Lest The Old Traditions Fail

By Quillusion

Summary: A medieval tradition gives Severus the edge he needs.

Rating: R.

Anti-Litigation Charm: I only wish these good people were mine. Most of this belongs to JKR, except for the plot details and the tradition, which predates all of us. This is a real tradition which is still practiced by medieval recreation groups such as the Society for Creative Anachronism, and yes, I have done this on several occasions, among strangers and friends alike. It's lovely, and I encourage you to try it the next time you are gathered with those you love. Or want to love. After all, citrus is a key ingredient in this tradition... who's to say you couldn't use a lemon instead of an orange? ;-)

Bet that intrigued you!

Q, who has delayed too long in posting this, and who hopes it gets read before Book 5 comes out Friday....

The Great Hall was not nearly as full as it would have been at term time, but it was far more crowded than Christmas dinner usually saw it. There were about fifteen students from each House staying over the holiday, and the staff were chafing a little under the need to continually watch over their adolescent charges at a time of year when there was usually little to do but eat, drink, and be something other than a teacher. The students sat at round tables like the ones used for the Yule Ball during the last Triwizard tournament; with the regular House tables out, the hall would have felt oppressively empty.

The overall effect, however, was quite the opposite. Dumbledore had had the tables brought up to just below the staff table, and had cast a few careful charms on the Hall beyond. Consequently, enchanted snow falling from the enchanted ceiling was coming all the way down to settle on equally enchanted fir trees now magically growing in a grove around the small set of tables. Faint lights glowed in the trees, adding to the light from the floating candles and bathing the diners in warm radiance. The effect transformed the Great Hall from cavernously empty to intimate and magical, a banquet in a winter glade. The snow that settled to the floor surprised everyone with its warmth, and as drifts of it blanketed the feet of the revelers, sighs of pleasure rose upward to stir the softly falling snowflakes. The flagstones were so cold in the wintertime.

Albus Dumbledore leaned forward to stare down the table at his staff, smiling with amusement at their various expressions. Minerva was indulging in a rare moment of childlike delight, catching snowflakes on her tongue; Hagrid was surreptitiously testing the snow's suitability for snowballs. Madam Hooch was sitting with a dreamy smile on her face, watching the snow, lost in Christmases past. Flitwick was charming clouds of the drifting flakes to make them form messages: Happy Christmas, Joyeux Noel, Feliz Navidad, and others. The Headmaster smiled; it was just as well that Fred and George Weasley had long since graduated. They'd have modified the charm to display rude messages at Quidditch matches.

Albus's glance settled last on the man in the seat beside him: his Potions master- a dark man with a brooding countenance, a tortured soul who had so little enjoyment in life that he felt Christmas to be more of a burden than a blessing. He hated turkey, although he liked the cranberries- without the sugar, thank you all the same- and didn't seem to mind the other dishes. But more than the food, it was the joy of the season that seemed to weigh so heavily on him. He had so little of his own that seeing it so abundantly given to others was painful for him. It was a mark of his respect for Albus that he was present for this meal at all; the Headmaster knew perfectly well that this year, more so than any other, was the hardest one for him to attend. Not least because of the horrors so recently past.

Voldemort had fallen only two months ago- not even that. On Halloween, the final confrontation had come, and Severus had been forced to cast the Killing Curse no fewer than seven times in ten minutes. Aside from the drain, the horror of seeing his former friends and acquaintances die by his own hand had been overwhelming. No matter that they were murderers in their own rights who would have done the same to him with far less provocation; the fragile state of Snape's conscience had barely withstood the onslaught. He had been close to suicide for weeks afterward, and had only regained his sense of perspective in the last month.

But there was so much more that he would never regain.

Harry Potter and Ron Weasley had come back safely, injured but with no life-threatening wounds. Longbottom and Finnegan, too, had returned, and Draco Malfoy had been taken to St Mungo's for detoxification and assessment- it was thought that he might be salvageable, if the effects of Imperio could be removed. But so many others were gone- others whom Severus had once had under his care.

Others whom he had been forced to kill.

Crabbe and Goyle had fallen to their former Head of House's wand, as had Millicent Bulstrode. He had managed to merely stun Pansy Parkinson, but he found this cold comfort; he'd also killed Karkaroff, MacNair, Lucius Malfoy, and Peter Pettigrew. These last two troubled him less than any others, but he still seemed to feel the taint of blood on his hands. Nothing Albus or anyone else could say would make him change his mind about his own guilt- partly because he'd chosen to injure an innocent in order to kill the guilty. Malfoy Senior had been using Hermione Granger as a shield when Severus caught up with him, and without a pause he had cast the curse at the Death Eater's head, choosing to risk Miss Granger's death against the chance that he could take out Voldemort's right hand man.

