He had hoped to be alone by the lake that overcast autumn afternoon while the students were in classes and the other staff members -- particularly the new ones like himself -- had too much preparation to do to spend time enjoying the cool air and the scent of fallen leaves wafting from the forest. But as Harry approached the water, he saw a slim, dark figure...the very last person alive he wished to see.
Though he had understood for months now that Snape had not wanted to kill Dumbledore and had only been carrying out the Headmaster's wishes, knowing that did not make it much easier to forgive what Harry had witnessed that night on the parapets when Snape had done the deed, speaking the very curse that had killed both of Harry's parents. It made things more difficult rather than easier to recall that those were also the words that had ended the life of Lord Voldemort, for it had been Harry who had spoken them.
Unforgivable. Everyone from Hermione to McGonagall to Lupin had agreed that he had no choice, no other weapon left in his arsenal; only a Dark curse could have killed the Dark Lord, even once he was reduced to a pathetic mortal with a faint sliver of soul. When Harry raised his arm, he could still feel vibrations from the energy that had shot from his wand, the green fire striking and bearing Voldemort to the ground. He had told Hermione and Ron that it had hurt. The truth was that it had not hurt; it had felt exhilarating to feel the power flow out of him with the Killing Curse. Some part of him craved that feeling, like an absence he might never fill.
Snape had been there then, too, striking down Bellatrix LeStrange to give Harry a clear path to Voldemort, and even though Harry supposed he should have been grateful to have one less person to kill, that rankled as well. Bellatrix had killed Sirius; she should have been Harry's. And the same was true of Peter Pettigrew. Maybe Snape had done Harry a favor, slaying the traitor, that filthy minion of Voldemort who had betrayed Harry's parents and killed Cedric right in front of him, but it didn't feel like a kindness. Harry had let Wormtail live when Remus and Sirius wanted to kill him, and Wormtail had repaid that life debt only by falling to Snape's wand instead of Harry's own.
The chill in the wind grew more biting as Harry approached the lake, He could see that his long-hated teacher was throwing something into the water. At first he thought that Snape was ripping up pieces of paper, destroying pages of a diary or some physical evidence of his crimes; there was no question in Harry's mind that even if Snape had been working for the right side in the war, he still had a lot to answer for. It wasn't right that he should get to cast away his secrets in the water as if that would cleanse him of responsibility for all the things he had done.
And might there have been a spell on the fragments -- something that could actually rewrite the past in a way Snape might have preferred? Harry wouldn't have put it past Snape to misuse magic that way. As the newly appointed Defense Against the Dark Arts instructor, he supposed he was obligated as well as curious to find out what was going on.
Even if Snape had thought he was helping Harry by being twice as nasty to him as to anyone else, making him work twice as hard for half the credit, forcing him to be wary and defensive, that didn't make it any easier for Harry to trust the man. He could barely tolerate teaching at the same school, though he supposed that he had no more right to blame Snape for being Dumbledore's killer than the students who whispered about Professor Potter behind his back had a right to blame him for the attacks on Hogwarts that had happened while he had been a student there. Voldemort would have tried to kill Dumbledore even if Harry had been at some other Wizarding school. He would have sent Death Eaters to Hogwarts to try to recruit Purebloods and terrify Muggle-borns regardless.
It wasn't paper that Snape was throwing into the lake, Harry could see now. It looked like small bits of bread. Some of them floated over the surface of the lake while others were gobbled down by the fish surfacing near the water's edge. Had Snape gone mental, or was this a spell Harry did not know? In either case it looked suspicious. "Hello, Professor Snape," he called out.
Snape's cloak billowed when he whirled and strands of his long dark hair whipped across his face, momentarily blocking his eyes. Apparently he had been so engrossed in his task that he had not heard Harry's approach. "Potter," he sneered, pushing back his hair. "I should think that with all your new responsibilities, you would have better things to do than snoop around in other people's business."
"Whatever you're up to, you're doing it right here in the open, so I hardly think it's fair to call it snooping." Harry was a bit winded from his walk -- his body still hadn't fully recovered from the final battle -- but he was determined to be formal and courteous with Snape; he wouldn't give the senior professor any excuse to complain about his professionalism. Stopping beside the water several feet from Snape, he caught his breath and studied the breadcrumbs as they swirled out into the lake, its far shore so distant that on this cloudy day, low fog obscured the bank. "What are you doing with those breadcrumbs?" he asked when eventually it became apparent that Snape did not intend to speak, nor to continue in his task.
"Surely even you can make it out, Potter. I was throwing them into the lake."
