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monster in the woman

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I.

Somewhere in the rotting ruins of England, Hermione waited.

II.

The air was heavy with the scent of fire--the rotting remnants of buildings, the last of the plants, the scattered bodies of the dead, everything burned to oily ashes. The wind picked it up, tossed it until Viktor couldn't breathe, until all life was choked.

In the distance, a wolf howled, a thin, reedy noise. The animal was starving, if it was alone. If not, if it ran in a pack, glutted on the remaining Muggles and the weakening wizards, he knew he should turn away, find some new location to search.

Hermione waited, somewhere, moving from one place to the next. He couldn't leave the area, not when he chased rumours for so long without finding anything concrete. Harry Potter had been there, in the village before it was destroyed, and where there was Potter, there was Hermione.

III.

Viktor carried three things with him, his wand, his broomstick, and the last letter Hermione sent. When the owl delivered it, a mangled creature missing an eye and leaving handfuls of feathers all over his room, he barely had time to grab the paper before it was gone, out into the dark sky.

There were no stars that night, and no moon.

In the mornings, before he opened his eyes, Viktor pulled the letter from the pocket of his trousers, ran his fingers over the wrinkled, worn paper, and remembered the smell of Hermione's hair, the way the skin between her eyebrows wrinkled when she bent over books in the library, and the brush of her lips in a chaste kiss.

He did not have to read the words to remember what she said.

"Stay away" and "It isn't safe" and "I'll contact you again when I can".

And at the bottom, scratched out but still legible, "I'm afraid, Viktor, so very--".

Viktor didn't pay attention to the affairs of Muggles, but Hermione always knew what was going on in the non-wizarding world. Perhaps her interest was because of her parents, who mired her in non-magical ideas.

She wrote him when the rumours started, stories her parents did not believe, about increased meteor showers and talk of how another large comet was due to hit the Earth. He almost heard her voice as he read the words she had written, heard the mix of laughter and lecture when she talked about dinosaurs and the explanations for their disappearance.

Magic, of course, and when the stars really did start to fall from the sky, Viktor knew that was magic, too, spells more devious than he had been taught in all his forced studies of the Dark Arts.

No matter how much he knew, Hermione always found a way to learn more. If she was frightened, things were much worse than he had been led to believe, from his distant view of the war.

IV.

Dumbledore promised him work, before he died.

Viktor had not wanted to return to Durmstrang after the Tri-Wizard Tournament, but England was in such a turmoil he had no real choice. Dumbledore promised he would be in touch, and Viktor held on to that hope.

Dumbledore had been the one to get him out of trouble. After they had dragged him, dazed, into the first aid tent, wizards surrounded him, wands at the ready, jammed into his face, and their questions--his mind was already clouded, and his memories more like a dream than something he had actually done.

They didn't believe him when he said he didn't know, didn't believe him when he said he couldn't remember, didn't believe a word he said. Viktor was careful not to mention the Imperius Curse. Too many others had used it to excuse their actions, he would not be like them.

There was noise outside the tent, more noise than before, and a distraught Mr Diggory forced his way past the other wizards. Viktor sat up too fast and he thought he'd be ill.

"You killed my son," Mr Diggory shrieked, and would have hurt him had the others not interfered. Viktor would have done nothing to stop him--at first because he couldn't, his thoughts were still too murky, but then, when he realized exactly what was being said, he wouldn't have fought back.

Looking back, he still felt guilty. How could he have been so weak? What kind of wizard was he, that he couldn't resist a single curse?

V.

After Dumbledore's death, when the world was left in pieces, Viktor had to sneak into England, and meander north, hidden from the wizards. When he finally arrived at Hogwarts, Hermione was gone, disappeared with Harry Potter, and Viktor was welcome.

He stayed long enough to rest, and worry. Hermione's letters found him there, though they had gone to his family home first, and the owls were weary from their search. He wrote back, told her where he was and why he looked for her and absolutely nothing about his fear.

After the next letter came work, from Hermione's adult friends, and he helped them to help her in some small way. Still he waited for her to return to the castle, but she never arrived, only wrote to say it would be some time, still, she and Harry and Ron had this to do or that, never with any detail.

And then, after her final, secret visit to her parents, after the Muggle stories and Muggle news reports, the world rebelled against the magic forced into it with each battle, each clandestine spell, and there was no more home to which Hermione could return.

VI.

The wolf howled closer and Viktor checked the sky, but the celestial bodies were lost months ago. The centaurs foretold the end, then, and disappeared shortly after, leaving the forests unprotected.

He couldn't tell if the moon was full, but there really wasn't any need. There were no wild wolves in England, so whatever howled must be part human, must be a werewolf.

The day before he left, before the sun had changed colour along with the sky, they received Mr Lupin's body, in bloody pieces, the ends of the bones gnawed.

Viktor tightened his grip on his wand and readied his broomstick. If Hermione was here, he would find her, but if he had to flee to the sky, he would do that as well. He was weak, perhaps, but he was not stupid.

Movement fluttered to his left, he just caught it out of the corner of his eye, something dark, low to the ground. When he turned and looked, wand raised, Hermione stood next to a broken building, crouched on a pile of fallen stone.

VII.

At the Yule Ball, Viktor only kissed Hermione once, though each time she put her hand in his and allowed him to lead her into a dance he wanted nothing more than to sweep her out of the room and onto the grounds where she would sparkle beneath the natural light, where his broken English and mispronunciation of her name would not matter.

Even without the moonlight she sparkled, all bright teeth and shiny eyes. Her clothes were loose and slightly dirty, but not shredded, not coated with grime.

"Hermione," he said, and almost got it right, at last.

"I told you not to come." Hermione's voice was just above a whisper, a low and throaty growl.

"I want to help."

The expression was fleeting, hope and exasperation all mixed together, and faded to indifference. Her whole body was different, she slouched, draped herself on absolutely nothing, and moved with a grace he had never seen anyone use, especially her.

"You can't help. The world is over, can't you see? We have to adapt." She reached him, touched him, put her hands on his shoulders and leaned in close to his face. "We have to change, sometimes you have to become the monster. Viktor, do you trust me?"

"Of course," he said, or thought he said, murmured into her hair, which was wild and wiry and filled his mouth and eyes, but through it he could see shapes moving closer, with four legs and wicked fangs.

"When the moon went, so did our binding. Every night is a full moon now," she murmured, her mouth against his ear, breath so hot it burned. "Are you certain you want to help?"

"Yes." He moved to kiss her, wand held up behind her back, pointed at the approaching wolves, but she evaded him, stepped back, and held out her hand. Her face twisted, elongated. A muzzle pushed against her skin, dark fur raced across the back of her fingers, and her nails narrowed and sharpened.

Viktor touched her arm, wrapped his hand around hers; her claws scraped his palm, hard enough to dig furrows which throbbed and bled. She ducked her head, licked his skin, closed her teeth into his flesh.

Clouds drifted across the sky, a thick, bulbous mass of deadly air and the end of the world.

When it was gone, Hermione was, too, her clothes in a pile at his feet, and the other wolves disappeared. A howl trembled as it rose through air, joined, after a moment, by one voice, and then two. Viktor did not know what was the truth, why Hermione was a monster, what she wanted him to do to help, but he cast aside his broom, tucked his wand into his pocket, and started after her.

Somewhere in the rotting ruins of England, Hermione was patient, and then tasted his blood. His palm burned and he clenched it into a fist. Viktor made Hermione wait no more.