The Sugar Quill
Author: Seriana Ritani  Story: Last Man Standing  Chapter: Part 1: Severus Snape
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LastMan1

Last Man Standing
by Seriana Ritani

Disclaimers and Credits: J. K. Rowling, of course, is the genius behind Hogwarts and its world, and I would never dream of violating her rights to her own creation. My great thanks to Zsenya, the beta by whom nothing gets (put that in your participle and dangle it). Her help has been invaluable, and any remaining grammar or continuity mistakes are entirely my fault.

This one is for Emily, who writes tragedy with such elegance and faces life with so much courage. To Cara I promise a R/H as soon as I can manage it, acknowledging that I cannot hope to compete with her passion for that relationship, or, indeed, with her passion for anything.

***
Part 1: Severus Snape
***
Professor Dumbledore looked across his desk at the young man standing before him.

It amazed him that anyone as young as Severus Snape could wear such a hardened expression. He’d only graduated a few years ago -- indeed, he still wore his Hogwarts robes, minus the Slytherin crest. He appeared to have grown taller, but that was mostly because he’d lost the habitual hunch of his school days and now stood ramrod-straight, to intimidate the people around him. But it wasn’t his clothes or his posture that Dumbledore noticed. It was the eyes: cold, hard, vicious eyes. Severus was surely too young to be so bitter and so fierce. Such burdens were for old men to carry.

The thought flashed unbidden across the headmaster’s mind: He’s so different now from James.

“Well, Severus,” said Dumbledore, warmly and calmly, “What is it that you have come to say?”

Snape did not speak in response. He only shoved up the left sleeve of his robes and displayed to Dumbledore the scull and snake burned into his flesh.

Dumbledore nodded. “It’s rather a good thing you never took to the Muggle fashion of short sleeves.”

“I didn’t expect to surprise you,” said Severus, covering the unsightly mark again. “You know my feelings on the world in general, and certain people in it. Joining the Dark Lord was an easy way to wreak revenge upon everything I hate.”

“Revenge is a powerful desire,” Dumbledore answered.

“But not a useful one. Innocent people are dying, Professor, and I am doing nothing to stop it.”

“That is not terribly productive of you.”

Dumbledore had known for a long time that his former student was in the service of the Dark Lord, but he could never believe that Severus Snape was evil at heart. He’d been waiting and hoping that the boy would come back, and now that he had come he, Dumbledore, had to tread carefully to avoid frightening him off again.

“That’s why I’m here. I know you lead the Order of the Phoenix. I want to join, and do what I can to fight the Dark Lord. If I cannot, then I will turn myself in and go to Azkaban where I belong.”

Dumbledore nodded again, face calm but heart full. He wanted to stand up and embrace the boy, but he knew that Severus was not comfortable with demonstration of any kind. Instead, he continued in the same steady, professional voice. “You have taken a great risk, coming here, Severus. If the Death Eaters find out what you have done the results will be most unpleasant. If you turn yourself in, as you declare yourself ready to do, your fate will hardly be more enjoyable. You are at a point where neither side of this battle is particularly pleased with you.”

“I’m aware of that, Professor.”

“And you are not afraid?”

“I have my share of vices. Cowardice is not among them.”

Dumbledore nodded. “Yes, I know that. There have been few students at Hogwarts as brave or as brilliant as you. I have . . . a task, or rather two tasks, that I need completed. Both are difficult and dangerous, and I think that if you cannot do them, then they cannot be done.”

“Name them.”

“The first,” said Dumbledore, now looking even more serious, “Is to return to the Dark Lord as if nothing has happened. I need eyes and ears within his organization. I need a spy. Can you do that?”

“Yes.” said Snape. There was not an instant’s hesitation, though they both knew how dangerous it was.

“Thank you.” He opened a drawer of his desk and drew out a roll of parchment, a quill, and an inkwell. “The second is to become Potions master here at Hogwarts.”

This one seemed to take Severus by surprise. “Excuse me?”

“You are brilliant with Potions, Severus, and if you are working here it will be easy to keep in touch with you without attracting suspicion. Will you accept the post?”

