Disclaimer:  Anything you recognize belongs to the goddess, JKR (a fact to which I have yet to reconcile myself).  Dedicated to the members of FLAMER and my own Yahoo Group.  Happy Holidays (no matter what holiday you celebrate!!).  More snarky fluff (my own genre).  Stand-alone only.

Falling Snowflakes

Severus Snape hated winter.  Winter was cold, damp and the dungeons at Hogwarts became almost unbearable.  The students huddled around their flaming cauldrons with their breath misting the air.  The bolder ones cast baleful glances at him, the meeker ones simply shivered and tried not to cut their numb fingers as they prepared ingredients for the day's lessons.

Now, it was the night before Christmas and dinner was, as customary, a lavish and otherwise extravagant affair.  Christmas crackers filled with all sorts of annoyingly loud contraptions and hats of outlandish design (although nothing came close to that vile monstrosity of a vulture hat years before) had already been opened and a light haze of smoke wafted through the Great Hall.  Minerva was up to her old tricks and drinking more of the moonport than was strictly seemly.  He couldn't exactly fault her on her taste (moonport of good vintage was for the epicureans among wizards and witches) or the occasion (after all, Voldemort was quickly becoming something to frighten wayward toddlers with) but he wished she would cease with the singing of carols.  She was off-key and out of tempo, a disastrous combination.

He looked at his colleagues and thought that perhaps he was the only one who was sober.  Until he noticed Hermione Granger, current Care of Magical Beasts professor (Hagrid deciding that being the keeper of grounds and keys at Hogwarts was sufficient responsibility) and perennial bushy-haired know-it-all.  He smirked for a moment remembering how he had likened her hair to her former familiar, Crookshanks.  Nonplussed, she had replied that at least she did not resemble a cadaver that only a venomous tentacula would find attractive.  Albus had laughed behind his sleeve at the battle of wits.

Such sheer impertinence.

Severus noticed that she seemed to be moving food around her plate without eating it.  In fact, she was somewhat lacking in holiday spirit and rather nervous.  He could not fathom what she had to be nervous about.  He returned to his dinner and chatted politely to Remus and Filius who sat on either side of him.

The students began filtering out of the Great Hall late in the evening.  There had been luscious desserts and all sorts of traditional holiday sweets that even Severus could not say no to at least a few pieces of shortbread.  Soon, it was so late that Albus began to yawn and said that it was time to call it a night.  Wishing everyone a pleasant evening, the Headmaster left with an obviously tipsy Minerva.  Severus thought that Albus would have to resort to a levitation charm to get her to her chambers safely and in one piece.

Hermione had made her way to one of the huge Christmas trees decorating the Great Hall and was examining the ornaments.  She was not a ravishingly beautiful woman by any stretch of the imagination but Severus firmly believed that she had one of those faces that compelled a person, especially a man, to remember her.

And, for the last few years, he had not been able to forget her.  Somehow, she had managed to get past his defenses…seemingly without trying.  Somehow, she had caused him to think of something other than wormwood and asphodel.  Somehow she had wormed her way into his heart with her many annoyingly wondrous qualities

And she had even made him laugh…once.

The minx had managed to force him to care deeply for her.  There was no other explanation for it.  A latent Imperio curse?  A potion slipped into his pumpkin juice?  Maybe Potter was behind this as well.  Yes, the Boy-Who-Lived-And-Made-Severus'-Life-A-Living-Hell.  Well, perhaps there was one other explanation for it but he didn't want to even consider it.  It was easier to believe that the situation was her fault entirely.  Much easier.

And some injuries were not to be borne lightly…and certainly not without appropriate retribution.

"Are you attempting to divine the events of the coming year through the placement of the ornaments, Professor Granger?" he asked, pleased to see her jump slightly before turning to face him.

