Hermione looked over her shoulder at the sound of the gated entrance at the top of the stairs scraping open. Multiple sets of footfalls started downward, but she only shrugged and went back to her examination of the warded doors at the far end of the cellar. If they hadn't wanted her to explore—after all, it was hardly as though her reputation hadn't preceded her—they should've shackled her ankles to the floor.
What could these be hiding? she wondered with a curious grin.
Then she heard the voices, echoing down the stairwell long before the men emerged. Deep voices, impressively so . . . . Enough to pique her curiosity and cause her to turn on her heel to face the commotion.
Her brows shot up at the two massive blond wizards who came stumbling out of the suddenly too-narrow seeming stairwell. How they managed to squeeze through shoulder-to-shoulder was beyond her. They could pass for brothers, though she had the distinct impression they were not. The only obvious difference between them—all broad shoulders and long, dark-gold hair—was that the bearded one was several centimeters taller.
She did, however, recognize the wizard who followed them, his wand trained on the pair. Rodolphus Lestrange looked exhausted just from dealing with these two.
"Oh," the bearded one said, his naturally booming voice echoing harshly off the cellar walls. "Tha's the one everyone's in a tizzy about upstairs?"
Ooh, and they were drunk! Perhaps she shouldn't be surprised that the cellar also doubled as a Death Eater drunk-tank. That's what happened in actual prisons, too, wasn't it?
"What? Did I wander into the Viking corner of the manor?"
Laughing, the clean-shaven one answered. "Well, after hearing the way you strolled in here, all bad arse and not afraid to die, like a right tiny Valkyrie, it'd be right where you belong, wouldn't it?" He squinted his bleary eyes, focusing on her face. "Wait . . . I know you . . . ."
Hermione frowned in thought as she met his gaze. "Thorfinn Rowle?"
His drinking-buddy narrowed his eyes. "You already know her? Not fair."
Rowle snickered shrugging as he took a step toward her, but a hissed command from Rodolphus halted him in his tracks. "I's not a big deal. Tell 'im how we know each other, Sunshine."
With a sigh, Hermione smirked. Huh, he was as dashing as she recalled—not to mention notably taller and boarder than he'd been as a visiting seventh year. And perhaps even a little adorable inebriated like this. "We sometimes studied together when Hogwarts was hosting Durmstrang during the Tri-wizard Tournament."
His brows inching upward, he tutted at her. "You forgot the part where we became snogging-buddies after you called it quits with Krum."
Uttering an unattractive groan in the back of her throat, she rolled her eyes. Of course he'd bring that up.
The bearded one let out a mock scandalized gasp before bursting out in peels of laughter at his own silliness.
"I'm going to leave you three alone," Rodolphus said, hurrying to finish before either of the drunken Vikings could suggest anything. "But, if either of you so much as lay a finger on this one, Bellatrix has permission to flay you alive. Dark Lord's orders."
Not seeming satisfied with the sharp command, the one with the beard called after Rolophus, "Really? Not even the tip of one finger?"
"Not a single bloody touch, Mulciber."
"Well, wha' if I don't put my finger on her? What about if I were just to—?"
"No! And if you ask one thing more, I'm going to hit you with a stinging hex that'll make you wish you'd never been born."
If Hermione didn't know any better, she'd swear the massive wizard was sulking as they listened to Rodolphus slam the door at the top of the steps. Her brow furrowed. "What exactly were you planning on doing with your fing—?"
Sooner than she could finish her question, both Rowle and the other one turned to look at her, their brows high on their foreheads.
"Oh, right." She shrugged and cleared her throat. "Then it looks like Thorfinn's not the only Death Eater with a libido, after all."
Just as comical as their mirrored expression of questioning only a few seconds ago was the way the both slumped at her statement.
Thorfinn frowned. "Why would you even think Death Eaters don't—?"
"Well, I didn't necessarily think anything, per se, but . . . ." She crinkled the bridge of her nose as she nodded toward the floor above their heads. "Do seem to be a lot of frustrated people around here."
