Standing on the shore of the river, she drew in a lungful of the muggy, salt-heavy air. She wanted to pretend it was refreshingly different to feel like the warmth of the environment was positively hugging her skin, but the insects kept at bay with only the grace of a repellent charm, and the oppressive summer heat of the southern United States did make Hermione Granger long for home more than she'd ever thought possible. Oh, not that England couldn't get unseasonably warm, but it was her understanding that this, here and now, was seasonable for this region, and she wasn't quite sure how long she could stand it. And though her typically wild hair was tied back in a bun, she could just feel what this humidity was doing to it—probably looked like she'd set a tumbleweed atop her head by now.
It was a little bit brisker here by the water, but it was also slightly more buggy here, and though the gnats and mosquitoes seemed happy to keep their distance from her, she could tell they were even more prevalent on the shoreline because of their infernal buzzing getting louder. The constant hum of cicadas in the air was actually pleasant to her ears, the almost-rattling noise of things that would bite her if only the could get close enough? Not so much.
There were a few people, scattered along the shore, enjoying what likely for them was a balmy afternoon. Smoothing the length of her sundress against her bum, Hermione took a seat in the gritty sand. She carefully tucked the material between the backs of her thighs so that as she bent her legs up to rest her head on her knees, she was not inadvertently flashing anyone her knickers.
The witch let her eyes drift closed, also pretending she wasn't ready to tear up the moment she thought that England's climate wasn't the only thing she missed about home.
She swallowed hard, shaking her bowed head at herself. It had been weeks since she'd seen him, weeks since she'd come here on her 'assignment'—though Headmistress McGonagall had not minced words about the necessity of the trip, referring to it rather as her former student's excuse—but still she missed him so much her heart was aching. When she'd confided in her favorite mentor about the problem she found herself faced with, however, Minerva had quietly suggested Hermione go do field research. Come to the Southern States, observe firsthand what it was Muggles considered 'magic,' for possible future subjects of study. Report back when she felt she'd gleaned all she could. Oh, and don't feel the need to hurry, she'd said.
And of course, Minerva was one of the only people who knew Fenrir had passed on his affliction to her. There was also Minister Shacklebolt. Both kept her secret out of friendship, and respect for her monumental war efforts. She couldn't bring herself to even tell Harry, because she knew having a friend who was a werewolf—again—would only bring back painful memories of the werewolf friend they'd lost. Well, that and he'd never let her hear the end of how he was right about how Fenrir Greyback couldn't possibly be the changed man she swore he was following the war if he'd turned her. She didn't have the heart—or the nerves—to look Harry Potter in the eye and explain to him that Fenrir hadn't bitten her, but that the cause of her affliction meant that if Tonks and Remus had survived, Tonks would've eventually become a werewolf, too.
She was, of course, seeing to it that, moving forward, it be included in werewolf studies throughout the Wizarding world that other bodily fluids besides saliva could transmit the curse if encounters happened frequently over an extended period of time.
Hermione made a face, idly picking up a fistful of sand and sprinkling it around her in a random pattern. There was a chance she also hadn't wanted to have to explain to Harry just how often 'frequently' had been for her and Fenrir. And then there had always been that other issue—her shift had come on faster than it might have for another witch, since she had werewolf ancestry. Oh, the fit she'd thrown when the lycanthropy expert at Saint Mungo's had revealed that little nugget to her. Had she known from the start about that, she'd have been more careful.
But there in lay the problem. She used to watch over Fenrir when he shifted. And then, when she turned—a shock to them, both—they shifted together in a warded section of forest behind the cabin they shared, waiting out the moon in relative safety and without fear of getting out and harming anyone.
Except the last few times . . . . She'd woken up in the woods after the moon had set and found Fenrir had somehow managed to break free of the wards. The first time nothing big had happened, he just seemed dazed and uncertain of how he'd broken free, how long he'd been loose, or what he'd done. But the next two? There'd been blood he couldn't explain and a heaviness in his very presence. Worse, he claimed to have some memory of what he'd done this time, but he refused to tell her.
