Chapter 16: Getting Settled

After nibbling on her dinner, brought to her by Mitzy (who assured Hermione that she was quite happy with her wages), Hermione was pleased to discover that someone had already set out the things she would need to get ready for bed. The rest of her trunks sat in one corner, awaiting her instruction, no doubt. Slipping into her favorite nightgown, Hermione prowled around the small quarters that were now her home.

On her previous visits to the castle, Hermione had cleaned out most of the more personal items that had been left in Professor Snape's rooms. His meager belongings now rested in two boxes stacked in one corner. She'd left most of his books, though, and as she selected one to read before bed she suddenly she wondered whether his dream self would know anything about her change of residence. The thought that he might somehow know made her unexplainably nervous.

Soon, though, the complex theories in her newly discovered Potions book lulled her to sleep, and when The Dream came she was too worn out to even bother speaking to her former professor. He snapped at her to find him a few times and then, obviously disgusted by her apathy, he disappeared; Hermione slept peacefully the rest of the night.

The next morning Hermione bounded out of bed with the rising sun, feeling much replenished. Apparently it had been her misconception that the dungeons were entirely underground, for her quarters housed two small windows near the ceiling, and she smiled to herself as she pondered what sort of window hangings to place there.

Luna was the sole occupant of the Great Hall when Hermione entered to scrounge up a bit of toast, and she greeted the blonde warmly. They chatted for a few minutes while Hermione ate and Luna finished her meal. Apparently, the Headmistress had found a more qualified Astronomy teacher, so Luna had been relieved of her post. Personally, Hermione thought it was for the best—the girl would have enough on her plate for her seventh year of schooling without also having to teach two classes. And, being Luna, she didn't seem to care one way or another.

Hermione polished off the last of her toast and pumpkin juice, and they exited the Great Hall together. As they were about to part ways, Luna said, "Oh, Hermione, I meant to give you one of these. I hope you'll consider coming."

She handed Hermione a bright yellow flier before skipping off down the hallway. Bemused, Hermione scanned the page.

Are SNORKACKS an integral part of Wizarding-Muggle relations?

Have you ever WONDERED why Seers are so awful at PREDICTING their own ends?

Come to the first session of the new Divination class to discuss

these topics, and more. This is an informal philosophical setting and

all respectful opinions are welcome. No class registration or textbook

is necessary. First session will be held Thursday, September 3rd, in the

former Divination classroom. All years are welcome.

Smiling in earnest now, Hermione tucked the paper into her notebook and headed outside. It seemed Luna had decided to reform the questionable subject of Divination. Perhaps Headmistress McGonagall had even encouraged it. Hermione knew her former Head of House hadn't been a fan of the subject before and she was probably pleased to be shot of it. Still, Hermione doubted she would attend...although a student-led philosophical debate group did sound fun. Maybe she would slip into the back of the first one and see how it went.

Her mind made up, Hermione made her way down to the school gates, waving at Neville as she passed by the greenhouses. She wanted to visit Tomes and Scrolls, the small bookshop in Hogsmeade, to round out some of her references for teaching this year. Her class list was already set up at Flourish & Blotts, and of course Professor Snape's shelves had been extensive. Still, now that she was an interim professor and able to research anything she wanted, she felt a heady sense of freedom. She would peruse the bookstore and pick out anything she thought would help her train students in Potions.

Apparating past the gates, Hermione landed easily in Hogsmeade and waited half a second before she realized no Caterwauling Charm was set to go off like the last time she'd been here. Shaking her head at herself, Hermione made her way down the cobbled street to the booksellers. Pushing the door open, Hermione automatically took a deep breath and felt her body relax at the comforting scent of a bookstore. She made her way over to the teaching section and prepared to lose herself for a while with a smile on her face.

Close to an hour later, Hermione dropped her selections on the front counter with a thud. The little wizard that had been sleeping behind the desk jerked awake and smiled at her. "Will you be ready to check out, then, miss?" he asked, eyeing her stack of books appreciatively.

"Actually, sir, I was hoping to set these here while I checked one more section, if that's alright?" The diminutive man nodded and Hermione turned to scan the shop once more. Satisfied that she hadn't missed any directional signage, she decided to ask, "Do you have a separate section for Dark Magic? I looked but didn't see anything and thought perhaps you kept those books in a back room or by appointment."