“I will, sir. But considering my background, wouldn’t the Defense Against the Dark Arts position be . . .?”

“I need a Potions master now,” said Dumbledore calmly. “If you wish to apply for the position in a successive year, your application will be considered.” He unrolled the parchment, which turned out to be a teaching contract, and with an inaudible sigh Snape signed it.

“Welcome to the staff, Professor Snape. I expect you back here by the third Monday of August with a curriculum ready. And I don’t have to tell you to be careful, but I’m telling you all the same.”

Severus bowed to the headmaster and left the office.

***

Professor Snape. Professor Severus Snape.

He’d walked into the headmaster’s office tortured with guilt and confusion, hoping for the satisfaction of Azkaban’s mental torture. He’d walked out a Hogwarts professor and a well-placed and valuable spy. Dumbledore could do things like that to people.

He felt strangely new, more powerful and confident than he’d ever felt in his life. He kept repeating the new title to himself, trying to make it stick to him, as he hurried along the corridor with his eyes on the ground.

His repetitions were interrupted when he ran straight into Lily Potter.

“Hey!” she snapped, jumping backwards, clutching protectively to her chest the tight-wrapped bundle of blankets that was her infant son. Recognizing him, she calmed down, but still remained, if not wary, at least alert. “Hello, Severus.”

“I beg your pardon for not watching where I was going, Mrs. Potter.” He bowed briefly to her.

“’Mrs. Potter’?” she asked, raising a skeptical eyebrow. “What happened to ‘Filthy Mudblood’ and all your other lovely nicknames for me? Or aren’t Death Eaters allowed to tease Order members these days?” She was smiling at him.

Snape surveyed her with narrowed eyes. “More often we kill them without troubling with introductions.”

“Sounds dull,” said Lily, laughing. “And so crude. What happened to your desire for elegance, and subtlety?”

“You flatter yourself that you know my character extraordinarily well. How can you be sure that I love subtlety more than violence?”

She laughed at him again. “I went to school with you for seven years, that’s how I know. You’re not a nice person, Severus, and I don’t much care for you, but I’ve never been afraid of you and I’ve never hated you. You can’t make me start now, and neither can your Dark Lord.”

Severus opened his mouth to reply, but before he could, James came around the corner.

The eyes of both young men flashed in recognition and old, familiar hatred. James spoke first: “Death Eater scum.”

“Useless coward,” Snape shot back.

They both knew how to get at each other. In an eyeblink, both were going for their wands, and probably would have engaged in a very destructive duel right then and there had Lily not taken control of the situation by shoving the baby into her husband’s arms. “Take Harry, James.”

She stepped back, looking pleased with herself, as the two men tried to figure out what to do. Severus couldn’t attack while his opponent was holding a child, and James couldn’t attack Severus when he couldn’t fight back. Thus prevented from blowing the guts out of one another, they went back to their war of words.

“Family man now, Potter?” Snape sneered. “Tied firmly to her apron-strings, I see.”

“I’d rather be taking Lily’s orders than Voldemort’s,” James shot back, watching his old rival wince at the name, as he moved the baby up onto his shoulder. “She’s better-looking, at least.”

“James, stop it,” Lily snapped. “Let’s just go, come on.”

“I think that might be a wise idea,” said Dumbledore, who had come down from his office. “Severus, on your way, please. Lily, James, if you would accompany me . . .”

Seething, Snape and Potter parted company.

***
It was the third week in October, the first Hogsmeade weekend of the year. The empty school had made it easier than usual for Severus to sneak out of Hogwarts without being observed by anybody. Dumbledore knew exactly where he was, of course, but the students and most of the teachers had to remain ignorant. His life and a good number of other lives now rested on secrecy. Hogwarts had proved itself a good home for him -- his students were learning fast in response to the intense pressure he put on them, and teaching was forcing more talent out of him than he’d thought possible -- but it wasn’t safe anymore.