"Of course, Professor Snape.  A red Victorian tassel ornament adjacent to a spun glass sleigh in a direct line with the golden star at the top of the tree is a certain sign that you will turn into a mountain troll at midnight," she replied evenly.  "See, the transformation has already begun…oh, my apologies, that's just your normal nose."

"Typical Gryffindor arrogance, Professor Granger," he drawled.

"Oh, for Merlin's sake…it's Christmas.  Call me Hermione," she reached out to touch a glittering fairy light, which twinkled merrily in a manner reminiscent of the Headmaster's eyes.

"I suppose I can manage that, Hermione, as long as you agree to call me Severus," he replied.

She smiled and turned her attention back to the tree.  His eyes traveled along the masses of unruly hair piled untidily atop her head.  It still looked rather like the fur her cantankerous old cat used to have but that did not stop him from wanting to run his hands through it.

"Do you ever make wishes at Christmas, Severus?" she asked, forcing his attention away from her hair.

"Absolutely, but Albus insists on my returning as Potions Master year after year," he replied drily.

She laughed, a rich throaty laughter that Severus found he rather liked.  At the very least it was considerably better than Poppy's hissing and Sprout's snorting.

"I'm glad that you are so easily amused, Hermione," he remarked.

"I know you love your position, Severus, so you can drop the act of the long-suffering Potions Master, doomed to teach dunderheads and forever be wary of exploding cauldrons," she smiled.

"Are you so very certain that it is an act?" he asked, smirking when she rolled her eyes in disbelief.

"I am far too tired for this sort of nonsense, Severus.  Just call yourself an overbearing bat and save me the trouble," she snapped.

Severus chuckled…he really couldn't help it.

"Severus," she suddenly turned to him and her cheeks were flush with sudden colour.  "I…I wanted to give you this."  He watched her pull a brightly wrapped parcel, festively trimmed with a miniature chocolate Christmas tree, out of her pocket and held it out to him.  Her hand shook only a little.

"It doesn't look like the Hippogriff tears I asked you for," he drawled.

"I swear I will throttle you with a nutcracker or a giant candy cane, whichever being the most geographically convenient!!!" she shouted at him.  "Can you not see that this is a Christmas present or are you too obtuse to even discern that?"

"Why would you offer me a Christmas present?  I cannot say that I have done anything to ingratiate myself to you."

"That is quite true," she retorted.

"We have always argued…our ability to draw one another into a heated battle of wits has earned us quite the reputation among our colleagues."

"That is also quite true," she replied.  "Minerva once said we acted like an old married couple."

"Really?"

"Yes, well, that isn't very important right now.  Can you not just take the present with the goodwill with which it was given?  It won't explode on you."

"I can…but only on one condition," he replied.

He could see the wariness in her eyes.

"You…you must accept this small token of my…"

"Affection and utmost esteem?" she teased.

He snorted as he also drew a small package, decorated with candy cane serpents.  "Appreciation for a worthy adversary.  It is so seldom that I can actually enjoy a battle of wits and, while I have suffered periodically as a result of your sarcasm and general snarkiness, it does not mean I would wish it to end."

They each held the packages in their hands and an awkward silence ensued.

"So, are we just going to throw them at each other's heads?" she asked, seemingly flustered.

Shaking his head in mock disbelief, Severus held out the package in one hand and received her gift in the other.

"Can I open it now?" she asked.  "Or are you going to make me wait until tomorrow morning."

"I am quite interested in your reaction.  You may open it now," he replied graciously.

She stuck her tongue out at him before tearing into the package.

"Careful…it is rather fragile," he warned.

She managed to unwrap the box, stuffing the candy cane serpents in her pocket.  She looked at the logo on the box with some surprise and cautiously broke the seal.

"I…I rather hope you like it.  It's quite rare…an adamantium vial with a pure ruby stopper.  If you remember from your Potions apprenticeship, it's the only container that can be safely used to store…"

"Lethifold tissue which has a number of important uses," she whispered, holding the delicate vial in her hand.  The ruby sparkled and the adamantium glistened.  "Severus…it really is too much.  I never expected…"

"That even a man such as I would deign to buy a colleague something he knew she clearly wanted?  Really, Hermione, I am not such a misanthrope," he smirked.

