Quick author's note: I'm new to HP fiction, but not fanfic in general -- this will be my eleventh story on ff.n (and I've even finished more than half of them!). I'm trying to be as close to the books as possible, but my Snape is definitely influenced by the amazing Alan Rickman (how could he not be?). The time frame for this story is the summer between OotP and HBP...there may be some HBP spoilers, so be forewarned!
Professor Severus Snape's students would probably be astonished to discover that he had far more familiarity with the world of Muggles than he ever let on. That his own father had been a Muggle was a carefully guarded secret known to a rare few, but only Professor Albus Dumbledore knew exactly how Snape often spent the free hours of the summer holidays at Hogwarts. Instead of remaining on the grounds and reveling in the quiet and solitude of a school entirely free of students, he sometimes went forth into Muggle society, often ranging as far afield as Manchester. If questioned as to the reason for these furtive day trips, he no doubt would have snapped, "Know thy enemy," but his motivations were somewhat more complex than that. In a small cemetery not far from the banks of the River Mersey his mother rested, and he would often make a pilgrimage there, not bothering to lay flowers on her grave, but merely standing by the plain gray headstone and staring out at the low rolling contours of the hills that stretched away to the south of the city.
It was after one of these side trips that he found himself in a small secondhand bookstore located just off Oldham Street. Occasionally he would amuse himself by entering a library or bookstore and perusing the titles that involved witchcraft or magic or the psychic arts. The complete lack of anything approaching the actual truth in any of these tomes provided a diversion that reinforced both his sense of superiority to the Muggles around him and a feeling of mild amazement that they'd actually been able to accomplish anything as advanced as space travel or organ transplants.
He had entered the bookstore an hour or so past noon, and it seemed deserted, save for a bored-looking Muggle girl who sat behind the counter, thumbing through some sort of tabloid and idly twirling a lock of violently fuchsia hair. The girl gave him a brief wary look, then returned her attention to the magazine. Probably his own students would have had to look twice to recognize him; unlike other members of the wizarding community, Snape knew how to dress in unobtrusive Muggle clothing when necessary. He could not leave off his beloved black, but when worn as a simple collared shirt over a pair of dress pants and plain black oxfords, it did not merit a second glance.
The bookstore had the pleasantly musty smell of old paper that seemed to be universal to libraries and bookshops the world over, whether wizard or Muggle. Snape moved toward the back of the store, where the sort of arcane material he sought normally would be located. As he passed a section devoted to world history -- Muggle world history, he immediately thought, since what he thought of as real history would of course not be recorded in any of those books -- he saw a young woman standing in one of the aisles, staring up at the top shelf. She apparently didn't see him; her attention seemed to be focused on a book that was out of her reach.
He thought perhaps he might offer to fetch it for her, since no step stool was in evidence, but before he could even open his mouth to speak, the young woman reached out toward the book in question and made an odd flexing movement with her fingers. The volume sailed effortlessly off the shelf and dropped into her waiting hand, and she smiled just a bit before tucking it under her arm and moving a little farther down the aisle, obviously in search of something else.
Eyes widening slightly, Snape sidled down to the next bank of bookshelves and slipped in between them. The shelves were the metal sort that didn't have solid backs, so he could just barely see the outline of her profile as she bent her head over the book she held. His first thought had been that of course she was simply a young witch doing a bit of slumming just as he was, but she didn't look familiar. He thought she couldn't be much more than twenty-five, which meant that if she were from anywhere around here she would have attended Hogwarts and taken Potions classes.
With a frown, Snape tried to focus on her features through the narrow opening the bookshelves afforded. Her reddish-brown hair was long but drawn back carelessly into a dark plastic clasp, her features regular and actually quite pretty. Not beautiful, perhaps, but certainly a girl who would make a person take a second look -- even the supercilious Potions master of Hogwarts. And definitely a girl he would remember, though he was now sure he had never seen her before.
Which didn't necessarily mean anything. Hogwarts wasn't the only school of wizardry in the world; perhaps she was visiting from the Continent or America. Snape lifted a book at random from the shelves and opened it, pretending to scan its contents but instead continuing to study from underneath half-lowered lids the young woman who presented such a conundrum. The title of the book she held was hidden by the shelving that separated her from Snape, but after a few seconds she frowned, shook her head, and replaced the volume on its shelf. Then she stepped out toward the entrance of the shop and disappeared from sight, but her voice came clearly to him as she paused at the front counter, presumably to pay for the one book she'd gotten down from the shelf through sheer force of will...or magic.
"Just this one today, Emily," she said. Her voice was pretty, clear and light, but the accent was unmistakable north of England. If she wasn't from Manchester proper, then she couldn't have been raised too far away. So much for the the thought that she might be visiting here from some other part of the world.