Hermione waited for the old man to respond. Instead of speaking, however, he seemed to unfurl from his position behind the counter until he was standing nearly eye-to-eye with her, and looking quite intently at her to boot. The tension in his shoulders was palpable and Hermione wondered if perhaps she ought not to have asked. Maybe the Ministry had rid the Wizarding world of Dark Magic books after the war and now she would end up on some sort of watchlist for dangerous activity. Snorting at that image—after all, she'd only barely just gotten off the previous Ministry's "watchlist"—Hermione relented and attempted to explain.

"I'm only curious," she said to the shopkeeper. "You see, I'm going to be a professor at Hogwarts this year, and, well, I just wanted to know what resources were available. Obviously, if those texts are banned from public consumption then I—"

"Are you Hermione Granger?" the wizard interjected.

Taken aback, Hermione blinked. "Yes, actually, I am," she returned. "But—"

"This way please," the little man instructed her before spinning on his heel and marching through the curtain behind the desk. Given no choice but to follow, Hermione ducked through the curtain as well and waited for her eyes to adjust to the dimness. The bookseller was rummaging through several musty old boxes, muttering to himself. Hermione let her eyes rove over the small storeroom while she waited, but within a few minutes the old man was back with a wrapped parcel.

"These were left for you. Bloke said you'd be by and demmed if he wasn't right!" the shopkeeper crowed, chafing his hands together excitedly.

Hermione reluctantly accepted the package, her logical mind telling her it might be cursed and she would do well to leave it. Her curiosity won out, however, and she ripped the brown paper off as she followed the little man back to the front of the store. The books—there were three—were all frighteningly old and valuable-looking. Gently turning the pile to read the spines, Hermione gasped: these books were old and valuable—and they all dealt with Dark Magic. One was specifically focused on soul magic.

Carefully placing the books onto the counter with the rest, Hermione noticed a small scrap of parchment stuck in the pages of the topmost book. Hermione Granger—Pay upon receipt was scrawled in a familiar, spiky hand. Shaking her head, Hermione supposed she ought to have been surprised, but at this point she honestly felt nothing would ever surprise her again. The fact that Professor Snape hadn't even bothered to pay for the books himself was just one more grievance Hermione had to file with the infuriating man.

"Well, missy?" the shopkeeper asked. Hermione shook herself and dug out the additional money from her bag. The old man thanked her and she gathered her newly acquired books for her return trip to Hogwarts. As she walked, she decided she would drop the books at her office...

And then it was time to see who—or what—was waiting for her in the Forest.

The first step in was the hardest. Despite her haste to drop her books off and gather a rather important piece of paper, Hermione now found herself paralyzed by the sudden coolness and shade of the edge of the Forbidden Forest. She'd had enough of forests to last her a lifetime, thank you, and returning to one now was causing her heart to race wildly. The Forbidden Forest was different than the others, though. No wind shushed through the branches; no birds or insects hummed quietly just out of sight. Taking slow, deep breaths, Hermione reminded herself that those feelings and those forests were in the past, and she had never truly been afraid of this forest before.

Forcing herself to take one step, then another, Hermione soon found that the bands constricting her heart were loosening. As she continued to make her way inward, Hermione was able to appreciate the stillness in a way she hadn't been able to while they were on the run. She allowed herself to walk instinctively rather than with any set path, hoping she would know where to go or that her professor would make himself known. She also hoped that the centaurs weren't still holding a grudge over her stunt with Dolores Umbridge.

After about twenty minutes, Hermione came to a stop, glancing around and trying to place herself. She felt certain she'd never been in this part of the Forest before, but it felt right. Spinning slowly, Hermione felt a nervous grin stretch her lips. If nothing else, charging into the Forbidden Forest on her own was making her feel alive. Perhaps she had gotten accustomed to the feeling during the past year. She waited for several moments but nothing happened, so Hermione took a deep breath and crossed her fingers that something would occur.

"I found your Horcrux," Hermione announced to the seemingly empty forest. If she wasn't mistaken, her words evoked an eerie hush that was even more silent than the earlier quiet. Nothing in her surroundings had changed over the past ten minutes. The trees were still tall and the underbrush was still thick. She knew she was in the right place, though, because the parchment was warm against her leg and she no longer felt like she was searching for something. So she waited.

She was rewarded less than a minute later when a swirl of vapor appeared before her and took the form of Professor Snape. She gasped involuntarily: seeing him in the flesh—or as much in the flesh as he could be—was still a bit of a shock, despite all her guessing that she would find him here. At any rate, he appeared whole and as undamaged as he had been in life, which was a welcome relief from the macabre being that visited her at night. Her eyes roved over him as she waited for him to say something, anything.