The risk had paid off- Malfoy had died with a satisfying burst of green light- but at great cost. Miss Granger had been caught in the backwash, and some of the curse energy had transferred to her from the dying Malfoy's hands. She had been unconscious for three weeks, and had only recently been able to return to her work at the Hexagon, the Ministry branch which had been developed to serve as the Department of Defense. Her hexes and counterspells had been invaluable to the 'good guys' in the fight- but none of them had saved her from the turncoat's wand. Severus had reverted to the survival instincts which had kept him alive for so long, and Hermione had paid the price.

Albus sighed. No matter that Hermione had protested endlessly that the price was worth paying, that she was fine- no matter that she'd shown no sign of permanent damage from her illness. Severus was determined to think less of himself for the decision he'd made, and Albus knew too much of regrets and second thoughts to think he could change the man's mind. But it was a pity. He'd earned a little happiness; it was a shame to see him push it away with both hands when it tried to come to him.

Severus Snape was staring at his plate, lost in thought, his dark eyes shadowed with more than lack of candlelight. His fork was toying idly with the mashed potatoes on his plate, carving intricate patterns into the soft stuff and pressing them flat again. His free hand was resting on the table beside his plate, fingers curled neatly under, out of the way of glasses and silverware. The dark curtain of his hair fell across one cheek, hiding his expression from his superior.

"Sickle for your thoughts, Severus," said the Headmaster softly, and Snape's head came up in surprise.

"Your rate's gone up," he remarked calmly. "You used to offer a Knut."

Albus smiled fondly at the distraction technique. "Your thoughts have always been worth more than that," he conceded with a smile. "They certainly seem weighty enough, if they can chase away a smile on Christmas."

Severus sighed. "You know perfectly well what I'm thinking about. And why I'd rather be in the dungeons. Anywhere but here."

"Are we such bad company as all that, Severus?" chided Albus gently.

The dark head shook slightly. "Rather the opposite," he countered. "I would appreciate it if I might be excused once the last course is finished."

The Headmaster sighed. "We are expecting guests," he said quietly. "I would like it if you could remain until they have arrived."

Severus looked puzzled. "Guests? Who?"

"Distinguished alumni."

The Potions master's expression darkened, and Albus knew he was expecting the worst. "You'll be fine, Severus. Just do what you've always done- scowl at the plate." He couldn't help the acerbic remark- for Heaven's sake, the man's self-hatred had reached the point of cliché.

"You do know that I charm the plate so I can see what's going on in the room without looking up?" came the unexpectedly mild tones of Severus's voice. He said it casually, but Albus knew it was the closest thing to an apology he would ever get from Severus Snape about his irascible behavior.

"How Slytherin. What do you see now?" he asked.

"That our guests have arrived."

And he was right. The doors to the Great Hall could be seen coming open over the tops of the miniature forest behind the tables; it was several moments before the newcomers were visible through the trees.

Severus actually slouched down in his seat when the Dream Team, as he himself had christened them, came to take seats at the table just below the staff table. Harry Potter, Ron Weasley, and Hermione Granger were perhaps the three most famous alumni Hogwarts had ever had, and they were having Christmas dinner here, rather than with their families. How kind of Albus to mention this to him; on the other hand, if he had been warned, he would never have come. The Headmaster should have been sorted into Slytherin. He fastened his eyes on his plate, unable to look Hermione in the face. She'd graduated three years ago, she had been his student for pity's sake, and yet he felt as awkward as a first year called on the carpet every time he met her gaze.

A chorus of voices greeted the new arrivals, and there was a soft noise of chairs being pulled back as they seated themselves. Albus shot a quick look at Severus, but the Potions teacher's eyes were closed against whatever his plate might have shown him. This was not the quick close of a blink, or even of a quick gathering of reserve. This was the closure of denial, of unwillingness to see.

For if Severus Snape had actually looked at Hermione with truly open eyes, he would never have looked away from her again.

Hermione studied her former teacher surreptitiously as she chatted with old friends around the table. She sneaked an open look at him over the rim of her glass as she sipped, and her heart ached with the weight she could see on his shoulders. He would not look at her- he had not been able to look at her since the End. Even though it wasn't her fault. She'd never been able to teach him any of the hexes she'd taught Harry and Ron, and he blamed himself for using the Killing Curse when he knew it could have killed her. Privately, she thought the trade would have been worth it; the fact that he did not think so gave her hope that her most cherished secret dream might possibly have a chance.

