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a moment in isolation

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It starts simply, like most things do. It starts with a few words, tossed out without care and full of childish conviction. It escalates to brawls in the corridors and duels in the dungeons--if you could even call them that when it was four-on-one and most encounters left him reeling. It continues until he's twitchy and hypervigilant and awkward, always on the lookout for an attack, ready to bite before anyone could bite him.

It ends much the same. The events leading up to this are a production fit for the theatre, if the crowd is anything to by, but the ending itself is quite simple. Gasping for air near the shore of the Black Lake and battling a headache that hurts almost as much as the sharp press of his heart at the thought of what he'd done to Lily, he simply gives up. He picks himself up, tells himself this is the end of it and goes about collecting his belongings.

His wand comes to his hand easily enough with a mumbled Accio. His bag does, as well. Its contents, on the other hand, have to be collected by hand. His textbooks and ink are strewn beneath the tree, mostly, but the loose parchment and his quill are lost to the wind. He snatches up what he can find before someone gets it into their head to come further humiliate him and turns to head back into into the castle. Only to be smacked in the face by a bound sheaf of parchment and a quill. It's suspicious, and he's tempted to burn it then and there. It's his, but they were definitely scattered about the grounds two seconds ago. He doesn't burn it. He hesitates, puts it in his bag and returns to the castle, intent on making his way to Gryffindor Tower.

The apology doesn't go well. Lily isn't interested, refuses to hear it. He returns to the Slytherin dorms, drops into his bed and thanks Merlin that they'll be going home soon. Cokeworth is God-awful, but at least there's only one man trying to kill him there and only one woman for him to disappoint.

So, he waits it out. Spends his final classes looking over his shoulder and staring blankly at his parchment every time he remembers that they tried to kill him and they humiliated him and they got away with both. He shrinks into himself, avoiding the corridors at all costs, skipping meals to avoid being in the Great Hall and spends as much time as possible in the Library and the dusty old Potions Lab on the Fourth Floor that no one knows about, losing himself in research so he doesn't have to interact with his Housemates. He sits alone at the Leaving Feast, refuses to touch his plate until Evan Rosier falls into the seat next to him and bothers him into eating. The Headmaster dismisses them, says that they'll see each other come September and lets them filter out onto the train.

He ends up sharing a compartment with Mulciber, Avery and Rosier even though he's barely spoken to any of them since the incident. Evan needles him about everything and nothing the whole way to King's Cross, and when they get there, Evan claps him on shoulder and that's goodbye.

He gathers up his things, goes to meet his mother so they can Apparate home and not waste what little money they have on transport. Eileen's cheeks are sunken, her arms rail thin, her dress loose-fitting. He'd still rather see her than anyone even loosely affiliated with Hogwarts. She nods at him, he nods back. They go home.

He spends his summer making himself useful. He does odd jobs for the neighbours, is grudgingly polite to his father, takes care of his mother. By the time term rolls around, people are talking about that Snape boy. Strange, and quiet, too, but he works well, doesn't he? September first dawns bright and early, and Severus doesn't go back to Hogwarts.

He studies at home instead, nose buried in his mum's old books. He plants the few ingredients he has hidden away in his trunk at the back of the house and uses what grows to brew medicines and weedkillers and anything he can think of after experimenting a bit. Mr. and Mrs. Smith down the street both swear up and down he's working magic on their little garden and their old bones.

He feeds cats, delivers packages for the grocer, takes tables and nightstands home to cast Reparo on. Someone tells the pub owner about him, and the next thing he knows, he's frying chips and learning how to mix drinks even though the most complicated thing anyone ever orders is a pint of the beer that they have on tap.

It's not a bad existence. Eventually, slowly, his mother starts coming back to herself. She takes over the brewing when he isn't around. Annotates his annotations and even makes a trip to Diagon Alley for more ingredients to add to their garden when Severus forgets to write Narcissa to ask her to send a few more.

Severus is old enough now to drag his father home from the pub behind him when he's done working. One evening, they come home and Tobias nearly trips over the end table that Severus is meant to be fixing for Mr. Williams three houses up. Severus works his wand out of his boot and goes to cast a spell, but Tobias grumbles and bats his hand away. Drunk as he is, he still digs out his toolbox and gets to work. The job turns out almost decent.

By December, Severus is at the pub, feeding cats on his break and making deliveries when he has the time. Eileen is brewing and Tobias is doing carpenter's work fixing and building wardrobes, cupboards, cabinets and everything else. It keeps him busy enough that some days he doesn't see a drink at all. It's not much, but there's a little food on the table at the end of each day, and Severus thinks that he's probably better off than he would have been at Hogwarts.

Sometime around Christmas, his mother talks him into getting a Muggle education and writing his NEWTs. He writes the O-Levels for his Muggle exams in January. They're a breeze, given how well-read he is. He sees Petunia at the store shortly after, and she sneers vaguely in his direction. He hears her condescending voice in the back of his head and decides to sit the A-Levels in May out of spite.

