Severus hated mirrors.
When Dumbledore had brought him to live at Hogwarts, he'd brought him right here to these rooms, showed him the wards, and told him to make himself comfortable. One of the first things Severus did was cover the large mirror over his dressing table. Mirrors are useless, he told himself, always looking, asking, never offering answers. He'd summoned a house elf and ordered it to bring a large tapestry, and the mirror had ceased its vigil.
For thirteen years he lived in relative peace, at least in the confines of his private rooms; covered, the mirror could not mock him. He dressed each morning with care, but without the aid of a mirror. He did not mind; he saw that his robes were clean, the black broadcloth covering him from neck to wrist to ankle, and that was enough for him.
On the day before the start of term, he woke to find a house elf polishing the mirror upon his dressing room wall. He stepped through the doorway into the dressing room, causing the elf to jump and squeak, "Oh, Rimmy is sorry, Professor Snape, sir. Rimmy is just doing a bit of cleaning before the start of term feast, sir. Rimmy isn't meaning to be waking Professor Snape. Rimmy is clearing up and getting out of Professor Snape's way, sir." His pointy ears trembled as he bowed before the Potions Master.
He opened his mouth to growl at the startled elf, and was surprised at the sound of his own voice. "No, it's fine. Thank you. You may go." The elf disappeared with a 'crack' and Severus found himself alone, face to face with his reflection for the first time in many years.
He did not move; he stayed in the doorway and looked at the mirror from across the room. His first thought was to call the elf back and have the hanging placed back upon the wall, but he dismissed this notion quickly. The elves are busy today, preparing for the Feast and the students' return. I can replace it myself later. He wondered just what had come over him, being so benevolent.
He tore his eyes from the pair in the mirror and crossed the dressing room into his private bathroom. A shower would do well to clear his mind before the Feast. He removed and folded his night shirt and placed it carefully atop the counter next to the sink. Thirteen years as a Potions Master showed themselves in the precision of his movements, the exactness with which he reached to turn on the tap, pulled back the curtain, and stepped inside the tiled shower.
The water was hot, instantly turning his skin pink in places, but he didn't care. He faced away from the faucet and allowed the water to flow from the top of his head, through his dark hair, and down his back. He washed his hair and his body, then he stood under the spray and let the water bring its peace. If only for a moment, he thought.
Severus stepped out of the shower into the bathroom proper, thick with steam and the smell of absolute clean. Breathing deeply, he took a towel from the rack and began drying himself, but stopped when he glimpsed the faint lines upon his left arm.
He had always known that it would return, that someday it would again stand out, stark and black against his pale skin. He knew he could never be rid of it. But that knowledge did little to quell the nausea that swept over him as he looked down and noticed that his Mark had indeed begun to darken.
So it begins, he sighed aloud into the cloud of steam surrounding him. So begins the second rise of the Dark Lord. I must tell Albus.
He finished drying himself, wrapped the towel around his waist, and left the bath chamber. He crossed the dressing room and opened the mahogany wardrobe, selected his most formal set of robes, and began to dress. There would be a staff meeting in the afternoon, but his news could not wait. Severus decided that he would inform the Headmaster straight away, if for no other reason than to get the unpleasantness out of the way and free the rest of his day for some reading and preparation for tomorrow's lessons.
As he pulled the sleeve of his robes over his left arm, he looked again at the brand there. He felt at once a desire to scrub it until the skin became raw and a warped sense of comfort that the mark could not be removed. As long as the mark remained, he could never forget what he was. He had been a Death Eater, a servant of the Dark Lord; he had seen and done atrocious things – all for the sake of belonging, for the sake of power – and now he lived here, teaching, waiting, trying to do his penance, to make amends for his past.
In his heart, he knew that his was a debt too great for hope of repayment. There is no way to amend for destroying a life, he'd repeated to himself. The dead do not value your remorse. He swallowed these bitter thoughts, fastened the clasps down the front of his robes, and adjusted the serpent-shaped catch at the throat. He turned to leave the room and was arrested, once again, by the open face of the mirror.
Do I always look this pale, he wondered. Having gone so long without the use of a mirror, he found is reflection almost alien, like seeing a stranger wearing his face. He stepped closer to the glass and noticed fine lines at the corners of his eyes and an unfamiliar furrow in his brow. You are getting old, Severus. He examined the steep hook of his nose, the firm set of his jaw, the blackness of his eyes – all reminiscent of his father. His father, who had ruled their home with an iron fist; who had oscillated between bullying young Severus and glowing with pride as he taught him Dark magic. In every line of the face in the mirror, he saw traces of the man who had first made him understand evil; the man who had unknowingly taught him to be such an efficient inflictor of pain..
