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A/N -Thank you, RoxiMalfoy for beta’ing this chapter for me!! I adore the crap out of you!!

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Severus held the door to the pub open for Hermione, as she stepped out into the busy little village. She knew she still had much to learn about her new surroundings, and for whatever reason, Lily and the rest of them hadn’t filled her in on much, it seemed. Severus she knew, however, wouldn’t have been worried about sparing her feelings, or shielding her from any harsh realities, which was why she’d agreed to accompany him, without a second thought.

Once they were both outside, he gestured towards the south of the village. The path which led to where most of the cottages she had seen, including her own, had led to. Briefly she wondered if he was taking her to his home, but quickly decided most likely not. Severus was a private man, and the two of them were just barely acquaintances, let alone friends. He must have wanted to travel that way, since it was far less populated than where they were then.

They walked on in a mutual silence, which now that they were out in the open hadn’t felt as uncomfortable as it had when she was sat so closely next to him in The Fallen Broomstick. They passed in front of a shop, which had men’s and women’s robes hanging in the windows, and she looked inside to see Tonks, who’s mouth fell opened into a comical O shape, as she spotted whom Hermione was walking with. The corner of Hermione’s mouth pulled upwards in spite of herself, as she raised her hand to give Tonks a tentative wave.

Obviously, Tonks would say something Remus, which meant she would have to endure more cruel remarks from Sirius regarding Severus, she sourly thought. She would have to nip that immediately, she promised herself.

“So, Miss Gra -- Hermione,” Severus quickly corrected himself. “How much do you know about this... existence?” He seemed to struggle a bit finding a word to adequately describe their afterlife.

They were leaving the main part of town, and soon passed her home. For a split second, she almost considered inviting him in to talk, instead of walking to Merlin knew where. Certainly, it seemed they were headed towards an area she hadn’t been yet. She could just make out a dense forest in the distance.

“I don’t believe I know very much yet,” she admitted with an edge to her voice. Hermione detested not having advanced knowledge of any situation she found herself in. “Basically, I know that I am obviously dead. But apparently I can still taste and feel things. And, as you know, I had only just found out I can still do magic.” She displayed this fact by raising her hand, twisting it through the air, and conjuring a purple wildflower in her palm. “I’ve found out that I can fall into a deep state of rest, but not exactly sleep,” she continued as she dropped the flower to the ground. “And I know I can --” her voice hitched. “I can see my parents in the fountain, when...when I’m ready,” she finished in a whisper. Her throat constricted at that thought.

Severus’s arm raised slowly, about two inches, before it returned back to his side. For a moment, Hermione had the preposterous impression that he was going to touch her; perhaps even attempt to comfort her. Not just because of the movement, but also the subtle softening in his black eyes. A softening that she’d never, ever seen before. He almost looked as though he felt sorry for her.

The two stopped walking, and Hermione wrapped an arm across her torso, where she began to rub the top of her opposite arm. “I suppose there’s much I still don’t know,” she said with a small shrug, just to say something to break the tension that began creeping up between them.

Severus cleared his throat and looked away from her, his expression quickly returning to neutral disinterest. “Let’s keep walking,” he told her in a hoarse voice.

As they continued down the path, Hermione noticed a single cottage to the right, shadowed by the dozens of trees surrounding it. It was quite pretty in its simplicity. With the grey stone, a dark wooden door, and small chimney sat on the roof. It appeared cozy and quiet, and she found herself envious of whomever lived there, since they were so far removed from everyone.

“Something wrong?” Severus drawled, as she was stopped, admiring the small home.

“No,” she answered. “Just wishing that my home popped up alone like this person’s.”

As much as she was glad that she’d had people who cared for her living near her, she did like the idea of having that peace and solitude the small cottage seemed to have offered.

“I find the isolation to be quite beneficial. If not somewhat peaceful at times,” he told her.

Hermione turned around and found him looking at her with his mouth turned up in a half-smirk. For some reason, the expression took her off guard and a unexplainable jolt of nerves gathered at her core.

“This — this is your home?” she asked.

He nodded. “It is,” he simply answered.

She turned back, and now looked at it in a new light. Overwhelming curiosity came over her, and she wished that he would have invited her inside. She was eager to see how Severus lived, what kind of items he would have had in his home, not to mention the books he must have owned. She wondered if it would have been reminiscent to the dungeons that he’d spent so much time dwelling in during his time at Hogwarts, or if it would have potentially been a bit more warm and inviting.

“Another time, perhaps,” he answered her unspoken thoughts. Her curiosity must had been written all over her face. She whipped her head back around, and knew that if she had still been alive, her cheeks would have been flushed. His smirk had grown.

Severus started to walk away, without waiting for Hermione, who jogged to catch up to him. As the path went on, she noticed several more cottages dotted along the hills, until they came upon the edge of the forest she had seen in the distance when they’d begun their walk. She couldn’t explain it, but something about it made her feel extremely uneasy.