They'd even fought about it when she suggested ways they could find out what he'd been up to, in case he'd hurt anyone. She understood then that she could no longer trust him when he didn't feel he could trust himself, anymore. When didn't feel he could trust her enough to share what he felt he might've done. She always thought they were putting the past behind them since his release from Azkaban after proof had been brought forward—by the Malfoys of all people, shocking, that—that Fenrir Greyback's crimes were committed at the Dark Lord's behest, but more importantly, against Fenrir's own will. Ruddy mind-controlling magics. Voldemort had wanted a monster on a leash to make himself all the more frightening, and so he'd created himself one.
What had truly scared her was when he told her he felt part of him—the wolf, the savage—reveled in that chaos. That as horrible and soul wrenching as it had been, some strange, sick part of him missed it.
And she knew why he wouldn't tell her about the blood or those lost hours. He feared he'd been giving in to that part. Feared he'd missed it enough that his wolf had taken over and made the decision for him. Feared that because her wolf was so different from his—she was so connected to the chaos of nature when she shifted, rather than the chaos of savagery and bloodshed like him—that she wouldn't understand. That she'd turn away from him.
Oh, the irony that it was not telling her whatever had been happening to him that forced her away.
She'd packed her bags and left, staying at The Leaky Cauldron as Professor McGonagall had made arrangements to send Hermione off on her excuse. Hermione'd alerted both Minerva and Kingsley about Fenrir, but made them both swear to only observe him, to make sure he wasn't hurting himself or anyone else during the full moons, and only act within reason if her suspicions were proven correct.
Inhaling deep, she stood and dusted off her bum. It was really time she get to the B&B she was booked at in town. It wasn't a Wizarding establishment, but then she supposed this was why she was the ideal candidate for any in-the-field studying of Muggle ways—unlike someone raised in the Wizarding World, she didn't mind immersing herself in the Muggle world for a few days here and there when needed. And, more importantly, she knew how to blend in.
Sighing, she gave the river one last look and then turned, starting across the shore back toward the road. Returning to her rented car, she spared a moment to check the map open on her passenger seat. She hadn't stopped to get a closer view of the river, no, she'd stopped because despite everything being clearly labeled, she'd gotten herself a bit turned around. Sure, she could use magic to point her in the proper direction, but she had started to feel the easy answer of 'just use magic' was becoming a bit of a crutch. She'd spent much of her adult life immersed in the Wizarding World, she wanted—needed—to remember to do things the Muggle way, too.
With a frown, she set the map aside and started the car. Though she was determined to not use magic unless absolutely necessary, that didn't stop her from offering up a little prayer to the powers that be that she might find the correct side street as she drove off.
"You have to tell me where she's gone, please."
Minerva and Kingsley exchanged a look, their expressions grim. "Why should we?" the Minister asked, folding his arms across his chest as he leaned back in his chair.
"She left because of you, Mr. Greyback," Minerva said, shaking her head. "Unless you can account for what you've been up to during these recent full moons—"
"I haven't killed anyone!" he insisted, his amber eyes wide, a little growl edging his words.
"Explain the blood, then?"
The werewolf dragged his fingers through his long, unruly hair. "I didn't kill anyone," he reiterated. "I was hunting . . . animals. Like a wolf, that's it, I swear."
Minerva's face twisted in a mask of disbelief, but as the elder witch was about to loose a scathing comment, Kingsley asked, "And you could not share this with Miss Granger because?"
Fenrir uttered another small rumbling sound as he shook his head. "You don't get it, you're not one of us. I was afraid she wouldn't understand. The hunting I was doing . . . it was as a wolf, but it wasn't out of necessity."
"I'm afraid I don't understand."
His mouth twitching side-to-side, Fenrir looked away from them as he elaborated. "She would understand hunting out of necessity, if I were hungry. That I was hunting for the thrill of it, hunting for the kill, not for survival, I . . . ." He sighed and hung his head. "She's been so patient with me all this time. Even after being with me turned her, but . . . I thought this was perhaps something too far for her to forgive. Killing for the pleasure of it, even if my prey wasn't a human, would not be something she could understand."
