Author's Note: Hi loves! Long time no see! It's Dark Marks time! I'm posting this here instead of creating a new story because after much consideration, I have decided I will be posting future installments of TLE exclusively to AO3. Hopefully this won't be too much of an inconvenience for anyone, and I'm truly sorry if it is, but I kind of want to keep everything in one place going forward and also I find FFN's doc manager to be a bit of a headache. :)
I will be posting new chapters weekly on Tuesdays (if all goes well). You can read future chapters over on AO3 under the username CH_Darling. I'm also on tumblr as chdarling.
Thank you and without further ado...
The Last Enemy: Dark Marks
Chapter One: A Snake in the Garden
For this corruptible
must put on incorruption
(1 Corinthians 15:53)
The line it is drawn, the curse it is cast
The slow one now will later be fast
As the present now will later be past
(The Times They Are A Changin', Bob Dylan)
The entrance to Hell is hidden at the base of a large willow tree, a human-sized hollow tangled in its roots, ready to swallow you whole.
Down, down, down into the earth.
You find a low tunnel that the sun and moon have both abandoned, so that utter darkness is your only companion.
It is silent here, like the stillness of a windless night, like the smothering of a pillow. But you can hear your heartbeat and it hammers, louder and louder, as you progress through the dark, endless tunnel.
Your thunderous heart, louder and louder, resounding through the earth, pounding like a fist at a door, like paws across the floor. Louder and louder and louder and LOUDER until — Death arrives in the form of a wolf.
A low growl.
Severus Snape jolted awake with a gasp, body frozen in terror. His bedsheets were tangled around his limbs like tree roots, dragging him down into the earth. The bed was damp with sweat beneath him, and when at last his muscles relaxed, he rolled onto his side, breathing as heavily as though he had indeed been running, running, running…
If he closed his eyes, he could still see it: the dark earthy tunnel, the maw of the beast, a froth of spittle hanging from its ghastly teeth. Severus was intimately familiar with every detail of that tunnel, of that dream. He visited it nearly every night.
The street lamps of Spinner's End flickered as they always did, weak shafts of light that spilled through the naked windows of Severus's bedroom in the dingy little two-up two-down he was forced to call home over the summer holiday. It was a tiny room, little more than a bed pushed up against the wall and a battered old dresser shoved in the corner. One drawer hung askew, half-open and abandoned.
A few shaky breaths later and the dream receded fully into the depths of his cruel unconscious. Severus reached for his watch. A sigh. It was only midnight and not a minute later. He'd gone to bed early out of sheer boredom, but now the thought of lying here sleeplessly reliving the same old terror was intolerable. With a groan, Severus swung his legs off the stiff little bed and stood up. He grabbed his Muggle trousers off the floor, frowning at yet another tear in the pocket as he pulled them on. Next, he located the plain black t-shirt he'd nicked from a charity shop a few weeks back and tugged that on too. At last, he knelt on the dusty carpet to pull on a pair of shabby old work boots.
They were hand-me-downs from his father. Severus's own boots had a hole in the toe that had gradually grown too big to ignore. His mother had produced this beaten-up pair of his father's, and she'd given them to him proudly, as though they were a gift he should cherish, and not merely a smelly old man's smelly old boots. It was hard to be grateful when he knew his mother could easily have mended the other pair with a quick flick of her wand...but Eileen Snape had given up magic years ago, locked it all away in a trunk beneath her bed, in an effort to live in some semblance of peace with Severus's filthy, magic-hating, Muggle father.
That was a choice Severus could never forgive.
His father's boots were too big, and they rubbed blisters on his heels. If he were back at school, Severus would just shrink them himself, but he was still an underage wizard and magic was forbidden to him. Not for the first time this summer, Severus found himself thinking longingly of his seventeenth birthday. In five months he would be of age and the chains that shackled him to Spinner's End would shatter at long last. He would be able to use magic as he pleased, to apparate, to leave behind this dirty little house in this dirty little town — and never, ever look back.
The floorboards creaked as Severus crossed the room in his too-big boots. He opened his door as quietly as he could and stepped out into the narrow hall, checking that his parents' bedroom door was firmly shut before creeping down the cramped stairwell that led to the kitchen. A few flies buzzed about the sink, dark specks in a dark room. He slunk towards the parlor, but froze as the low drone of the radio caught his ear.
Carefully, so carefully, he peered around the doorway into the parlor. His father was slumped in a chair by the window, spider legs sprawled out before him, one bare foot scuffing up the carpet. His sharp features — so similar to Severus's own — were illuminated by the streetlights seeping through the window. He was asleep, one arm propped beneath his drooping head, the other flung across the side of the worn chair, fingers still tenuously grasping an empty bottle.