“For the most part, there isn’t much left that you have yet to learn about this place,” he told her, after some time spent in silence. “Obviously, I am sure you have noticed, that all of the souls you have seen appear to be much younger than their bodies had been in life.”

Hermione looked up at his young face, with the premature lines from the stress of being a double agent for so long, now missing. His cheeks were more full than they had been in life, and even his hair; which fell to the tops of his shoulders, appeared to be thicker, and not as oily as she had remembered. Long lashes framed his black eyes, and for a small moment she found herself thinking he was somewhat handsome in his youthful looks. Not that she ever thought of him as ugly per se. It was just, she had never given much thought to his appearance at all before then.

She realized she must have been staring for too long, when he raised an eyebrow at her. Not wanting to appear mental, she quickly took her eyes from his face, and nodded. “That was one of the first things I noticed,” she told him.

“Right…” he said.

They’d ended up being just at the edge of the trees, and it had become significantly darker. An icy chill that she couldn’t explain crept up inside of her, and she shuddered reflexively. She wasn’t sure if her mind was playing tricks on her, but she could have sworn she heard the faint sound of people calling out from inside the woods. She couldn’t make out what they were saying, but it sounded as if they needed help.

“Severus?” she asked, taking a small step forward. She almost felt a pull towards the trees. It was like she had to go in.

She took another step forward, then yelped as Severus grasped her arm, and pulled her back to him.

“Do not go in there!” he said sharply, keeping a tight grip on her bicep.

Her head seemed to clear itself, from a trance she hadn’t even realized she was falling into. Her eyes widened.

Between the tone of Severus’ voice, the overall chill inside of her, and that strange pull she’d just felt towards the forest, Hermione was undeniably frightened.

“What...what is this place?” she asked, her voice was shaky.

Severus quietly cursed under his breath, and began to tow her away.

She could still hear the voices coming from inside. Then suddenly she heard a specific one. A voice that had filled her nightmares for many, many months before she died. Her entire body froze, before she slowly brought her right hand to her left forearm. She would have recognized that screech anywhere. It was Bellatrix Lestrange.

“I hadn’t realized… When we were walking — I wasn’t paying attention,” Severus began to explain. “I hadn’t meant to bring you here.”

Hermione felt dizzy. As she had so many times before, she once again saw herself pinned beneath Bellatrix, as the madwoman carved that disgusting slur into her flesh. Everything around her seemed to start spinning. And before she could stop them, tears started streaming from her eyes.

“Hermione?” She vaguely heard Severus’ alarmed voice. It sounded like it was coming from the other end of the universe.

She felt another tug on her arm, this time it was much more gentle, and without even realizing what she was doing, she followed Severus as he led her away from the trees.

“What was that Severus,” she asked again, hoping that he would explain, or just speak, or do anything to distract her from the horrible images playing in her mind.

A part of her was acutely aware that her arm was still held in his hand. The contact slowly began to calm her down. She was glad that she hadn’t stumbled upon that place alone. Who knew what could have happened otherwise.

The spinning started to subside as they walked, and she now felt exhausted. It was as if a giant weight fell over her, and had to stop. She needed to sit down.

Gently she removed her arm from his grip, and sank down on a patch of grass, sitting cross-legged, to take a moment to collect herself.

That voice. That horrible, awful, evil, disgusting voice. Never again did she think she would have heard it.

Severus hesitated, then quietly sat down beside her. Again she noticed a movement that looked as if he were about to touch her, before changing his mind.

“Who did you hear?” he asked softly.

Hermione scrunched her eyes closed, as if she were in physical pain. “Bellatrix,” she breathed out, in a voice barely louder than a whisper.

“I’m sorry,” he said, with none of his usual sarcasm or venom in his tone. “I wasn’t paying attention to where we were headed. You only just arrived. You’re not ready,” he continued, still not telling her what that was.

A slow anger built up inside her, due to once again being left in the dark. “Not ready for what?” she hissed.

He looked away, towards the way they had just come from. A far off look came into his eyes.

The Forest of Lost Souls,” he finally told her.

That coldness began to creep back up inside of her. Something about even the name caused discomfort to wash over her.

“It’s where the foulest of our kind are damned to spend the rest of eternity,” he further elaborated.

That explained why she heard Bellatrix’s shriek, she then realized.

“So, like a Wizarding Hell?” she asked.

He shook his head. “Not in the way I’m sure you are thinking. Fire and brimstone and all of that.”

Hermione’s interest was piqued. If it wasn’t a Hell, in the way she had been brought up to have believed, what exactly was it?

“The rumor is that the souls in that forest are doomed to wander for all of time. Never resting, never finding their way out, never encountering another soul, and eventually going mad,” he explained.