Mulciber grinned, taking a step toward the witch. "I'm sure you could probably help a bit with that, Sunshine, was it?"
She let out a surprised laugh at his forwardness. Not that what he was suggesting seemed all that bad of an idea. Well, then! Seemed her ability to give a shit had taken with it her inhibitions about other matters when it fled.
Thorfinn clamped a hand over Mulciber's shoulder. "Down, man!"
Hermione narrowed her eyes as she held the taller man's gaze. "My name's Hermione Granger, thanks very much. This one just calls me 'Sunshine' as joke about my fiery temper. What is your name? Or shall I just refer to you as 'that mountain over there?'"
He chuckled raising his hand to scratch at his beard in thought. "Well, I do like the ring of that . . . . I'm Orias."
"Hmm." She gave Thorfinn an appraising once-over, and then repeated the look with Orias. "I'll have to remember that."
Her change in demeanor was just off-putting enough to sober Thorfinn a little bit. Other than the years between then and now, she was so changed from the girl he remembered.
His gaze narrowed as he returned her appraising look. "What happened to you?"
With an emotionless smile, she shrugged. "I broke."
He was surprised that those two little words actually stung him. Not because he cared which side of the War she was on—though with her brains, he imagined their side now had one hell of an advantage—but he'd liked that girl he remembered. Whether or not he'd care at all for the women who'd grown from the fracturing of that girl was another story.
That emotionless smile of hers just as quick melted into a thoughtful frown as she gave another shrug. "Then again, I wasn't exactly the flowers and sunlight creature most of my friends liked to think I was to start with, so . . . maybe it's not such a surprise I ended up here with you lot, after all."
Orias folded his long legs under himself and fell into a sitting position on the cold stone floor. The motion was surprisingly fluid for both his stature, and the fact that he smelled a bit like he'd bathed in ale. "Oh, really? Le's have an example, then, shall we? Heri . . . Hermy? Heron? Sorry, what was it again? My memory's shit when I'm pissed."
Her brows shot up as she laughed. "I suspect it's not to great when you're sober, either."
Thorfinn snickered and shook his head.
Orias frowned like a giant, petulant toddler.
Nodding, she decided to take pity on him. There was a chance he'd remember this when he was possessed of his full faculties, and not knowing what sort of person he typically was, she thought perhaps it was best not to mock him . . . too much.
"An example?" she repeated, nodding. "Okay. When I was twelve years old—this was toward the end of my first year at Hogwarts—we needed to distract one of our professors during a Quidditch game. I offered to be the one to do it. My brilliant idea? Sneak up, under the bleachers where he was sitting, and set his robes ablaze."
"You set your teacher on fire?"
The witch held up her hands. "It was literally the first thought that came to mind, so I just went with it. But seriously? What twelve year old girl comes up with that as their Plan A?"
Thorfinn puffed out his cheeks as he exhaled from between pursed lips. And he thought he was the one with a penchant for setting things aflame.
Orias, on the other hand, looked enthralled. Propping his elbows on his knees and curling his fists under his chin, he offered her a wide grin—that she thought he had to know looked incredibly goofy on such an impressively built creature as he—and nodded. "G' on. Give us another one!"
A lopsided frown curving his mouth, Thorfinn looked at the other man. "You're just too much sometimes, you know that?"
Scoffing, Orias shook his head, but didn't take his eyes from the young woman standing before him. "I'm sure this one here thinks I'm just enough. Don't you, Little Witch?"
Hermione's eyebrows pinched together as she bit back a smile. "Believe you and I would need to get to know one another a lot better before I could answer that, now wouldn't we?"
She could hear the sound of Thorfinn slapping his hand against his forehead in the background, even as that goofy grin of Orias' widened. "I like the way you think!"
"Thank you, I am often told my brain is one of my best features."
"Really? Well, then, I should say—"
"Oh my God, man, stop!" Thorfinn's words were tinged with amusement as he doubled over, resting his hands on his knees as though trying to catch his breath. He let out a boisterous laugh and shook his head. "Can't lay a finger on the woman and you insist on flirting? You like having to take matters, let's say, 'into your own hands' then, I suppose?"