When she had assured herself that it was indeed the embodiment of Severus Snape, she returned her curious gaze to his face. His eyes, though not fully opaque, bored into her skull nevertheless. She shuddered at the unwelcoming expression there, and she questioned her motives for the billionth time. Why wasn't he saying "Thank you, Miss Granger," or "Now you must restore me, Miss Granger" or—or something? Really, his continued silence was unnerving.

Very well, she could be the instigator of this conversation if that was what he wanted. Hermione drew the parchment out of her pocket and held it aloft. "This is a dangerously feeble object for one's soul," she remarked, pleased with how calm and disinterested she sounded. Still he said nothing. "You were—are—relying on me quite a lot."

"You found it and me, did you not?" His voice was gravelly—Hermione assumed from disuse over these past months.

"Obviously," she replied, attempting to channel his cool demeanor. She wasn't certain why she suddenly felt so comfortable disrespecting him this way, but she did. In fact, she felt an odd thrill course through her as she realized that she'd just sassed a former professor—with one of his own favorite lines, no less. Perhaps she had become desensitized to his presence because of The Dream? Regardless, she found that she felt no trepidation whatsoever in speaking to him somewhat less than civilly.

His expression did not change, but his eyes did lose the smallest bit of their usual disdain. He crossed his arms over his chest and eyed her speculatively. "If you must know, I knew you would keep it—the Horcrux. I also knew that only you would have the necessary combination of brains and determination to not only find me, but help me undo this particular bit of magic."

Hermione felt her eyes widen and her jaw drop. "You want me to—to fix you? Do you even know anything about Horcruxes at all? There hasn't been a wizard who's successfully used them for centuries—not until Voldemort! And to reunite the soul again, afterwards—there's been no record of anyone surviving the process in ages!" When Professor Snape just raised one eyebrow at her, Hermione felt her tenuous grasp on her temper slip. She stamped her foot on the soft earth as she shouted, "No! No, I won't do it. You got yourself into this mess, you can get yourself out."

She strode forward and tossed the homework parchment at his feet. Together, they watched as it rolled forward, stopping briefly against the not-quite-transparent outline of his boot before continuing to roll forward, albeit more slowly. When it cleared the back of Professor Snape's shoes, it picked up speed again.

He turned to watch its progress down the short slope until it came to rest against a tree trunk. "Well, that was illuminating," he muttered, almost to himself.

A chuckle escaped Hermione despite her determination to remain aloof. When he turned those dark eyes upon her again, she shrugged helplessly. "It's quite the phenomenon, isn't it? I doubt there's been an opportunity like this in—well, ever, actually." He looked at her quizzically, and Hermione rolled her eyes. "You've shown an obvious understanding of my nature thus far. Do you really think I'm going to pass on a chance to study this particular situation in great detail?"

The tiniest softening of his features made her think that he was possibly amused, but that couldn't be, could it? Professor Snape was... Well, she doubted he was ever amused by anything. "Dour" was probably his middle name.

"Marvelous," he breathed, stepping away from her. "The dogged Miss Granger fancies herself an investigator now. Shall we call the Prophet?"

Hermione narrowed her eyes. "Do you want my help or not?" she snapped.

"What I want plays no part in this," he returned. "What I want is to be left in peace—"

"Fine!" Hermione stepped around him and marched over to the Horcrux, lying innocently against the tree. "Fine! Good luck reuniting yourself without this." She waved the parchment in his face.

He scowled. "That is my—"

"Oh, no, it isn't," Hermione interrupted. "It's mine, or don't you remember—you entrusted your soul to me!" She stormed back towards the trail.

His expression grew thunderous. "Miss Granger," he growled, "come back here at once!"

Hermione continued to march away from him, ignoring his increasing commands. She could tell that he was following her because he never sounded any further away than a few steps. As the trees began to thin, however, he started to hang back, although he continued to shout at her.

Scrambling back onto the path at the edge of the forest, Hermione glanced back once. If looks could kill, she'd be joining him in the afterlife right now. She nearly stopped and went back, but she stayed the impulse and swept out of the tree line. After all, he wasn't in the afterlife, and that was the whole problem.

A/N: So I wasn't planning for them to meet quite yet, but I jumped up my timeline a bit because it was just time, wasn't it? I also didn't bother to send this chapter around to my betas—I had a burst of inspiration for writing today and selfishly wanted to post and receive feedback. :) Therefore any mistakes, errors, or continuity issues are my own fault, and as ever, I am not JK Rowling.