Hermione shivered. Even though Bellatrix more than deserved it, and had already been certifiably insane, that sounded like the worst possible way to spend the rest of your existence.

“But why did I find myself drawn to it?” she wondered out loud.

Had that meant that she’d been a bad person during her lifetime, she began to worry.

“The forest feeds off of the souls it receives. It thrives on them. It does not distinguish between good and evil. If a fresh soul draws near, it will attempt to consume it,” he said, then lowered his head. “Which is why I should have been more careful. You should not have been near it while your soul is new here.”

It was terrifying to think that, if she had been by herself when she’d come across The Forest of Lost Souls, she could have found herself lost forever. Why hadn’t anyone warned her of it?

It was rather far off from where she lived. She was willing to bet that none of her friends would have expected her to go anywhere near it so soon after her arrival.

“How long until it wears off?” she asked. “Until it wouldn’t attempted to draw me in?”

“Several weeks,” he said, still looking at the ground.

Hermione glanced over her shoulder towards the trees once more. It was there. Not quite as strongly as before, but there was a slight urge to walk back there, building inside of her.

She stood up from the ground quickly, before it grew more powerful.

“We should leave,” she said, wanting to put as much distance between herself and that forest as possible.

Their walk back towards the village was much more silent than the walk there. Which meant all conversation was virtually nonexistent. She still felt off after hearing Bellatrix, and learning that she could have been lured to the worst fate imaginable.

When they reached the walkway to her home, a thought hit her.

“Is that where he is? Where Voldemort is?”

Once again, she saw the slight jolt of his body when she said the name.

“No,” he said tersely. “The Dark Lord didn’t have enough of a soul left.”

So that must have meant that Voldemort technically had not even existed in any form? She wondered which would have been worse, to just not have existed at all, or to have spent the rest of your existence wandering that dreadful forest. Perhaps Voldemort had gotten off too easy, she thought.

“That’s a shame,” she said with a sharp, bitter edge in her voice.

Severus looked surprised by her tone.

“I never would have pegged you for the vengeance type,” he said.

Hermione cocked an eyebrow. “Do you remember what happened to Marietta Edgecombe? The boils on her face?”

His eyes widened, as he quickly worked it out. “That was you?

She nodded. “I cursed the parchment everyone signed when joining Dumbledore’s Army,” she explained with a causal shrug. “Just on the chance someone may have outed us.”

Severus snorted. “I must admit, that was quite...devious.” He appeared mildly impressed. Hermione laughed.

“I’ve had my moments,” she joked, a half-smile played on her lips, thinking of the time she had lit Severus on fire, during her first year.

That was a story that would be saved for another time, she decided.

Hermione looked back towards her home, then to Severus. She felt awkward just lingering outside.

“Do you...would you like to come in?” she asked hesitantly.

He didn’t answer immediately, and seemed to be giving it some thought. Then eventually he shook his head. “I better not,” he told her. Hermione felt deflated. “Some other time?” he asked, seemingly in response to the frown that formed on her face.

She could work with that. It wasn’t a flat out dismissal. Just a rain check.

“Sure,” she agreed, yet still filled with a small amount of disappointment.

She’d actually enjoyed his company, she realized. Severus seemed to have been just as content with silence as Hermione was, and he wasn’t one of those people who felt the need to speak just to hear the sound of their own voice. And there was something inside of her that was curious about the man who had shown a much different side of himself that day. She wondered if that’s who Severus truly was; not the man behind the cover of the spy persona that she had known during her time on earth.

She had time to get to know him better, she reminded herself. Neither of them would be going anywhere any time soon, after all.

Hermione dawdled. She wasn’t quite ready to say goodbye for the day, but she knew that it was probably for the best. The fact that he had actually spent that much time with her that day was honestly shocking. She probably shouldn’t have pushed her luck any further.

“Thank you,” she told him sincerely.

Severus narrowed his eyes. “For…?”

“For not treating me like a child,” she answered honestly.

The others seemed as if they were walking on eggshells around her; like they were only giving her enough information to keep her happy for the moment. It wasn’t like that with Severus though. How odd it was that, of all the people she had encountered there so far, that he was the one she felt the most comfortable speaking with about this new world she now found herself in.

His discomfort was palpable. He avoided eye contact and loudly cleared his throat. It was obvious he was struggling with how to respond. He was clearly out of his element, and she found it rather endearing.

“You’re welcome,” he finally said.

She gave him a shy smile, and took a step towards her home. “Perhaps we’ll run into one another again soon?” she asked, unable to keep the hope from her voice.

His lips twitched as he fought a smile. “Perhaps,” he said.

Hermione let out a quiet laugh as she turned and made her way to her front door. “Until next time then, Severus?” she called over her shoulder.

“I suppose so, Hermione,” she heard him say as she opened it and stepped inside.

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