For a long, silent moment, Severus glowered through the gloom at the figure of his father. Then, holding his breath, he crept past to the front door, quietly unlatched the lock, and slipped out into the night.
Out on the streets of Spinner's End, the mill loomed like a great, shadowy obelisk. That was fitting, thought Severus, pleased with his own metaphor — for the mill was as much a monument to death and memory as anything else in this dying town. Three months ago, the owner of the mill had abruptly shut its doors, citing financial losses and untenable prospects. He'd taken off happily for London and left the town of Cokeworth to rot.
Ever since, Cokeworth had been slowly hemorrhaging. Half the town had lost their jobs. Spinner's End was as good as a cemetery plot. His father, never much one for sobriety in the first place, had descended even deeper into what felt to Severus like an endless, dangerous drunkenness.
Five more months and Severus would be seventeen.
His boots flapped uncomfortably around his ankles as they carried him through the dingy, deserted streets of Cokeworth, along the dirty banks of the river where, after a brief moment's consideration, he knelt to grab a handful of dusty pebbles and stuff them into his pocket. He continued on, a ghost in a ghost town, past the playground — once a holy site in his memory, now just another graveyard — through winding streets and narrow alleys, until he arrived almost unthinkingly at his destination. It was no surprise his feet had led him here. He visited it nearly every night.
Severus found his place among the bins in the shadows of the back alley of Bobbin Street, empty but for the occasional cat who sauntered by with wary eyes. The tight little terraced houses were all dark, their tenants undoubtedly asleep at this late hour. All except for one.
A patch of light shone like a beacon from the second-story window of the house behind which he stood. The parted curtains, fluttery pink paisley things, allowed him to see inside the little room as clearly as though he were watching a Muggle television screen.
And then Lily Evans appeared.
She didn't see him. She wasn't looking.
It had been well over a month since Severus had accidentally uttered the word that would ruin his life. Mudblood. He hadn't meant it; he'd been provoked and outraged and…and…He shook his head roughly as though he might clear it. The events of the year prior and everything that led up to that one explosive moment by the lake fluttered around his normally-organized mind like glitter in a snow globe. He couldn't calm it, he couldn't arrange it logically and make sense of it all. He often felt that if he could just clear his head of all these troublesome thoughts, lay them out on a worktop and dissect them, slice them apart piece by piece, then he could figure out how to put it all back together and fix it. But he couldn't. He didn't know how. The endless swirling and simmering of his mind had once been his refuge, his place to turn when the world got a little too hard, a haven in which to disappear and distract. But now, this brilliant brain was a fog-filled prison.
From his angle in the alley below, Severus could just catch Lily's reflection as she stood before the oval mirror hung on her wall. She was dressed in a pair of old Muggle shorts and a loose blouse, holding up a Muggle dress for consideration — a lurid, floral thing, the likes of which he'd never seen her wear before. She cocked her head to the side. Swept her beautiful red hair off her shoulders.
Severus ran his thumb over one of the pebbles in his pocket.
He'd come here the first week of summer, on another hot and sticky night like this one. After a week of misery locked alone in Spinner's End, he couldn't bear it anymore. He'd felt certain that things would be different here, away from Hogwarts, away from Potter and Black and the pet werewolf they'd sicced on him…away from Corin Mulciber and Adam Avery, even. Lily would see reason in Cokeworth. Here, where they had spent their childhood together, where they had discovered the magic in each other…here, she would listen. She would understand. She would forgive.
But that's not what happened.
"What are you doing here, Severus?" she'd demanded that night so many weeks ago. He'd thrown a pebble at the window to get her attention, and it had taken a few tries but eventually she'd flung open the window and glowered down at him, like a princess in a tower.
"You have to hear me out," Severus had pleaded from below, the lowly Prince come to beg for her hand.
"I already did. We're not doing this again."
"I didn't mean to — it was an accident, Lily!"
"No, it wasn't. We both know it wasn't. You've made it perfectly clear where you stand."
"What do you mean?"
"The people you hang around, Sev! The people you defend. All your little spells…"
"What do my spells have to do with anything?"
"They're cruel. You hurt people."
"I haven't hurt anyone."
"Oh, that's bollocks," she'd snarled. "Don't try and tell me Levicorpus was just a laugh. You didn't think it was so funny when Potter used it on you."
The humiliation of that memory still stung, sharp and bitter. James Potter, his mortal enemy, had stolen Severus's invented spells and used them against him before a crowd of jeering students, Lily among them. It had been this provocation that had caused him to utter the unforgivable word. It had been Potter's fault. A moment's mistake, and Severus was to be punished for it eternally while Potter got off scot free. Again.
