Disclaimer: All characters you recognize belong to J.K. Rowling, but they are trapped in a very different universe.
As daybreak approached, birds began to flit from branch to ground, chirping and digging, in a steep, wooded valley two miles south of Ottery St. Catchpole. Emerging undergrowth had been slowly and steadily resurfacing along the forest floor, though tree trunks were still black with soot residue from the previous summerís raging wildfires. Most of the native woodland animals had abandoned these woods about three years ago, when the first series of wildfires and natural disasters began, but birds, stubborn and carefree fellows that they are, continued to nest and thrive in the surviving trees. The dip of the forest floor felt almost peaceful to Hermione as she lay in a bed of freshly-fallen leaves, and she slept on.
Her days were long, as she put more miles behind her, but that she didnít mind. Winters were hard, when, upon awakening to another grueling day, she often didnít have anything at all to fill the void in her stomach. If she felt empty enough, sheíd slowly try to chew white birch or pine bark. Warm months were almost okay. She ate wild berries, fruit when she could find some, and a lot of dandelions and clover. But, autumn was closing in.
Hermione hadnít seen a familiar face since her lucky escape from The Tower two and a half years ago. Since then, she had been trying to reach the Burrow, slowly making her way through England. Ottery St. Catchpole, in a way, felt like the end. Every ounce of hope within her drew her to the childhood home she loved and missed, but she had grown too nervous as dusk fell, as the shadows from the trees grew darker and darker, to continue walking south, though she knew she was very close. With no shelter in sight, she had burrowed into the leaves, trying to blend in to the broken darkness of the forest floor, and had fallen into an uneasy sleep.
Hermione felt as though she had endured three lifetimes. She really didnít even know who she was anymore, only that despite everything, she was still here. It was too painful to think about life with her parents and then at Hogwarts. Happy memories hurt just as much as the dark, empty ones, and so, she tried not to think about any of it too much. Instead, she stayed alert, listening and watching closely for any sign of Snatchers, and to keep herself occupied, she broke down long Arithmancy equations or structured large number charts in her mind. The unemotional mental exercise helped clear her head and helped her to keep a grip on her sanity. Some days were harder than others. It was a slippery edge. But she had been sorted into Gryffindor for a reason. While she had never seen herself as particularly brave or daring, even while other people might have thought so, she had proven to herself that, if nothing else, she was a survivor.
She had survived capture and imprisonment by the Death Eaters, but both had taken a heavy toll. For nine months Harry and Hermione had been tucked away so deep within The Tower that only a few of Voldemortís most trusted followers knew where they were. The two best friends shared a cell, but each were chained to opposite walls, and while the chains were long enough for them to lay down upon the cellís dirt-packed floor, the chains were too short for them to touch. Hermione had often bitterly wished that she could at least hold Harryís hand or let his aching head settle in her lap so she could smooth his hair after he had been forced to bear the Cruciatus Curse until he was barely conscious. Lucius Malfoy, the Lestranges, and Voldemort delivered every kind of torture they could devise upon them. Torturing Harry was a great release for Voldemort, but eventually he instructed his Death Eaters to focus most of their punishments on The Mudblood. It hurt Harry more to have to watch her suffer than to be put under the same spells and degradation. Harry cried out in pain for himself, but he only begged when they hurt her, and that was a lesson that Voldemort was very gratified to learn.
The Lestranges were the worst. Voldemort generally relied upon the Cruciatus Curse, and that was unbearable, but there was something so bitterly soul-destroying about being raped in front of your best friend that broke a part of Hermione that Crucio could never touch.
At first, Harry cried all of the time, begging her forgiveness. He felt that everything that happened to her was his fault, and it completely shattered him. Hermione tried to release the hold his guilty conscience had on him; she insisted to him over and over that none of this was his fault, but he didnít agree. After six months, Harry spoke very little when they were alone, and no matter what Hermione said, she couldnít draw him out.
He sunk into a depression so deep that Hermione feared that she was going to lose him. She had also been worried about becoming pregnant, but she never did. She didnít know, however, that Voldemortís Potion Master, her former professor, had long since been commissioned to create and supply the Death Eaters with a potion that would permanently prevent all of the female prisoners from becoming pregnant.
While Harryís depression worsened, Hermione encouraged him to eat, but he had no appetite, and while he tried to take a few bites to humor her, usually he couldnít keep anything down. He grew dangerously thin. Hermione was beside herself with anxiety for him. Eventually, nine months after their capture, while Rodolphus Lestrange cast Harry under the Cruciatus Curse, his heart simply gave out. Hermione had wailed and pulled against her restraints to try to reach him, but it had been futile. Harry lay there, empty, and Hermioneís heart broke completely. She barely heard the Lestrangesí panicked voices arguing about what to do with him. She fell to her knees and never noticed when Bellatrix and her husband departed, having decided to just leave the body and pretend that he had died naturally. Hermione sobbed even as she acknowledged that at least he was now free. But she loved Harry, he was her best friend, closer than a brother to her, and he was all that she had had left. And she was afraid.