"Right," said the shop girl. A small silence followed, punctuated by the ringing of the cash register. "Goin' by Topham's tonight?"
"I don't think so," came the reply. "I've got two clients coming in after seven. You have fun, then."
"Always," the shop girl answered.
Then the mysterious young woman said, "I'll see you later," and Snape heard the front door open and then shut with a faint ringing of the string of bells that hung from the handle.
Damn. For some reason, he felt an overwhelming urge to follow her, to see where she was going. That display of raw ability had unnerved him; she didn't seem to fit into any of the rules about the wizarding world that he knew, and he suddenly needed to know more. Moving purposefully, he strode toward the door, only to be halted by the shop girl's sudden offended rebuke.
"Hey, you!" she called out. "You tryin' to rob me?"
Brought slightly off balance by the girl's accusing tone, he paused, then realized he still held the book he had taken down off the shelf. "Of course not," he replied. "I decided I don't want it."
"Well then, give it here," said the girl, and he handed it to her. She lifted an over-plucked eyebrow at him, but he couldn't waste any more time on her. For all he knew his quarry had already gone out of range.
He hurried out the door of the shop and was gratified to see that the young woman he sought was still within eyeshot, although she was just about to turn down Oldham Street. Quickening his pace, he managed to get to the corner in time to see her head off to the right. Luckily, since it was mid-afternoon the streets weren't quite as crowded as they would be in few hours, when all the Muggles who spent their days locked up in offices and shops would flood the town's thoroughfares in search of dining and entertainment. But he still had to struggle to keep her in view while hanging back far enough so that she wouldn't notice the tall, black-clad man who followed along twenty or so paces behind her.
She walked quickly, a girl of middle height in the sort of drab, nondescript clothing that Muggles these days seemed to favor: faded jeans, a white shirt with the sleeves rolled up, flat-heeled brown shoes. From the back only her hair distinguished her, that fall of rich mahogany which reached almost to her waist. Once she paused at a flower stand to buy a bunch of peonies, and another time she ducked into a shop smelling of East Indian spices, but her errands were carried out quickly, with little fuss. Then she turned down a side street of row houses with brick façades, with a pub here and a coffee house there to break up the monotony. In fact, one coffee house directly faced the front walk onto which she turned, giving Snape the perfect excuse for his presence on her street. Even as he settled himself down at an outside table, she paused on the top step of her house, fumbled in an oversized brown suede bag for her keys, then let herself in and closed the door behind her.
He eyed the green-painted front entrance for a moment, considering. Part of his mind told him the best thing to do would be to simply stand up, find the nearest uninhabited alleyway, and Apparate back to Hogwarts before he made a complete fool of himself. Surely there had to be a logical explanation for that display he'd seen back in the bookshop -- perhaps the book had been about to fall anyway and only looked as if it had been levitated right into her hand. But that was a specious argument -- there was nothing wrong with his eyes after all, and he had clearly seen the gesture she'd made with her fingers, and the neat arc of the volume she had wanted directly into the palm of her hand.
"What can I get you, sir?" came a voice at Snape's ear, and he startled, then glanced up to see a young man standing off to one side of the rickety painted-metal table and looking at him expectantly.
Snape had little good to say about Muggles or their world, but even he had to admit that it did have one or two appealing vices. So he answered, "Double espresso." A good kick of caffeine might knock some sense back into his head.
"Very good, sir." The young man -- boy, really, as he looked about the same age as the seventh-year students at Hogwarts -- nodded and disappeared back into the coffee house.
Scowling a bit, Snape reached into one of his pockets and fingered the odd assortment of Muggle money he carried there, hoping it would be enough to pay for the beverage. He always tried to bring some cash with him on these excursions, but since his purchases were haphazard at best, he never kept quite straight exactly what things cost, especially since prices seemed to be rise every time he ventured out into the "real" world. Luckily he could avoid public transport -- all he needed was a quiet, unobserved spot to Apparate from -- but on each trip he seemed to find new ways to spend the small bits of non-wizard currency he had in his possession. At least his half-Muggle heritage had given him the ability to tell a pound coin from a penny, compared to many of his pureblood compatriots.
Several discarded newspapers lay on the empty seat next to him, and he picked one up, more to make himself inconspicuous than from any real desire to read its contents. Muggle news rarely carried anything of import, save for the rare occasion when some mishap in the wizarding world hadn't been covered up adequately and the newspapers carried some highly distorted version of the events in question. Snape saw nothing of that sort in the paper he glanced at now, although it did appear that Muggles were just as obsessed with that ridiculous sport known as football as the wizard world was with Quidditch. His lip curled slightly. All organized sports seemed foolish to him, although at least Quidditch could be useful in earning House points.