Cursing himself inwardly at having given Snape the opportunity to ridicule him, Harry replied, "Yes, I could see that. But it seemed like such an odd thing to be doing that I thought I'd ask." The older man made a small noise of disgust, putting his hands in his pockets where it seemed he had hidden the bread, and Harry persisted, "If you don't mind my asking, why are you throwing breadcrumbs into the lake?"
"What makes you think I don't mind you asking? Do you expect that everyone wants to cozy up to you now and share their secrets?" Snape glanced into Harry's eyes, and despite a solid year of practice at Occlumency so potent that he had learned to block Voldemort himself, Harry felt the familiar fear that he was about to have his private thoughts dragged out and examined. But Snape's accustomed viciousness seemed muted, and after a moment he looked away again, out over the water where the breadcrumbs had disappeared. "It's a tradition," he said crossly. "Not a spell, not anything you would need to know. It serves no magical purpose."
Harry studied the muddy edge of the lake where the plants began to disappear into the water. He wanted to ask, Why do it, then? but he was afraid that the question would sound rude rather than interested. "What sort of tradition?" he inquired instead.
Snape bristled, but after a moment he replied, in the same annoyed voice, "Not a magical one, obviously. It's personal." Clearly he hoped that Harry would go away and leave him alone. "I learned it from my Muggle relatives, who treated me as well as yours treated you."
Sometimes Harry forgot that Snape had witnessed so much of his childhood during their Occlumency lessons; the Potions professor had watched Harry relive many horrible memories. Flushing, he said, "Why do you keep their traditions if they treated you so badly?"
"Do you believe that I should break with everyone who ever treated me badly?" asked Snape sharply. "In that case I should not be a Wizard, either. At least, I should not be standing here today. I should have remained a Death Eater to the very end. Do you know who treated me best out of everyone I have known in my life, Potter? Death Eaters. Rodolphus Lestrange. Lucius Malfoy. Certainly not Black and Lupin and your beloved father, nor my colleagues here who never wholly trusted me."
There was still so much bitterness in Snape, so much bile; Harry wanted to hate him for it, yet in a strange way he found himself identifying with it. The Killing Curse had marked him forever; maybe it had marked Snape as well. Or maybe Snape had been more scarred from his childhood than Harry could know. He was only now beginning to understand how the Dursleys had damaged him -- how afraid he was that if he had a family, he would repeat all the mistakes Aunt Petunia and Uncle Vernon had made, picking favorites, getting angry when he couldn't understand his own children. What if he was incapable of being fair? What if he had a child who was a squib, or obsessed with the Dark Arts? What if he had a child who hated Muggles?
"Did your Muggle relatives hate Wizards?" he asked Snape.
"No more than they hated each other." There was satisfaction in Snape's voice now, but it was sour and angry. "My father's father's family was Catholic. My father's mother's family was Jewish. Do you know what that means, Potter? My father's only relationship with his grandparents was to be told how much each despised his parents' marriage. I think he married a witch just to spite them all."
Harry had known people who were Catholic and Jewish when he was a child, but the Dursleys were suspicious of them -- as they were with anyone who wasn't exactly like themselves -- so he didn't really know what this might mean. He had instinctively sought out people who were somehow different when he was in school, but since Aunt Petunia had never let him have his own friends over to play (and Harry could hardly have invited them into the cupboard under the stairs, anyway), he seldom got to know any of the other children well enough to understand what their families and backgrounds were like. He supposed he had thought most children must have been treated more like himself than Dudley, because most children weren't as cruel and selfish as Dudley. "You mean Catholics and Jews hate each other more than wizards, then?" he asked Snape, finding it all too plausible.
"Perhaps not all Catholics and all Jews, just as not all purebloods are as hidebound as those who followed the Dark Lord. I saw my father's family only very rarely, and always separately. When I was a child, my grandfather took me to Mass once, and when my grandmother found out, she took me to a New Year service at a synagogue. That was where I learned..." Reaching out over the water, Snape dropped a handful of breadcrumbs. "...this."
Harry still thought it was an odd tradition to drop bread into the water. He remembered reading in his History of Magic class that Jewish sorcerers had been accused of cursing Christian wells during the Middle Ages and that thousands of Jews had been killed before it was understood that people did not die of plague because of poisoned water or a deadly curse. He wondered whether this strange yet harmless practice had been witnessed and believed to be a spell, as he himself had suspected. "What does it mean?" he asked.
"It's called Tashlich," Snape said sullenly, sounding as if he didn't really want to discuss it but, having been asked, he felt obligated to teach this ignorant former pupil. The word means, 'You will cast away.'"
