If not for the glimpse of the shadow in her wake, he would have turned and walked away.
It grabbed him; it always had.
Its silky tendrils wound themselves around his legs; he felt them move, dragging him forward.
In her shadow, captured by her shade, he followed her.
And the Wheel turned.
The streets were dark, too. He might have lost her, had he not felt that elemental pull. Tethered to her by a common thread, he slipped through the dark corners of a hazy twilight and kept pace.
He knew she was afraid.
Not of him, no. He was fairly certain that she was oblivious to his presence. The fear was palpable, though, coming off her in sharp splinters, like ice—sending shivers through passersby, despite the uncommon heat of the evening.
She was looking for something. Urgently.
The echoes of these impressions rang through him as he followed, blind to the twists and turns of her path, knowing only that he must—he must—stay close.
It was only after Snape followed her into the neglected shop, moving furtively between the shafts of sunlight that pierced the gloom, that it occurred to him to wonder why, ten years after the Battle of Hogwarts, Hermione Granger was running. And why, in a world with magic, real magic, she should be seeking the counsel of a Muggle Tarot reader.
The smell of incense was nauseating. Wafts of frankincense and mistletoe saturated the place, adding an undertone of impatience to Snape's already taut nerves.
Why, in the name of Circe, do these women think that it helps to anaesthetise the Querent with fumes?
Wondering if she associated this place with the stifling enclave of the Divination classroom, Snape noted Granger's uncertain posture, an unsettling counterpoint to the sneer that flashed across her face as she surveyed the room. Silently, he slipped between the dusty folds of a tapestry hanging in a shadowy corner.
Why are you here, Granger?
"You have come out of desperate need." A gravelly voice emerged from the shapeless pile of scarves and beads, to be met with a contemptuous glare.
"Why else would anyone come to a place like this? Looking for—" Granger stopped, pulled up short by the piercing gaze of the Muggle fortune-teller. She lowered her eyes quickly, a faint blush staining her skin. Snape watched, transfixed by the jumble of emotion spilling out from behind the bravado. Shame. Hope. Resentment. The witch hesitated, glancing towards the exit, and Snape thought for a moment that she would bolt from the room. At last, Granger turned to meet the eyes of the woman whose guidance she so grudgingly sought. Defiance radiated from her body, in the rigid set of her shoulders, in her tightly clenched fists.
It was a battle of epic proportions. The stubborn set of the witch's jaw warred with the hint of diffident hope lurking behind her flinty stare. The silence between the two women crackled with the tension of Granger's conflict until, finally, the Muggle woman inclined her head as if to punctuate a point well-made. And into that expectant silence, the younger woman spoke.
"I didn't ask for this," she began, voice tight. "And normally, I'd be able to take care of it myself..." She stopped abruptly, paralysed by the heat of the fortune-teller's unwavering gaze. Snape recognised the play of emotion in Granger's face, determination warring with humiliation; tenacity battling with desperation.
She lowered her eyes, dark lashes hiding their secrets, as she finally drew breath again to speak.
"Desperate need... Yes." And with that splinter of an admission, uttered in a voice wholly unlike her own, she turned away, shuddering breaths betraying layers of agony beneath a relentlessly eroding facade of tension and disdain.
Long moments passed. Hushed, weighty... faltering... swelling with inchoate emotion—waves looming over a rocky shore. Silence broken only by the creaking of the aged floorboards and the distant echo of the Muggle world outside.
The world inside her was deafening, he realised. Snape held his breath, waiting for her to emerge from beneath the weight of her grief.
Her voice, when it surfaced again, was a surprise–it was hardly more than a whisper.
"But you can, can't you?" Granger took another shuddering breath and turned to peer at her again. "You'll be able to..." The plea in her eyes sucked the air out of Snape's lungs. "I mean... they said you could..." She paused again, and her body slumped as if from a valiantly carried but ultimately unbearable weight. "Do you... do you know what to do?"
Astonished, Snape noted that only extreme desperation could bring Granger, whose obstinacy in the classroom and in battle had brought him countless sleepless nights, to this level of compliance—especially away from the obvious displays of power typically wielded in the wizarding world—and settled himself more deeply into the crevices of the room to watch. And wait.