"Double espresso, sir," said the waiter, placing the plain white glazed mug in front of Snape. "Anything else?"
"No," Snape said.
The boy looked slightly put out by the curtness of the Potions master's reply, but after a quick glance at Snape's face he apparently decided further conversation wouldn't be prudent and beat a hasty retreat into the dim interior of the coffee house.
Snape lifted the small mug to his lips and took a cautious sip, feeling the heat of the thick liquid warm the back of his throat. The stimulant seemed to hit his bloodstream almost the second it reached his stomach, and he smiled slightly before returning his attention to the house across the way.
He saw a small movement of the curtains in the bay window that fronted on the street. Eyes narrowing, he realized that she must have just slid the small sign he now noticed into its spot up against the glass. The sign was obviously home made, but nicely lettered in a dark green Gothic-appearing font against white, contrasting well with the dark curtains that backed it. It bore only two words: Readings -- Celeste.
His frown deepened. Then, when realization hit, he almost wanted to laugh.
This mystery woman had apparently set herself up as a psychic.
"Psychics" in the Muggle world could be separated into two categories: misguided types who really thought they had some sort of magical abilities but were as lacking in magical talent as a park bench, and actual wizards or witches who had been carefully planted by the Ministry of Magic to propagate misinformation and therefore contribute to the generally held Muggle notion that psychics were notorious hacks. But he knew this young woman didn't work for the Ministry, and somehow he found it hard to believe that she was a charlatan...which left only one alternative. Perhaps she really did have some sort of ability. How she could have gone undiscovered for so long he had no idea, but it seemed that further investigation was warranted.
Now that he thought about it, her presumed profession would explain the comment she had made about "clients" to the girl in the bookshop. At the time he hadn't really thought about it, but that would also explain why she would see her patrons in the evening, after normal work hours. After all, even those Muggles who thought they believed in magical powers had a tendency to hide their interests for fear of being laughed at. Better to come see the psychic under cover of darkness, he supposed.
Snape drained the rest of his espresso, enjoying the pleasant burn the harsh liquid gave off as it went down. His nerve endings tingled with the stimulant, and he wondered briefly if there were some way to persuade Madam Rosmerta to carry a version of espresso at the Three Broomsticks. Probably not -- she had never cared for him much to begin with, and the suggestion that a Muggle beverage should be offered at her establishment would most likely be met with polite scorn or outright derision.
Setting the empty mug aside, he returned his attention to the ordinary-looking row house across the street. He had spent the first eleven years of his life in a plain brick building very similar in appearance to this one -- except that his father would never have allowed the front door to be painted such a brilliant green, and the window boxes had always been empty and bare. Cheerful pansies bloomed in the planters of the house he watched now, whereas his own mother had never been able to keep the plants she bought with her carefully hoarded spare cash alive for more than a month or so.
Probably died from all the ill feeling inside, he thought bitterly. At Hogwarts it was so much easier to forget about those elements of his past, but here, on the very streets where he had been raised, painful memories lurked around every corner. Sometimes it seemed that he could almost, at the edge of his sight, catch a glimpse of the dark, gawky boy he had been. Even though he had been born on the opposite side of town from here, the architecture wasn't all that different, although his own street had been mean and poor, the air thick with the smell of boiled meat and desperation. This neighborhood, on the other hand, seemed much better kept, its inhabitants a mixture of young professionals, artists, and students. Certainly no one would have been able to sit at a mostly clean sidewalk table and order an espresso in his old neighborhood.
But enough of that. Snape slapped three one-pound coins down on the metal tabletop and stood. No one had come or gone from the house across the street during the time he had sat there and carried out his surreptitious surveillance, but the young woman had put the sign in her window, which presumably meant that she was open for business. He was unsure of the protocol involved in such a situation, but if it turned out that he needed an appointment he would simply make one and return. During the summer he certainly had enough empty hours to fill.
An opening in the traffic on the narrow street afforded him the opportunity to cross to the other side, where he paused at the young woman's front stoop. Up close it looked even more neat and clean, the steps freshly swept, a mat of some coiled fiber resting up against the cheerful green door. The shutters on the bay window had been painted the same color, he just noticed. The whole place seemed to be a perfectly ordinary Muggle residence, with nothing unusual about it. And oddly, its very commonplace nature, which normally would have aroused nothing but feelings of scorn in him, seemed strangely attractive. Perhaps he would soon learn if the young woman who lived inside was quite as ordinary as her home appeared to be.
He raised his fist, and knocked smartly on the door.