Hermione woke in the dead of night in a cold sweat. While this wasn't so unusual, there was something charged in the air around her that made it different. She was pulled by that charge, like the current in a river pulling a canoe.
Quickly, Hermione pulled her long coat on over her nightgown, and picked up the matching dragonhide boots. She was quiet on the stairs, not putting the boots on until she reached the second floor landing behind the café. She had a new tenant in the second flat, and suspected he had a bit of a crush on her; he was ever poking his head out of his door for a word in passing.
She Apparated a few steps beyond the tenant door and her wards, allowing the pull to direct her to a destination.
The peaceful street was lined with cookie-cutter houses with neatly trimmed lawns. Everything seemed to be in its place, and yet her skin was crawling around as though it wanted to melt into her body to get away. The streetlights were dim, giving off less light than they should have. It made Hermione think of Ron and his Delluminator. The thought was sad around the edges. He'd left it in the tent when he left them.
The light that was present was yellow, making everything on the street look slightly brown. The dimmest section of the street was a few houses down from the spot she'd Apparated to. The streetlight in front of the house was almost entirely out. She walked down the street, boots making quiet thumps on the tar as she walked. There were no other noises. No night sounds of animals. No cars in the distance.
One of the bushes by the door of the house was dead. In the strange light, it looked blackened but Hermione suspected it was only the shadows from the withered leaves that make it look like that.
The door itself was off its hinges, but it had been set back in place leaning on its frame. From the street in the dark, it wasn't noticeable. Standing on the stoop, it stood out like a neon warning sign.
Hermione paused to listen, but heard nothing. As quietly as she could, she let herself into the house. She replaced the door as it had been. It wouldn't do to have Muggles intruding, meaning to help.
This was the third time she had been called to find Bellatrix; she'd gone after the Dark witch a total of four times, though. The first time, after her hair had first turned black, she had sought Bellatrix. She had had a sense of the pull, the magical current, but hadn't been able to recognize it very well. She had found the scene as Bellatrix departed, and had held the victim, a wizard too young to have even received his Hogwarts letter yet, as he died. The other times had been like this one, when she was pulled out of bed and followed the call blindly.
The copper smell of blood was heavy on the air. The house was closed up, Muggle air conditioning humming; the house too cold. Hermione wondered what desperation had led Bellatrix here. It was a Muggle house, to be sure; there wasn't even the trace sensation of a Muggle-born child's magic. The death of a Muggle would not hold Bellatrix for as long as the death of a witch or wizard. Why would she bother?
"Who are you?" Bellatrix snarled out of the dark.
Hermione stepped into the darkest shadow she could find. The voice had come from the other side of the room, so she at least knew she wouldn't be stepping into the same shadow Bellatrix was hiding in.
"Is that why you killed a Muggle?" Hermione asked, opening her eyes wider in a useless attempt to see through the dark. Her night vision had improved sensationally during her encore, but the darkness in the house was thick like a fog. She suspected it wasn't quite a natural darkness. "You wanted someplace away from witches or wizards who might recognize you if you lingered to talk to me." She paused, not expecting an answer, but measuring the silence. "Risky."
"Just one Muggle?" Bellatrix finally said, her voice mocking. Hermione's stomach clenched. The smell of the blood seemed to intensify; she could taste it in the back of her throat.
She screamed. Maybe wordless, maybe she was shrieking a spell. She didn't know. Whatever it was, the spell leapt from her hands and illuminated the room. It was an ordinary living room, with a sofa and television and a picture of a young couple's wedding hanging on the wall. Bellatrix threw herself flat on the floor to avoid the spell, then rolled over, using the turn to Apparate. Hermione slammed her fist into the wall beside her, then swore when she felt the bones in her hand break on impact.
She didn't want to see the carnage in the next room. She didn't think she could stomach it. She wouldn't be able to live with herself if she didn't look, though. She had to witness these things Lestrange did. It gave her drive. As much as she wanted to close her eyes and block out the memories of the awful things, to just close herself into her pleasant life as a bookshop owner, she couldn't when she knew that the madwoman was in the world, killing people to throw off the reapers.
The picture hanging in the living room hadn't been taken long ago. They were a young couple, both beautiful. The picture showed them smiling and holding each other in the sun, dressed in black and white for their wedding. They were all in red in the kitchen.
Hermione didn't vomit, but it was only because she clenched her broken hand and the pain of it rooted her. She stood there, hands clenched, until the reapers arrived. There was one for each corpse. The bodies glowed, as Dee's had, and then the souls released and Hermione could breathe again.
The reapers dissipated without acknowledging her. She was glad for that; the anger emanated from their shadowy figures the way heat emanated from a flame.
Fawkes provided her tears to heal her hand before asking her what had happened. He didn't comment after she told the story, and she was glad. She didn't know what she could say, or he could say, beyond those simple facts. Bellatrix had committed a horrible act, cutting short two lives that had just been started. And Hermione had failed to stop it.
What weighed most heavily on her was the fact that Lestrange only had to kill one person. Only one death counted towards the reapers—a life for a life. The first death, whichever of them had died first, would have been enough to hold the reapers off for the allotted amount of time. She had killed the second one for pleasure.
Hermione was sick, but she couldn't vomit or cry. There was no release for the sick feeling inside of her. She ran into the bathroom and dry-heaved anyway. It made her feel worse to see that her hair had gone sunny blonde over the course of the night.
She sat on the bathroom floor until the light of dawn crept through the window. Then she dragged herself into the shower and tried to wash away the night. It wouldn't come off, of course. Even though she hadn't touched any of the blood, she could still smell it.
She dragged herself through the day. She drank coffee. She sorted through an order of books, though the pleasure she usually felt as she shelved her beloved books wouldn't come. She sat in her office updating her ledgers and double-checking her math even though she knew it was right.
Finally, well before closing, Hermione returned to her apartment. She just wanted to sleep, to escape consciousness for awhile. She lay down, but whenever she closed her eyes she was overtaken by restlessness.
"I don't understand this, Fawkes," she said to the phoenix. He was on his perch, silently watching her pace. "What am I not doing? I follow the call when I get it. I've tried tracking her down. You brought me back specifically to do this; why am I not able to?"
Fawkes met her stare with a hard look of his own. She wanted to throw something at him, be it a hex or a shoe, she didn't care. Impotent; she felt impotent.
By all means, the phoenix said, voice harsh, throw something. Hit another wall. That's very useful. And when you're done feeling sorry for yourself, pull your brain out of your ass and think.
Hermione stopped her pacing and stared at the bird. She was at once surprised at him, and more furious than ever. He never seemed to say anything helpful. Like Dumbledore, he fluctuated between riddles, nonsense—and it wasn't always easy to tell those apart—and moments of complete, Gryffindor forthrightness. Anger overtaking all else, she stomped out of the flat, slamming the door behind her.
"Alright Helena?" the new tenant, Billy, asked genially as she walked past. She pinned him with a dark look before going down the stairs without a word.
It had been her intent to leave the building. She would walk off her emotions as best as she could in the streets and return when she could think again. Or, maybe better, she would go visit Harry and Ginny. She hadn't seen them in ages, and she could talk the situation through with them. There was the obstacle of Ginny not knowing she was alive, though. And she'd never really told Harry the finer points of her purpose. Whenever she'd thought of it, something else had come up, or it just hadn't felt like the right time.
She was utterly distracted from her turmoil by a little girl. Hermione was standing by the railing, looking out over the book shelves arranged on the ground floor. The little girl was almost directly below her, sitting in one of the reading alcoves with an elderly man who was probably her grandfather. They were obviously Muggles, but the girl was holding a Hogwarts letter.