His birthday comes and goes, the NEWTs come right after and he aces each and every one of the written exams. The practicals are spread out across the following weeks, and he's leaving the Ministry after his last exam to find that the date coincides with that of a field trip for the Sixth Years at Hogwarts.

He watches them a little, tearing his gaze away after he catches sight of a tanned arm draped over a shoulder touched by a red braid. The students mill near the doors for a while and so, Severus looks around for escape routes, eyes skipping hurriedly from door to door until they rest on a Ravenclaw who'd also taken the January NEWTs. All kinds of people had been there, adults who hadn't passed when they were younger and needed to retake the exams to get jobs, teenagers who had family fortunes waiting for them whose parents wanted them to at least look like they were competent, and overachievers--like Severus assumed the Ravenclaw was--who wanted to know where they stood before the actual exam. He jerks his chin toward another door, this one proclaiming to lead to the "Apparition Division". Severus nods once at him and makes his way toward it.

There's a one-day course for Apparition, apparently. The woman at the receptionist desk doesn't even bother looking at him, just points him in the direction of the Training Room with her nail file. He stays for nearly the rest of the day, until they're finally done. He gets his license and is quietly pleased to see that the building is nearly devoid of life when he leaves. He goes home.

May and June come around and bring with them the A-Levels. He finds them only marginally more challenging than his O-Levels and returns to his routine. It's a nice routine, which takes him all the way through to July of the next year when Lily starts coming in with Black and Potter and Pettigrew and Lupin. The first time it happens, he leaves the counter so fast that the patron he'd just given a glass of water to is convinced he teleported. He's already taken his regular break to go feed Mrs. Jones' cats, so he steps into the kitchen and tells Jimmy he's taking a smoke break. Jimmy snorts and reminds him that he doesn't smoke.

He fidgets, trying to think up a way to avoid going back out, when the ruckus they're making makes Jimmy look through the little window and see the lot of them crowded around a little table. He gets a peculiar look on face for a bit, before he asks Severus if they have something to do with why he doesn't go to his fancy school anymore. He doesn't need an answer, just tells him to keep an eye on the food and steps out to man the counter. Severus stays late, frying chips and washing dishes until the early hours of the morning when Jimmy pats him on the back and kicks him out.

It keeps up until September comes around, and by then, Severus has taken so many smoke breaks that he's actually started smoking. He keeps smoking long after they're gone.

He goes back to his routine until it's broken again by a letter that comes by owl. It's a short letter, coming from a Potions Master whose apprentice had been overseeing the exams. It claims that his work was the best either of them had seen in years and after asking around, they'd found that he was unbound to any Master and was highly recommended by the Malfoys. It ends with an offer. Severus would think himself foolish not to accept, so, he does. After that, two days a week are dedicated to Flooing to Master Diogene's laboratory to fulfil the requirements of his apprenticeship. It finds its own little nook in his routine and so he continues until June of 1980.

He's preparing to go to the pub when there's a knock at the door. It's not so uncommon anymore, so he thinks nothing of it, only that he hopes it doesn't take too long. His shift starts in half an hour. He pushes his shirt sleeves up to his elbows, where they perpetually are these days, and decides he'll roll them up properly later. He opens the door.

"Good afternoon," a very pregnant Lily says, and standing next to her is the Ravenclaw from the Ministry, back straight, arms clasped behind his back, his entire being alert.

"Good afternoon," he replies, awkward. After a long moment of silence, he asks, "Can I help you?"

"Depends on whether or not you let us in," she says.

Wordlessly, he steps aside, sliding the three pairs of shoes nearer to the wall in order to let them pass. "Do you want tea?"

"No," she says, at the exact same time her Auror friend says, "Thank you."

He gestures them into the little kitchen, where they sit at the little table where he and his mother and his father take their meals. He tugs his wand out of his boot, flicks it so that the cauldron bubbling away on the stove scoots aside but doesn't spill. The burner beneath lights on its own. He puts the kettle, already full, on to boil. "So," he begins, absentmindedly rolling up his sleeves. "Is there something you need from me?"

Lily smiles, strained. "Can't I just visit an old friend?"

"Sure," he says, quietly. "You made it very clear that you would prefer if we weren't, though."

Her expression twists. "And with good reason," she grits.

He says nothing. The kettle whistles. He searches for the boxes of tea, sets about mixing two cups of mint. He puts them both on a tray with milk and sugar, as well as the small container of honey kept for special occasions. He puts it on the table.

"I'm sorry."

She doesn't say anything, just watches him with bright, green eyes aflame with old anger. She picks up one of the teacups and starts doctoring it to her liking. Her Auror friend follows suit. It really is obvious, Severus thinks, watching the man scan the room from top to bottom, corner to corner. He sighs. "Why are you here, Lily?"

She glares at her tea. The Auror shifts uncomfortably. Severus sighs again. "You know, when people visit old friends, they usually don't bring Aurors with them."