"You never gave her the opportunity to even try, Mr. Greyback," Minerva pointed out, her tone indeed scathing. "I, myself, am not sure I'm ready to believe you, either."
"We can always give him veritaserum to ensure he's giving us the whole story, and then decide."
Minerva arched a calculating brow at the Minister's suggestion. "Well, what say you to this, Mr. Greyback? You should have no objections if you are, in fact, being truthful, should you not?"
Fenrir thought that over. They could pry the truth about anything they wanted from him if he was under the effects of a truth potion . . . but even if they knew what to ask beyond this situation, the baring of a few deep, dark secrets didn't seem too high of a price to pay for getting Hermione back.
He nodded. "So be it."
Minerva nodded back as the Minister called for his assistant. "Very well. Upon confirmation of your forthrightness in this matter, I will give you her . . . general location. The rest will be on you. If you are not being honest, however, you'll be sent to Azkaban to await sentencing in accordance with whatever crimes you may have committed on the nights in question."
Noting that she had specifically mentioned the time frame to which the questioning would pertain—feeling a bit confident that the elder witch no longer judged him as harshly and dismissively as she once might've—the werewolf nodded once more, repeating himself, "So be it."
Hermione pulled up on the side of the road, letting her head drop down against the steering wheel. She must've missed her turn, she must've! Groaning, she lifted her head and snatched up her map in an irritated gesture. Smoothing the infernal folds of the enormous page across her the wheel, she frowned at it—yes, because giving a ruddy piece of paper an angry expression was the answer!
A corner of her mind was screaming at her to cave and get her wand. Just cast a bloody charm, already, and get her answers. But no. She'd been determined. Plus there were Muggles passing on the sidewalks and driving along the street. She didn't need any of them seeing her whip out a literal magic wand as they went about their business.
Frowning harder, still, as she realized she couldn't understand where she'd gone wrong—one of the most brilliant minds of the Wizarding world, and yet she was having trouble reading a Muggle road map—she looked about. It was late afternoon, though she knew it would be hours before the sunset, bloody summertime, and she dreaded stepping out of her air-conditioned rental and back out into that heavy, oppressive warmth, but she needed help.
She also dreaded the humor that was undoubtedly going to come with her asking locals for assistance, but then she didn't shy away from much. And she certainly wasn't going to let some 'look at the lost little English girl' nonsense stop her from finding her destination.
Then she spotted the pub. All right, it didn't call itself a pub, or even a bar. The sign read Noble Savage Tavern. Hermione couldn't help a mirthless smirk that curved her lips. Well, if that didn't smack of fate.
And maybe she could use a drink, anyway. Yeah, the bartender would probably be a bit more amicable and less prone to chuckle at her circumstances if she were a paying customer.
Holding in a sigh, she grabbed her map and her purse and braced herself for stepping back out into that damp, roasting heat.
The inside was, well, it was a pub. It appeared to have just opened for the evening, and so was not currently seeing much business at the moment. She took a few seconds to re-smooth her humidity-wrecked hair as best she could.
Plastering a smile on her face, she approached the bar. The man behind the counter came over with a smile—notably more genuine than hers—as Hermione pulled out one of the high-backed silver bar stools and took a seat.
Oh, it had been a while since she'd had Muggle brew. After so long drinking the wizarding equivalent of the liquors that lined the shelves, she wasn't sure any of them would even take the edge off her day. Well, at least she'd still be okay to drive. That was a bonus.
"What can I get you?"
"A pint of whatever your strongest ale is?"
"Oh," the man said as his grin widened. "Not from around here, huh? Seems like I'll have to impress you. I think I might have just the thing."
She nodded as he wandered back off along the shelf behind the bar.
Spreading her map out on the surface before her, she waited for him to return. She liked that the place was quiet. Liked even more that the air inside was pleasantly cool. Of course, she also considered that if she could stop obsessing about the bloody heat for a few moments, it might not bother her so much. But blasted Christmas, she thought Louisiana summers must be one of the lesser-known rings of Hell.