"And I saw that gash you sliced on Potter's cheek," Lily had gone on, her voice a hiss on the wind. "The one that wouldn't stop bleeding…?"
"Of course," Severus had spat back bitterly. "It's Potter you're worried about, is it?"
"This has nothing to do with him! This is about you — and me. You and me? We are not friends anymore. Not ever. Get that through your head and leave me alone. I mean it, Severus, I never want to see you again."
And she'd closed the window, closed the curtains, closed him out.
Weeks passed and summer slumped by, hot and miserable, and still Lily did not relent. He'd tried the pebbles once or twice more, but with no better results. These days, he didn't bother trying to get her attention, yet still his feet carried him to this dark little alley over and over again all the same. He didn't know what he hoped to achieve by coming back here, standing alone in the dark, unknown and unseen. He supposed in a way he was simply holding vigil for the death of the most important relationship of his life, the death of his hopes and dreams — the death, in a way, of Sev, for no one else had ever called him that.
She may wish to never see him again, but Severus was not yet ready to quit seeing her.
He pulled the handful of pebbles from his pocket and gazed at them in deep contemplation. Perhaps he would try to get her attention again tonight, futile though he knew it would be. Even to have her yell at him would be better than this icy silence. To have those sharp, green eyes fix upon him in fury — to see him — as though her gaze alone could make him feel like a real, solid person in this decrepit ghost town…
But just as he was on the cusp of a decision, a loud, squawking laugh startled him from his reverie. He dropped the pebbles in surprise and dashed deeper into the shadows of the alley just as a gaggle of Muggle girls approached, giggling and carrying on like the foolish little tarts they so clearly were. He observed them with disdain and a shade of fury. They didn't know it, but they had just interrupted something deeply important, something holy. A wave of spite rose up in his throat like bile.
To his increasing consternation, the band of tarts stopped outside Lily's window.
"Rapunzel, Rapunzel!" giggled one of the tartiest-looking girls. When this did not deliver the desired result, the girl leaned down — her tight little skirt straining over her arse — and picked up a pebble from the cobbles. One of his pebbles. She chucked it at the window, but missed. She tried again. Missed. Finally, the apparent leader of their little group stepped up. She was a great cow of a girl who had clearly been drinking, and she hollered up at the window: "OI! LILY!"
The window slid open and Lily's head popped out, just like it had done for him that night all those weeks before. Her dark red hair spilled over her shoulders; her soft, pale skin gleamed in the moonlight, a dust of freckles like stars across her cheeks. She was otherworldly, like nothing that belonged in Cokeworth…
"Quiet!" Lily hissed, though with none of the venom she had spat at Severus. "I'll be down in a minute." And she shut the window and pulled the curtains closed.
"D'you think we'll all go to hell for sneaking the vicar's daughter out to the clubs?" said the tart, pulling a cigarette from her purse and lighting up.
"Aye," said the cow, "but I say we're doing the Lord's work. Poor girl. Stuck in that Scottish boarding school all year long. I doubt she's ever had fun in her life."
"She does seem a tad depressed this summer," said the third girl, a hungry-looking blonde in a low-cut top.
"Nothing some boys and booze won't fix," replied the tart with a giggle.
The window above them opened again and Lily reappeared, this time wearing the Muggle dress Severus had watched her consider. It was a tiny thing, barely covering her bum. She shimmied out the window and, with the well-earned skill of one who had done this many times, negotiated her way down the trellis, landing cat-like in the alley.
"All right?" she said brightly to the group of girls, smoothing her dress over her thighs.
"All clear with daddy dearest?" asked the tart.
"He's asleep," said Lily matter-of-factly. "He won't even know I'm gone."
"Brill. Fancy a fag?"
"Come on," said the cow, as Lily accepted the cigarette and lit up. "We've got to hurry if we want to catch the bus. If we miss this one, we're out of luck 'til morning."
"You really think Paul can get us into Rotters?"
"Count on it."
The girls began to disperse, Lily following along. She paused, however, as they passed the patch of darkness where Severus lurked. He held his breath and pressed himself deeper into the shadows as she glanced over her shoulder, the smoke from her cigarette curling into the starless night. She could feel him there, he knew it…One step forward and she would see him...
"You coming, Lily?" called the cow.
"Yeah," said Lily, shaking her head as though she were being silly. "Let's go."
And she continued on, skipping a bit to catch up. A tawdry joke, a bray of laughter, and the girls disappeared down the alley.
And Lily — his Lily, his best friend, always — was gone.