"So you cast away bread like an offering?"
"No." Snape's mouth curled. "Not an offering. The bread represents one's misdeeds, and the casting is a request for those misdeeds to be hurled into the depths of the sea."
"Then it is like a spell," Harry said softly. Snape glanced sharply at him. "Maybe not the sort where you expect something specific to happen, but one that works more slowly."
"If it works at all."
"If you have no hope that it works at all, why would you do it?" Snape had no retort to this. Harry wondered which misdeeds the former Death Eater was trying to cast away -- not little insignificant ones, despite the size of the breadcrumbs. For Snape to be participating in a Muggle ritual, Harry understood, whatever was weighing on him must have been something he considered irreparable by magic. "May I try it?"
Snape glared at him. "It isn't a part of your history," he snapped. "And you're supposed to bring your own food. Otherwise you're casting off misdeeds not acknowledged as your own."
Harry reached into his pockets. He had his wand, a quill, the wrapper from a Honeydukes chocolate bar and a couple of galleons. "Will money work?" he asked. Snape shook his head. "Then let me help you cast off your misdeeds."
The dark eyes narrowed, but Snape appeared to think about this and after a moment he held out a fist to Harry, who raised an open palm to catch a handful of warm, stale bits of bread. "Put the crumbs in your pocket," Snape instructed him. "Then turn the pocket out."
"Because that's what you do," insisted Snape tersely. When Harry complied, he added, "It's meant to signify emptying yourself of the residue of your sins. For all the good that will do either of us." As Harry dropped the bread into the water, Snape muttered something else in a language that Harry did not recognize. The crumbs fell into the water and were carried a bit away to where Harry saw fish surfacing to try to capture them.
"We could catch them so easily," Snape mused. "Even though their eyes are always open. They never seem to see it coming. And then they can never return to the water." Suddenly sensing Harry's eyes on him, he looked away, following the path of the crumbs that had not been captured by fish. "What is it that you think you have to atone for, Chosen One?"
The words were not spat with their usual disgust, but Harry could not bring himself to answer the question -- not even to Snape, who, he realized, might actually understand about the Killing Curse. "Why do you do it?" he asked again instead. "You said you don't think it does any good."
Snape smiled mirthlessly. "It reminds me that there are people who believe in that kind of forgiveness." He meant Dumbledore, Harry realized. Of course, Dumbledore would have told them both that they had done the right things, or at least that they had acted with the right intentions, for all the good it had done either of them. Did it help to have a Pensieve -- to be able to cast one's mistakes aside for awhile, to forget them? Had Dumbledore felt this way after he defeated Grindelwald? Harry wished that he could ask him.
There was so much that Dumbledore had not had time to teach Harry before he died. Had he had time to teach Snape? Harry felt quite confident in his ability to teach students basic Defense Against the Dark Arts, even the seventh-years who were barely younger than he was, but he was not certain that he really knew things -- whether he would recognize all evil when he saw it, let alone whether he could teach that. Grudgingly he thought about how wrong he had been about Snape, and how hard it was to forgive Snape even for that.
"How often are you supposed to do this before it works?" Harry asked.
"Once a year, at the New Year," said Snape. "Every year."
"And how do you know if it worked?"
"If I knew that, do you think I would be out here with breadcrumbs?"
Harry did not think he had ever heard Snape confess ignorance to him before. It was disconcerting...almost as much as it had been to realize that Dumbledore had grown old and frail and that Harry himself knew things few of his teachers had studied. Perhaps one day he would ask Snape about the after-effects of Unforgivable Curses -- not because he expected Snape to have all the answers, but because it might be comforting to be told that he did not.
"Do you think I could have some more?" Harry asked.
Silently, Snape reached into his pocket and withdrew his hand. His fingers were cold against Harry's but the crumbs felt warm and dry. Harry waited until Snape had retrieved his own handful of stale bread before watching as they both let them fall into the water. Up at the castle, the great clock began to chime the hour, and then something struck Harry.
"Is today the beginning of the new year?"
"It is," grumbled Snape in a tone that suggested that much should have been obvious, but Harry for once did not feel insulted.
"Happy New Year," he said to Snape. Dark, suspicious eyes fixed on Harry's. He kept his face impassive under the scrutiny.
Finally Snape looked away. "And to you," he said. "We should be getting back. There will be students clamoring for our attention."
"In a minute."
Snape glanced at Harry, but he remained beside him until the crumbs had long since disappeared, taken by the fish or the current. The wind felt cold on Harry's face and the air smelled like the crisp clean of winter. It made him smile.