Unless he simply felt that the loss of even one innocent life was too high a price to pay. But that didn't ring true; he'd had to stand by and watch as more than one innocent died, preserving his image until the time was right to reveal his true colors. To him had fallen a task that only a Slytherin would have the courage and the stomach to undertake; no Gryffindor could have withstood the horror as he had done.

Although, come to think of it, he hadn't withstood it all that well. Yet another indication that the Houses had more in common with one another than tradition would suggest. Hermione had been unconscious for most of the time that Severus had spent in agony over his choice, but she had awakened from her coma well before Severus had decided to keep living a while longer. She remembered the tension of those few weeks, remembered the slow burn of worry beneath her skin as, even among the chores of resuming a mundane existence, a part of her had waited with him, and watched. And when he had emerged at last, washed in the pale colors of his remorse, she had thought, He lives. It is enough.

She wondered if he realized how much hope she took from the depths of his despondency and its cause. It sounded so cold, so callous- but deep in her heart, she was hoping that he was upset because it had been her life he risked- not just anyone's. For, despite the pain it clearly caused him, the depth of feeling which moved him to such regret was powerful; to think of being the one lying at its heart was intoxicating. And the Headmaster had told her what he'd been whispering when they finally gave him the Dreamless Sleep potion:

Not her... anyone but her... please, I can't! Not her... mione....

She studied him again as she turned her head casually to give some semblance of listening to the conversation that completely bypassed her brain. He was staring at his plate, unseeing, and it could have been a first year's essay as easily as Hogwart's best china laden with holiday cheer, for all the interest it seemed to draw from him. She remembered what Albus had said to her, when it had become apparent that no words would absolve the Potions master of the guilt he had claimed as his own:

"Severus has never really understood that we don't need his permission to like him, even if he does not like himself. Odd, really; it's so unlike a Slytherin to believe his heart over his head." He'd twinkled at her then, and she'd smiled wanly.

Hermione smiled again now, passing the basket of rolls to Ron and using the motion to disguise a quick glimpse at the dark-haired figure at the head table. She knew she'd better take as many looks now as she could; he'd be out of the room as soon as Albus let go of the invisible leash he kept tied to the younger wizard's conscience. Raw as that part of him was, it was easily restrained.

Dinner was being cleared away, the nearly-empty dessert dishes flicking out of sight along with the platters now devoid of roast and potatoes. In the center of each table there appeared a small basket of fruit, and the faint sweet-acid scent of it was tantalizing, even to full diners.

Albus rose in his seat, and the assembly fell silent, looking up at him with the memory of many feasts in their eyes. He smiled, at each of them individually, it seemed- how had he done that?- and then held up in his hand a large orange, its thick rind almost luminous in the soft glow of the candles. Hermione was suddenly aware that if the hold the Headmaster had over Severus Snape had been visible, it would have been vibrating with the intensity of the latter's desire to escape and the firmness of the former's command to stay.

"Ladies and gentlemen," Dumbledore said. "I should like to share with you, my friends, a holiday tradition from my boyhood. I know how ancient I must seem to some of you, but believe me when I tell you this tradition dates back even farther than I." He murmured something over the orange, and a moment later a cloud of fragrance drifted over the heads of the diners as cloves studded the fruit's surface, mingling citrus and spice.

"Pomanders have long been used at holiday times," Albus commented. "And the tradition of the cloven fruit is much the same. When you receive a cloven fruit, you are being given the gift of a kiss from its giver. You designate a landing spot for the kiss, and the giver takes a clove, like so-" he demonstrated, pulling a clove from the skin of the orange with strong teeth- "and chews it to freshen the breath."

"And then..." He turned and handed the fruit to Minerva, who flushed prettily and gave the Headmaster her hand, which he saluted gallantly.

"Minerva, it's your turn." He winked at her.

"Whoever takes the last clove gets the orange, of course."

Minerva rose, carried the fruit to Professor Flitwick. After a salute on the cheek, the Charms professor handed the fruit to one of the young women from his House. The orange passed from student to student, to faculty, and on, and along the way there were many chuckles. Lavender Brown, still miffed at her Hufflepuff boyfriend, had him kiss her shoe, which produced much good-natured ribbing on his folly in giving her a book of beauty charms for Christmas. When Hagrid gave Ginny Weasley a giant raspberry, there was a burst of applause. When Ginny shyly kissed Harry's cheek a moment later, there were soft murmurs of approval. And when Ron handed Hermione the orange, there was a wave of something very like pain from the Potions master's chair.

Hermione felt it, but it did not change her direction as she offered Ron her hand. The redhead looked a little disappointed, but hardly surprised, and subsided into his chair after placing the orange in her palm. She looked down at it, felt the soft sharpness of the cloves pressing into her skin with the weight of the fruit, the slight stickiness as the oils and juices seeped slowly from the pierced rind.

