! You want my forgiveness? Perhaps you should've shown a little courage and written me, yourself."

Nodding, he pressed the letter between his palms and lifted his gaze to meet hers. "And you'd read a letter from me?"

The witch uttered an ugly scoffing sound in the back of her throat. "Of course not."

His frown returning, Antonin nodded. "Hence why I would ask her to contact you. With my own voice, you'd never listen. With someone else's, at least some of the words might get through."

Her chestnut eyes narrowed, making for a lethal expression. He actually . . . actually almost sounded . . . . Like he's full of rubbish, Hermione! It's all an act! "Some words, no words, it doesn't matter how many words you throw at me, Dolohov, nor whose 'voice' you use! You are a murderer and a war criminal and you're exactly where you belong. And I'm never going to forgive you for the things you've done, not to me or anyone else."

She was strangely aware of the way his shoulders drooped as she pivoted on her heel to start back the way she came. Strangely aware of how his brow had furrowed, and his frown deepened.

And she knew he'd muttered something as she took a step. Something that could not be what it sounded like.

Whirling back to face him, she found Antonin crossing his little cage to go sit in a corner, presumably. "What did you just say?"

He shifted to look at her, the letter from his niece still clutched in his hands. "I said I never truly expected that you could forgive me."

That . . . that she'd not expected to hear. She couldn't deny that she was a little taken aback by it. Keeping her features carefully schooled, she shrugged. "Then why bother to apologize, at all?"

Antonin answered her shrug with one of his own. "You may not understand this feeling, being someone who doesn't have nearly so grave of things as I for which to apologize, but even knowing you would likely not accept it, I was still compelled to apologize. Even knowing you'd more likely spit in my face than listen to a word I have to say, I simply felt it was . . . something I needed to do."

Her gaze narrowing further, still, she tipped up her chin in a defiant look. That sounded sincere, which gave her all the more reason to doubt a single syllable that fell from his lips.

Giving herself a barely perceptible shake, she nodded. "Goodbye, Dolohov."

He watched her as she finally turned away and left him alone.

He was too elated to even smirk. He had no idea she'd do something like this, he thought, as he dropped his gaze to the parchment in his hands.

Antonin didn't even know if what he was attempting would work, but he'd considered that to even make the attempt he'd have to have gotten close enough to her to snatch a loose strand of hair from her clothing, or he'd have to have managed to reach out and brush his skin against hers for a fleeting moment.

But this . . . ? Lifting the letter in what scant light there was, he could see the creases from where she'd gripped the parchment in her fist. He could even detect a still-drying warmth in the fabric of the page. Yes, her sweat.

She'd not even realized what she'd just given him. Modern magic teachings were funny that way.

Stuffing the letter away within the folds of his tattered robes, he settled himself on the floor and closed his eyes. Now that he had this little vestige of her, it was time to concentrate.

To focus and see just how much of his family's old magics he recalled.

Testing just how much magical energy he could muster without a wand, however? Well, he'd cross that bridge when he came to it.

One Day Earlier

Though she didn't trust either of them as far as she could throw them, she'd slipped away just long enough to jot down a quick letter to Miss Hermione Granger. Katerina couldn't let go of what her uncle had asked of her, but she also thought it would probably be overstepping to try and speak with the other witch in person about such an . . . unusual issue.

Luckily, owls were self-sufficient creatures, so, left to their own devices with the access to the Estate's owlery left open to them, she found two feathery messengers nestled in their perches. She had no idea where Hermione Granger was, but she understood the intuitive perceptions the owls used to navigate to their destinations. Of course, she could've simply addressed it to the Ministry and let the issue go from there, but she had a feeling that they wouldn't allow the woman to receive anything bearing the name Dolohov.

Now, letter sent and her stomach rumbling, whether she liked it or not, she sat at the kitchen table across from Orias and Corvus. She had yet to touch the plate of food in front of her, keeping her arms folded as she blinked at them, her jaw set.

They each looked back at her as they ate, their brows high on their foreheads as they quite obviously waited for her to speak.

Swallowing hard and nodding to herself, she finally did. "Why the hell shouldn't I simply turn you to over to the Ministry?"

Smirking, Orias wiped the corner of his mouth with a napkin before answering. "Well, you know we did discuss this, in the event you did show and your uncle wasn't full of shit. And it turns out, that's a two-fold answer."

Corvus pushed aside his plate, pursing his lips as he sat back in his chair. "First, now understand we know you could turn us in, sure, but," he said, wagging his finger in her general direction, "think about how that might look. Sure, you're be doing the right thing from a . . . strictly legal standpoint, but the Ministry's a suspicious lot. They might see the entire thing as a carefully orchestrated ploy set up between you and your uncle to get you into their good graces."