Now he remembered why he never did this.
Severus hated mirrors – had always hated them. Mirrors were not helpful, not useful. Mirrors only allowed the viewer to look within, and that was the one place he did not wish to look. As a child, he had paid little attention to his reflection, taking it for granted, as most children do. During his school years, he became aware of his appearance: skinny, pallid, with oily skin and a hook nose – unattractive. After he had joined the Dark Lord, mirrors had presented a problem: How was he to do the Dark Lord's will and yet look himself in the eye? He had returned home after a night of burning Muggle homes and torturing the inhabitants, and the mirror in the hall had been staring at him. He raged at it, smashed it with a candlestick from the table, then broke the rest of the mirrors in the house. Once rid of the mocking faces, he tried to forget who he was, concentrating only on what he was to do. Life was easier, right and wrong less clearly defined, when one only concerned himself with the tasks at hand and not with the marks being left upon one's soul.
When he came to Hogwarts, there had been the dressing room mirror. Same problem, different set of memories to forget: what he had done, the faces of victims, the pleading eyes, hoarse voices begging for mercy … All these things he saw each time he looked into his own eyes. Life was easier without mirrors. Mirrors made you remember, and Severus wanted to forget. Forget everything except the present, the task at hand, which, at the moment, was to inform Dumbledore about the Mark and prepare for the staff meeting. He wrenched his eyes away from his reflection, fastened the collar of his cape, and strode out into the dungeon corridor.
"May I see it?" The Headmaster's question caught him off guard; he had expected to be taken at his word.
"Is that entirely necessary, sir?" He tried to keep the bite out of his words.
"I am afraid it is, Severus. Not because I do not trust your word, but rather because I need to see it with my own eyes." The gravity in Dumbledore's eyes belied his light tone.
Reluctantly, he began to pull back his sleeve, doing his best to mask the wave of shame coming over him. It was one thing to view the wretched symbol alone in one's own quarters; it was quite another to be asked to display the evidence of your disgusting past, however long ago.
He pulled his sleeve up to his elbow and faced his forearm toward the Headmaster, and though he could feel the old man's searching eyes, he could not bring himself to meet his gaze.
"That's enough. Thank you."
He pulled the folds of black cloth back down to his wrist, thankful to feel clothed once again.
"Is there anything else on your mind?"
"No, sir," he replied, in a voice even he did not believe. He should have known this would happen. Damn that mirror. He knew better than to come to the Headmaster under such a load of memories freshly churned in his mind.
"May I speak frankly to you?" The older man waited for him to nod assent, then continued. "I believe I may know what it is that weighs on you so heavily today. Mercy, Severus, is not your strong point, nor is forgiveness." Unbidden, his eyes snapped up to Dumbledore's. How could he bring this up now? "You will, I hope, excuse this foray into such a personal topic, but I had rather hoped that, by now, you would have begun to forgive yourself."
He opened his mouth to protest, but Dumbledore held up a hand to stop him. "I know the reasons you would give for being unworthy of forgiveness. You have listed them for me many times. I know you hurt people, even killed." Severus flinched at that, but Dumbledore's gentle voice continued. "And I know that these things left stains upon your soul, as they would on any person with a moral conscience. But please, hear these words: it is time to let it go. It is fourteen years since you renounced the Dark. You have risked your life numerous times at my behest, doing tasks of which none but you were capable. For thirteen years, you have lived here in this castle, acting as Potions Master and head of Slytherin House, where you have had invaluable influence.
"Severus, your hands are clean. Stop pretending that you are unworthy. You are as worthy of forgiveness, and friendship, and love as anyone."
"Stop pretending you are unworthy." The headmaster's words echoed in his head for the rest of the day: through lunch in the Great Hall, through the last quiet meal until Christmas; through the last-minute inventory of the Potions supply cupboard; through the staff meeting, where the Headmaster informed the staff of his suspicions on the Dark Lord's growing power; through the Sorting Feast, where he saw the newest generation of Slytherins join their Housemates for the first time; through the after-party in the staffroom, a last-minute celebration of the end of the summer's freedom.
Back in his quarters, Severus undressed and donned his night clothes. As he put away his robes, he once again found himself staring into the mirror. He walked to it and sought his own eyes, expecting to remember. He retrieved the tapestry from the dressing table, ready to hang it back in place, but instead of hearing words of condemnation or echoes from the past, he heard Dumbledore's words again: "Stop pretending that you are unworthy." He folded the tapestry into a neat little square and placed it back upon the table. Perhaps it is time, he thought, to stop running.