From his vantage point, he caught the echo of the girl who had occupied his classroom for six years, though he would not have recognised her, had her aura and her shadow not drawn him. He was surprised to find any such kinship between them. That was what he felt, he was sure of it. It had been years, decades even, since he had felt even a glimmer of this sort of pull.
It was not the sort of connexion that put him at ease.
What happened to you, Granger? Eyes narrowed, he leaned forward to study her more closely.
Her hair seemed drained of its old exuberance, as though it had finally given up the fight. Pale skin stretched across her cheekbones, sickly grey in the flickering candle light. Dark eyes, shadowed and red-rimmed, dominated her features. It occurred to him that the girl he had once known would never have looked so insubstantial.
The woman sitting across from the Muggle fortune-teller would have appeared defeated save for that single flash of anger he had seen flare.
But more than her physical appearance, or even the fact of her pilgrimage to this unlikely place, it was his reaction to her that sent his heart racing and tied his gut in knots.
The texture of her aura was disturbingly familiar. Riddled with fissures and crags, its formerly vibrant tones had faded to grey, like a swathe of silk abandoned to shrivel in the neglectful embrace of the elements. He knew it like he knew his own and wrestled the same conflicting urges that he could see Granger fighting. It paralysed him as it tore at him. He wanted to submerge himself in its darkness until he disappeared; he wanted to wrap himself around it and smooth the rough edges; he wanted to run from it until only a hint of its memory remained.
The signs were evident; he knew them intimately. He'd encountered the Shadow in all its disguises many times before, in the circles of both his Masters.
And in himself. Always, ever, in himself.
Why, Miss Granger? Why have you, of all people, become a battleground for Darkness?
The cards carried an ethereal glow. Had the woman grasping them been a witch, that detail would have been irrelevant. But this woman, by all appearances, was not a witch, yet the well-worn cards resonated at her touch.
She senses their magic, he mused. Now let us see if she can utilise it.
The older woman shuffled the deck. Unhurriedly, her hands caressed the cards, each stroke deepening their hue. Silent. Deliberate. Granger watched her, entranced. After a moment, the old woman placed the deck at the centre of the table.
"You are right-handed?" she asked abruptly. The witch nodded, startled out of her reverie. "With your left hand, cut the deck into three piles." She watched as Granger followed her directions. "Shuffle each pile. Dwell on the struggle that brings you here today."
Her lips pursed. Snape imagined that the moments in which Granger was not dwelling on her struggle were few and far between.
Finally, the witch placed the deck at the centre of the table. The cards glowed with a steady radiance, now laced with tendrils of black and grey. She looked up again.
"The Conscious Issue." She placed a card at the centre of the table.
"The Point of Tension." Another, below the first.
"The Way to Resolution." Another.
"The Inner Determinant." And another.
"The Pivot of Change." Again.
"The Key to Harmony." Cards laid out to form a six-pointed star.
The fortune-teller's hand rested for a moment alongside the final card. It was almost a caress.
And then, she began to speak.
Granger's eyes followed those decisively moving hands, followed the movement of the cards as the fortune-teller placed them on the table. Visibly lost in the vibrancy of the images that seemed to rise from the pigments on the smooth cardboard, she swayed slightly, absorbing the sounds of the words accompanying them as nothing more than rhythms behind an unheard melody.
Snape, hidden between the folds of the dusty tapestry, captured each and every beat. Every solitary word—like inexorable footsteps approaching from behind.
No... no. I cannot.
He forced himself to pay attention to the reading. He knew he had to hear it—he didn't want to hear it. The sound of his heart beating pounded in his ears.
I cannot. I don't want...
Twisted uncomfortably in the tight space, trying to stay focussed on Granger's face, he held himself perfectly still. The effort, the ache of his back and the pounding of his heart kept him focussed.
Anything, anything to distract himself from the gnawing unease of listening to a Muggle fortune-teller read his soul.
Beta thanks to the divine Annie Talbot and Ariadne. You input is invaluable.