She covered her mouth with her fingers to stifle a shocked laugh at his meaning—she'd ignore that the mental picture that went with it set off an instant blush in her cheeks.
Orias, to his credit, didn't look the slightest bit flustered at the implication. "If we're being totally honest, I'd much rather she take my 'matters' into her hands, but if one is pressed for companionship—"
Hermione didn't know if it was good timing or bad that the gated door at the top of the staircase screeched open, just then, cutting into the mountain of a wizard's declaration. She felt the smile fade from her lips as she listened to the approaching footfalls.
There went that strange little zing through her, like what had happened upstairs just before Lucius Malfoy had dragged her away. Swallowing hard, she knew the change in her demeanor was reflected in her expression—could feel the way Orias and Thorfinn glanced from her, to the mouth of the stairwell, and back a few times, as they waited for the person to emerge.
Fenrir Greyback stepped out, his gaze fixing on each of the Death Eaters, in turn, before landing on her. Those amber eyes locking on hers, he crooked his finger at her, beckoning her closer.
She didn't know that she liked the way this caused Orias and Thorfinn to exchange a look. But she felt oddly like she couldn't help herself, either, as she followed the werewolf's gestured instruction.
When she came to a halt before him, Fenrir only stood in silence, watching her face for a few painfully long heartbeats. Then, all at once, it seemed, she found herself pressed close to him, one of his arms around to hold her to him as he bent toward her. The hand of his other arm had curled into her hair, pulling back her head.
His face was pressed into the crook of her neck as he took a long sniff of her skin.
She pretended the rush of his breath against her throat didn't send a sweet little shiver through her as she pressed her palms against his chest, trying to put some distance between them.
Just as fast as he'd taken hold of her, though, he released her. Her scramble to get away from him had her stumbling backward a few steps before she managed to get her footing.
"What the bloody hell was that about?" she demanded, completely bewildered by his actions.
"Making sure those two did as they were told and kept their distance from you." In way of clarification, Fenrir flared his nostrils and inhaled sharply.
He'd been searching for their scent on her. Nodding, she cleared her throat. "I see. You know, the Dark Lord is about to make me take veritaserum. He could've just asked me."
"While that may be true, Sweetness, if I waited that long, Bellatrix would be the one to get to make them pay for it if they disobeyed, and I wasn't about to let that sort of fun go to her."
She could hear both of the blond wizards behind them sputtering confused questions about that. Clearly, the werewolf's aggression toward them wasn't all that common if they were surprised over his words.
She backpedaled another step, giving Fenrir Greyback a once-over. It was all there in the way he was looking at her. "This isn't about them, or about the Dark Lord's orders at all, is it? It's about me?"
He winked, smirking at her. "I'll fill you in when we're away from prying ears."
"Oy," Orias shouted, even as Fenrir slipped his fingers around the back of the witch's neck and started leading her up the stairs. "You better not mean that the way it sounded."
Hermione hadn't felt fear, not truly, anyway, the entire while she'd been in the manor. Not until now, that is.
As Fenrir guided her through the doorway and slammed the gate shut, he turned and pulled her with him to start down the corridor. Yet, it seemed this was only a pretense, allowing him to look about and check if they were truly alone.
Sooner than she could blink, Hermione found her back against the wall. Fenrir pinned her body with his own as he stared down into her face. She hated that she couldn't understand how her fear melted away in favor of a series of sudden, involuntary reactions to him . . . . The way her skin had warmed and she could feel the thrum of her pulse in her veins. There was a giddy ripple in the pit of her stomach, like butterflies in anticipation of a first kiss that contradicted wildly with the sweet, subtle thudding between her thighs.
"Of course it's about you, Sweetness," he said, finally answering her question. He granted her a feral grin while he lowered his gaze to trace over her lips. "It's about the Dark Lord finally giving me something I want. It's about the very thought of letting anyone else have you before me."