Her feet were silent as she approached the Head Table and went around one end. Everyone else was just as silent, surprised- and yet glad, too- to see her stop in front of the one faculty member who had not yet been given the orange.

The Potions master did not look up until her shadow fell across his face, and then his head tipped back in surprise. His eyes widened as he realized that she had come to him with the orange, and disbelief mingled with pain flickered in their dark depths.

Hermione carefully pulled a clove out of the orange with her teeth, savoring the warm flavor of it as she chewed and swallowed. She had to lift his hand from his lap to place the orange in it, but he did not resist as she folded his fingers around it, and the disbelief shifted slowly to wonder as a cloud changes shape.

"Where?" she asked simply, and could see in his eyes as his courage quailed in the face of this challenge. He swallowed, but could not speak.

She smiled at him, and then leaned forward and placed a slow, gentle kiss on his forehead, letting him feel her smile against his skin.

She did not miss the shiver that shot down his spine at her touch.

Hermione turned and made her way back to the table, noting the absence of noise from the crowd. It was not until she sat down again that she realized no one was making unpleasant faces.

Severus nervously gave the orange to Sybil Trelawney, whose attitude had become a lot less misty since she'd been forced to drop the act and kick in a few Death Eater teeth in the last days of the war. She must have decided she liked the change, because she'd given up the bangles and incense in favor of a lavender-tinted buzz cut and the tattoos that the bangles had hidden for several years. She let Severus kiss her hand, too, and then descended on Ron Weasley with a look in her eye that prompted the young alumnus to offer his mouth.

There was little doubt that he'd offered more than that when the Divination teacher stood and weaved her way back to the Head Table with a sotted grin on her face.

The orange made a few more passes, and Hermione began to suspect that the cloves were charmed to replenish periodically. Ginny had, by now, gotten up the courage to kiss Harry on the mouth, and Hermione was adding to her original suspicion the one that Albus was doing more than a little matchmaking tonight. What was in those cloves?

The orange came to her again, this time from Harry, who kissed her elbow to be silly without even asking her, and in his green eyes she thought she saw a dare.

This time, Severus watched her approach, his eyes alert. She wondered if he would respond this time, and was delighted when he turned his cheek to her in offering. She took the offer, delighting in the scent of his skin as she let the kiss linger just a little bit. His mouth, so close to her ear, gave away the soft intake of breath and the faintest sound of pleasure at her touch, and she found herself wanting very badly to give him a thousand reasons to make that beautiful sound. He had had so few in his life.

She drew back, meeting his gaze with warmth, hoping he could see in her eyes what he would not believe from her lips. Silly Slytherin.

It was not long before Ginny Weasley had the orange again, but this time, she turned to Harry and cocked an eyebrow. He nodded, and then the redheaded young woman stood from her seat and walked with calm deliberation to the staff table, where she handed Professor Snape the orange and waited politely, chewing her clove.

He gave her his hand, which she pecked in a friendly fashion, and then she winked at him.

Chairs scraped softly on the flagstones as room was surreptitiously made for the Potions master's voluminous robes to pass among them.

He came down from the Head Table, the soft swirl of his black robes as elegant as ever, and when he paused uncertainly before Hermione's chair, she smiled up at him.

He took a clove, his eyes not straying from hers, and gently handed her the orange, his fingers closing over hers, folding them round the fruit.

She gently touched the fingers of her other hand to her mouth, wondering what he would do.

Severus leaned down, slowly, and with a gentleness utterly at odds with his appearance and reputation, reverently touched his lips to Hermione Granger's.

It took a moment, but the kiss caught like kindling, crackling to life and bringing her up to tangle her hands in his raven-bright hair. He drew a sharp breath, cupping her face in his hands as if to reassure himself that she was real.

And when they parted, eyes still locked, she could see that he believed her at last.

"Ah," came Albus's voice from his seat at the staff table. "I see that's the last clove! I believe you get the final treat tonight, Severus."

"Indeed," murmured the Potions master, his hand still curled around Hermione's as it held the now-bare orange.

finis (unless you want more?)

A/N: Yes, the Hexagon is my terrible punny invention. Why not one-up the Pentagon? Also, I don't really know that Snape wouldn't be more accustomed to goose than turkey for Yuletide, but cranberries are truly in his idiom and so I served them up. (I prefer them sans sugar as well.) The title of the piece, incidentally, is taken from my college's Alma Mater. I have twisted it a little from its original (misogynistic) meaning to suit my evil purposes. I'm working on a few other things, mostly small, but I may post one of them- at least the first part of it- soon, before Book 5 comes out, as Albus features in the first part and I don't want to think about what might change when OOTP is released....