"Trainee, actually. This is my last year." He grins sheepishly. "That obvious?"

Severus nods.

He leans over the table, stretches out a hand. His right, Severus notices. He leans over and shakes with his left.

"Kingsley Shacklebolt," the Auror trainee introduces himself.

"Severus Snape, but you already knew that."

"Ah, yes. Of course."

Lily continues to glare at her tea. Shacklebolt fidgets. Severus stares, adjusts the heat on the burner below the cauldron. Silence prevails. The door creaks open, just then, and Eileen comes in, stirring rod in hand. "You'll be late if--oh," she says, noticing their guests. "Good afternoon."

"Good afternoon," the other three respond, with varying degrees of enthusiasm.

"Well, if it isn't Lily Evans. It's been quite a while, hasn't it? You look well," Eileen says, nudging her son out of the way so she can poke at the mixture in the cauldron.

"You as well," Lily mumbles. "And it's, ah, it's Potter now, actually. Lily Evans Potter."

"Ah, I see. My mistake. Congratulations are in order, then, Mrs. Potter."

"Congratulations," Severus echoes.

"And you're a Shacklebolt, yes?" Eileen continues, her hands methodically sprinkling ground lavender into the cauldron. "Elodie's son, I should think. You resemble her quite a bit."

"Yes, ma'am," the trainee replies. "Grandmother says I'm nearly a carbon copy."

Eileen hums, lowers the heat under the cauldron. She takes out the stirring rod, examining the clinging lavender paste before wiping it off and placing it on the counter. "I suppose I'll leave you it, though Doris just passed, and she said that Jimmy has a full house, so, do try to hurry. It's already nearly four."

"Yes, Mam."

She leaves, and once more, silence settles over the small kitchen. Severus looks at the clock on the wall, sees that it does, indeed, say that it's minutes to four. Eleven minutes, to be exact, and it's a ten minute walk to the pub. He starts gathering the tea things, has just taken Shacklebolt's empty teacup when Lily clears her throat.

"Are you a Death Eater?" she asks.

"No," Severus tells her, and takes her teacup. Ten minutes to four.

"Prove it," she says, glaring.

Severus sets down the tray and leans across the table, arms outstretched, palms up, forearms exposed. The skin on either arm is pale, smooth and utterly unmarked, save and except for the scars one is bound to get when their preferred work involves knives and hot cauldrons.

"You keep regular contact with Narcissa and Lucius Malfoy, as well as Regulus Black and Evan Rosier, all of whom are suspected Death Eaters. Why?"

Severus' eyes narrow. "Lucius is sponsoring my Potions Mastery. Narcissa, for whatever reason, enjoys my conversation. Regulus and Evan both seem to think that I'll drop dead if I don't speak to them at least once a week and I haven't been able to disabuse them of the notion--though, not for lack of trying."

"So, you aren't planning to become a Death Eater?" Seven minutes to four.

"I'm not," Severus says, biting down on something rising in his chest. He returns the tea things to their proper places, washes the cups and sets them to dry. When he looks at them again, Lily's glare has softened into an unwavering stare.

"Are you certain?" she asks, and Severus grits his teeth.

"Oh, no, not at all. I only left the Wizarding World to live in a Muggle neighbourhood with my Muggle father, work for a Muggle and feed old ladies' cats and fix their husbands' cabinets because I thought it would make it easier for me when I decided I wanted to murder them all. Obviously," he snaps, throat closing around the words as soon they've been forced out of his mouth. His jaw clamps shut. Three minutes to four.

"You're being an a—" she starts, but then she bites her tongue. "Why... why did you leave?"

He stands silent for a moment. "Reasons I don't believe we have time to discuss. It appears that I'm late for work, I'm afraid." The clock reads three fifty-nine. By the time, he reaches the front door, it will be four o' clock. He starts walking.

"But–" Lily begins, standing.

He gestures them onto the porch while he shoves his feet into his boots. "Terribly sorry to leave in a hurry like this, but duty calls. Things to do, people to see. Enjoy your evening, Mrs. Potter. Auror Trainee Shacklebolt." Four o' clock.

"Really–"

"Until next time, Mr. Snape," Shacklebolt interjects, and with a stiff nod, he and Lily make their way towards the Apparition Point they'd used and Severus is walking down the street. He exhales, slowly, carefully at the quiet, telltale crack of Disapparition off in the distance. He picks up the pace and hopes that'll be the end of it. He knows it won't, though. Until next time, Shacklebolt said.

It isn't the end, of course. It never is. There's a knock at the door just before he's ready to leave the next afternoon, and he contemplates just not answering the door and staying at home for the foreseeable future. There's enough food to last at least a week, and he could always just tell Mrs. Havisham that he wasn't feeling well. The news would make it around the town and back within the day. The knock sounds again. He sighs and gets up to go answer it. "Can I help you?"

"Only if you want to. May I come in?" Shacklebolt asks.

Against his better judgement, Severus lets him in.