That was when she had grown silent, and she didnít speak to anyone until her escape from the Tower three months later. During that time, she often felt that she might be going crazy. But did crazy people wonder if they were crazy or were they just crazy? It was hard to know for sure. When a sympathetic Death Eater gained access to her cell and found her, then recklessly decided to Apparate with her to an abandoned countryside, what Hermione thought of as her third lifetime began. As difficult as it was being on her own, with her hunger-filled nomad existence, sometimes struggling to even put one foot in front of the other, it was nothing compared to what she had already endured, and slowly, as the years passed, she started to feel a sense of well-being. The Gryffindor was gone, but so was the prisoner.
As the bird calls grew more insistent that morning, Hermione turned onto her other side, still asleep. Her first year on the run, every sound had jolted her awake and into an involuntary defensive position despite her bone-deep exhaustion. Now, though, while she woke up often to check that there were no Snatchers searching nearby, she slept through the natural sounds of the outdoors, because she was so accustomed to hearing them.
The pull of sleep warred with the risen sun, and after a few minutes, Hermione turned over again and grimaced, stretching very carefully to warm up her cramped muscles. She felt tired from the inside out, but she reminded herself that she was almost there, and managed to pull herself up onto her knees and then to her feet. Several bones protested loudly as she started her morning stretch while she looked around warily. The land was sloped, and from a distance one would really be able to appreciate the rolling hills. The ground was moist from heavy dew, and the September wind was brisk, fervent, and ill-tempered. Hermioneís teeth chattered and her jaw was aching. She shivered as she adjusted her heavy knitted sweater. She reached into her small crossover purse and pulled out an almost-empty bottle of water and a small handful of hickory nuts.
Oh, to have ham. Roast beef. Mashed potatoes. Gravy. Hermione thought sheíd make Ron look respectable if she could get her hands on food like that. Breakfast more or less taken care of, she stood and dusted her hands off, making her way down to a nearby stream to fill her bottle. She paused as she dipped the bottle into the trickling water. The unkempt woman reflected on the creek bed was unrecognizable to her. Hermioneís eyes darkened regretfully at the sight she made. She fingered her hair, always impossible, but now a mass of snarls, rat nests, and disintegrating braids. Her once warm cinnamon and cocoa-like eyes were now skittish, cold, and dim. Her face was thin and dark, tanned and leathery from so much exposure to the sun. Hermione set her bottle on the ground and felt her cheek, then sighed wistfully. Her throat started clogging up, and she blinked rapidly to dispel the threat of tears. She rolled up her sleeves and scrubbed her face and her arms, despite the frigid cold water, until her exposed skin was red and blessedly grime-free. Tears again threatened to leak out of her eyes as she tried to clean her fingernails, but she held them back. If she allowed herself to cry, she was not sure how she would ever be able to stop.
After refilling her water twice, drinking her fill, Hermione unsteadily rose to her feet, ordering herself to get a grip and get moving. If she pushed herself, she could be at The Burrow in about an hour. Slipping on her sunglasses, Hermione left the stream and headed south once more. She made easy progress across the rolling hills and meadows, and she was only slightly out of breath when she recognized the orchard where many a spirited game of Quidditch had been held. Her breath suddenly started to hitch and her heart to pound and she increased her pace up the last hill. Topping the rise, she jerked to a stop.
There was no patchwork house rising unsteadily into the sky. No overgrown garden, no broom shed, no chicken coop, no garage, no Ford Angelica. The Burrow and its surroundings were burnt to the ground, the scorched masonry and rock walls left behind overgrown by knotgrass and stubborn weeds, lingering ashes still shifting gently in the breeze.
Hermioneís heart sunk. After a few minutes of stunned immobility, she moved forward slowly and investigated the ruins for an hour, convincing herself once and for all that it wasnít a glamour or a mirage or a hallucination. She slowly made her way back down the hill, then stopped, too emotionally spent to go any further today. She didnít cry. She sat and stared around the field until the sun began to set and twilight and then dusk enveloped the world once again. Still feeling numb, she acknowledged the evenfall by simply laying down where she sat. She stared up at the stars until her eyes grew too heavy.
Tears only escaped as she slept.
A/N: A huge debt of gratitude to my betas! Davros Fan and Devilish Motives, youíre a huge help to me and I appreciate everything so much! Truly, truly thankful and excited! And also, of course, thank you for reading! I have a first draft of a little over 40k words, so a decent update schedule should be doable, as we revise and move forward.