Picking up the fork set beside her plate, she stabbed half-heartedly at the food before her. They were right. She hadn't seen it, and there was a chance the Ministry might not see it that way, but could she really risk incriminating herself in some imaginary plot?

"Second?" she asked, darting her gaze from the untouched meal up to their faces.

Orias took the liberty to scoot his chair around the table, moving closer to her. Though her eyes widened at the sudden invasion of personal space, she fought to keep her expression blank.

"Second," the hulking blond echoed, those blue eyes of his capturing hers as he spoke. "No one out there is going to be especially excited to make a Dolohov feel welcome in Wizarding Britain. Situations like that can be rather brutal. If you're going to manage a life here, you'll want the support of having someone on your side."

Katerina shifted in her seat. She really didn't want to consider his words, but she knew he was right. She's been on her own a while, now, and she was perfectly aware how guarded and closed off that had made her. The simple notion of having someone to talk to seemed immeasurably comforting.

But it also sounded a little too good to be true.

"Even if those someones are 'on my side' out of necessity rather than choice?"

Both wizards appeared to think this over before—both—answering with a shrug.

"Sometimes," Corvus said with a gentle smile that she completely distrusted, "those circumstances forge stronger bonds."

Frowning at that answer—just how strong of ties did he mean? What type of bond was he thinking might form between the three of them?—she sighed and let herself try a few bites of the meal in front of her.

Dammit it all. They could cook. She supposed . . . . Well, keeping them around might not be so terrible, for a little while, anyway.

She wandered the second floor, peeking into suites as she drifted along the corridor. Orias and Corvus gave her the locations of the rooms they'd selected for themselves, so she wouldn't mistakenly stumble into their private quarters. Though, she did arch a brow at how close together their chosen rooms were.

Refusing to think on why they wouldn't want more space, being that men did have a reputation for liking to spread themselves out, she poked her head into a random doorway. Just as fast, she backpedaled, peering back down the corridor.

Was that a footfall she'd just heard?

Forcing a gulp down her throat, she listened for a strained moment. No, no, she thought, shaking her head. Her jangled nerves were causing her to imagine things.

Returning her attention to the room before her, she pushed open the door and stepped inside. This . . . this must've been one of her great-aunt's rooms, because the feminine taste in décor was obvious. The vanity table, the gilt-framed mirror, the wardrobe with the delicate rose pattern carved into the wood.

All right, this would do. Nodding, she let her bag drop beside her feet. Perhaps when she was of a mind to further explore the vast, crumbling house, she might find a space that felt more her, but for now, she could call this room her own.

This vast, crumbling house with the near-strangers in it that was all she had left in the world. Her criminal uncle rotting in a cell who was the only family she had . . . .

As she closed the door behind her, she pressed her back to it and slid down, landing on the floor none too delicately. Everything she'd fought not to feel these last few weeks closed in on her in that instant.

She hadn't had the chance to mourn her father's passing, everything had happened so fast. She loved him, and wanted to curse his name, at the same time. Her life wasn't something she recognized, anymore—not even vaguely. Katerina felt the lump in her throat as the tears started. She hated these sour and angry feelings, she hated this clawing pain that threatened to choke her, but she knew she couldn't put off reacting any longer.

Pulling her knees into her chest, she wrapped her arms around them and dropped her head down. Making everything worse, she had no idea what to do! Was there even anything for her to do? Her life had turned to utter shit, and she found she was unable to do anything but follow the path she'd found herself on.

She opened her mouth in a silent scream against her own sobbing. How pathetic! And how utterly disappointed her father would be to see her like this. He'd always taught her never to show her pain, but she couldn't help it, anymore.

Here she sat, a shamefully weeping mess of a witch who had not the faintest idea what to—

Knock, knock.

Jumping at the soft tapping from the other side of the door, Katerina blinked until her watery vision cleared a little and cleared her throat. "What . . . what is it?"

"We, um, we heard you crying." That was Corvus' voice. "Do you want us to come in?"

Frowning, she narrowed her eyes in thought. "You heard me? You rooms aren't anywhere near—"

"We're noisy like that," Orias said. "You want company or not?"

Laughing sadly to herself—they had talked about giving her their support, hadn't they?—she climbed to her feet and turned, pulling open the door. There they stood, big, bad Dark wizards who were somehow trying to play the roles of knights in shining armor.

Sniffling, she nodded, letting Corvus pull her into the comfort of a hug, and Orias swoop in behind her, dropping his head down against the top of hers.

Yes, she'd let them do this for her, as they'd said they would. Just for now.