He was sitting quietly in the back of a questionable pub somewhere in Kent, listening to the inaccurate clock chip away at the evening. He was consumed with his own thoughts, but was no less alert. Almost every patron of the bar was either counted among the ranks of the Death Eaters or was friendly to their cause. Even when he’d had no ulterior motives, being in the company of Death Eaters had been a risky business: now it was taking his life in his hands. It required absolute calm. The Dark Lord could turn up any time, look him in the eye, and demand answers. That required more than a quick lie: it required all the skills of one of the best Occlumens in the world. How fortunate for him that he happened to be exactly that.

He was thinking about the Potters. He did that frequently these days. They were ‘the Potters’ now, a grouping of three absolutely unconnected people: an arrogant and self-centered young man, an astute, courageous young woman, and an infant so young it barely seemed worth mentioning. Why had Lily married James? Why would anybody marry James? James was insufferable. James deserved to die.

Lily was far too good for him. Snape certainly didn’t like the snippy little Gryffindor redhead, but he understood that it took an extraordinary person to not hate him. Lily was an extraordinary person. He admitted it. He didn’t feel obligated to like her, but he did pity her for whatever madness had possessed her to accept someone like James.

The pub door opened, and a tall, cloaked person stepped inside. Setting his hood back, he revealed an aristocratic face and a head of long, straight, white-blonde hair. Lucius Malfoy.

Severus calmly Vanished the firewhiskey in his glass, then picked it up and pretended to take a long drink. He’d long ago learned the benefits of being stone-cold sober when others thought you were at least slightly otherwise.

Malfoy had spotted him, and gracefully crossed the pub to take the other chair across Severus’ table. “I have orders,” he announced, without introduction.

“They’d better be good,” said the young Potions master. “I have essays to grade.” Lucius was technically his superior in the highly stratified world of the Death Eaters, but Severus was the better wizard of the two, and they both knew it.

“Tonight,” Malfoy continued. “We’re to meet at the corner of St. Charles Lane and Vine Street in Godric’s Hollow. Midnight tonight. You have that?”

Snape narrowed his eyes, indicating he took offense at this slight on his short-term memory. “It is currently eight o’clock. I left the school at six thirty. How would you like me to explain an absence of well over six hours to Albus Dumbledore?”

“You’ll just have to think of something. This mission is not optional.”

Severus took another imaginary drink. He very much enjoyed trying Malfoy’s patience. “Who lives in Godric’s Hollow?”

“Does it matter?”

“It might. Who lives there?”

“Harry Potter.”

Severus hurriedly tried to remember. Did he know a Harry Potter? Who in the world . . . oh, the baby.

His expression didn’t alter in the slightest. “James Potter’s whelp?”

Nod.

“The parents, too?”

Shrug. “If you like.”

Severus sighed very faintly, so faintly that Malfoy didn’t notice in the noise of the bar. Then he nodded graciously. “Until then.”

Malfoy got up and left, probably to go alert the others who would be hunting down the Potter family. Severus waited until he was sure he’d been left alone, then pulled a black quill out of his pocket. It was a perfectly ordinary-looking quill, but it was a relic of a bygone age of education, modified by Dumbledore so Severus could communicate with him. He was the only one who used the quill: no one else had the stomach for it.

He poised the dry nib over the table, nearly touched it to the wood, then stopped.

He hated James. And James was in the palm of his hand.

Years of teasing and torture and rivalry, constant humiliation, could all be paid back if he put the quill down. It wouldn’t even really be murder: Malfoy and the others would do the actual killing. Dumbledore would never know. If he didn’t write this message, he would win, at long last. He would be the last man standing.

But then there was that life debt.

It had nagged on his mind for years: the undeniable fact that James Potter had saved his life and that he would have to return the favor someday. A man under a life debt couldn’t make decisions about who deserved to live or die: he was bound to sacrifice anything to fulfill his commitment. And here, at last, was his opportunity.

He set the quill to the table and scratched his brief message. Midnight. Harry Potter. The letters appeared on the wood in gleaming red ink. Severus smudged them out with the heel of his hand and put the quill away.

//
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