The gentleman came back with a tall mug of something that looked a bit pale for Hermione's liking, but she reminded herself that this was Muggle brew, and it was likely a little watered down as was common practice in Muggle pubs. Oh, well. All the better for making it to her destination in one piece.
"D' you think you could help me out here, sir?" she asked in her sweetest lilting tone.
"Sure thing." He nodded, leaning forward to look over the map as she took her first sip of the—oh, Merlin's arse—watered-down ale. Though, she would give him credit, it wasn't very much so, and it was a pretty good ale for Muggle brew.
She nodded back as she set down the glass. "Well done, sir. I am impressed."
"Thank you! Now, where are we looking for?"
"I'm supposed to be at a bed-and-breakfast in a place called Willow Bend? I think I missed a turn somewhere and—"
The pub door opened just then and Hermione's voice died on her lips. She wasn't even looking in that direction, but she could feel something from the person standing in the entryway.
Swallowing hard, she turned her head. Bloody hell . . . . Dark-haired, dark-eyed, olive-skinned . . . and he was massive. Tall, maybe tall as Fenrir if not hint more, and heaven help her, were his shoulders broad. He was staring right at her, his expression carefully blank, but somehow she was acutely aware of his chest rising and falling with his breathing. There was an earthy, almost feral smell winding the air as their gazes held and she realized.
He was a werewolf. A Muggle werewolf. She knew they existed, and not simply on account of her own fuzzy-detailed ancestry, but her studies into her kind. Though she'd never expected to cross paths with one!
The bartender, however, didn't seem to notice any of the nuance in the moment of their eyes being locked like this. Not shocking, though it felt like time had stopped for a moment—Hermione could feel the thrum of her own pulse beneath her skin and beat of her own heart as she stared at this man—she was perfectly cognizant that to the human, it appeared no more had happened than that the other werewolf had entered the establishment, and she had turned to look at him.
"Alcide," the bartender called with a wave. "Can you help this pretty li'l thing out? She's looking for a place in Willow Bend. Isn't that near your new—?"
He never finished the question, the words hanging in the air as Alcide tore his gaze from hers and turned, storming out into the street.
Hermione had no account for what she was doing as she instantly rummaged through her purse for some cash to slap onto the bar. She also had no idea what the kindly bartender might think of her abrupt departure, but she simply felt like she had to talk to this Alcide.
"Sorry, thanks for the ale." Snatching up her map, she bolted out the door after him.
The suddenness of the heated air settling over her once again just after the more comfortable interior of the pub forced her to stop for a second. Drawing a breath, she looked about. The man was nowhere to be seen, and he was certainly hard to miss.
Frowning, she realized she had one weapon at her disposal she was not using. He was a werewolf, so was she. She'd caught his scent when he'd first stepped into the pub. That was when it became clear to her. If she'd caught his scent, he must've caught hers, too. He must know she was a werewolf.
But why on earth would he run from her like this? She was hardly an imposing sort, even if her presence here stirred feelings of territorial protectiveness in him, the way most wolves would behave would be to fight, not to flee.
Collecting herself, she inhaled a few times—she wasn't as good at using her canine senses yet as she would like, and definitely not in the thick air here so full of unfamiliar smells. After a few heartbeats, she finally managed to catch his scent.
Hermione started down the block at a jog, wanting to hurry, but afraid of drawing too much attention to herself. She tried not to pay attention to how far she was going or the temperature, both things that were a struggle to ignore for her, yet that she knew could distract her from her search.
But she didn't simply need to find him, she needed to know why it felt so important to find him. And since she had no idea of the reason, herself, there was only one other person she could ask.
She thought—her attempt to pay no attention to distance notwithstanding—she must've gone four or five blocks before stopping. Still no sign of him, and how far was she willing follow the scent of a man she didn't even—
Her thoughts screeched to a halt as a hand clamped around the back of her neck and she found herself yanked around a blind corner.