"It's not just that," she smiled as she looked up at him.  "Open your present.  It's only fair."

He fumbled with the wrapping and popped the chocolate Christmas tree into his mouth.  She gaped at him in a manner reminiscent of a large fish.  "I am rather partial to chocolate," he replied defensively as she giggled.

"Just open it," she urged, taking one of the candy cane serpents out of her pocket and chewing it nervously.

He dispensed with the wrapping and looked at the box with some surprise.  He chanced a glance at her but she was staring at the box, popping the remainder of the candy in her mouth.  He quickly broke the seal on the box and took out an object that looked strangely familiar…an adamantium vial with a ruby stopper.  He looked at her in some surprise…he knew how much such a thing cost and he could not believe that she would have bought it for him.  Was it possible…

"I had no idea…I wanted to surprise you…buy you something as unique as you are," she held her own present gingerly in her hands.  "It's not as if I could buy you wormwood and asphodel."

He chuckled.  "That is very kind of you, Hermione…I confess to having had the same motive.  How unusual that we each purchased the same gift for the same reason…in the belief of giving something unique," he turned his own vial in his hands, admiring the sheen of the metal.

"Does that make me an overbearing bat?" she asked, a small smile on her face.

"Does that make me a bushy-haired know-it-all?" he asked as she began to laugh helplessly at the obviously amusing image.  "I really do appreciate it, Hermione.  It makes a pleasant change from the pairs of socks that Albus hands out each year for some unknown reason.  Now that I think about it, he did give me a bowling shirt once in the most lurid shade of acid green.  Made me rather appreciate the socks."

"I appreciate your gift as well, Severus," she replied.  "It's the loveliest thing that anyone has ever given me."

"I would have to say the same," he said.

"Slytherins rarely give a gift without it serving a specific purpose," she murmured coyly.  "What is yours?"

He paused a moment, looking around quickly to see if anyone was nearby.  It seemed that they were very much alone.  Just how many glasses of wine had he drunk that made him so unnaturally bold and daring?

"I thought, perhaps, you might join me for dinner one night in Hogsmeade.  There is an establishment with which I am familiar and the food is quite palatable," he paused for a moment as he felt somewhat out of breath…but that had nothing to do with his heart racing.  It was the residual smoke from the Christmas crackers that was making it difficult to breathe.  "I was hoping that we could discuss your research into…"

"I think I would very much like to have dinner with you, Severus…even if we never get around to talking about my research," she blushed.

Impertinent minx. 

She reached up to touch his cheek softly.  "You know, I don't think I would have enjoyed my return to Hogwarts half as much if you were not here," she murmured, her eyes never leaving his.

The wine.  It was the wine he had for dinner.  Albus had spiked it.  Perhaps Minerva, saucy old wench that she was, had been rather literal about spreading yuletide cheer.  Yes, that was the reason…

"I admit that I feel the same…despite the fact that you are…" words failed him.  It was the wine.  "Damn it all, Hermione.  I bought you this gift because I care for you…and I wished to show it at this time of year, which is known for its overdone sentimentality.  I am not very good at this…and you are a fiendishly difficult woman to shop for.  You are not a vain woman and I knew that cosmetics or exotic fragrances were not right.  You love books but you have enough to make even the Head Librarian at the Ministry of Magical Records drool with envy so I didn't even consider that.  You are conservative yet elegant in your dress but I suspected you would not want a new set of dress robes.  And, although the thought of a hair potion crossed my mind, I didn't want you putting self-exploding Christmas crackers under my pillow.  And…"

"You put a great deal of effort into this gift, Severus," she smiled.

He coughed nervously.  "As did you.  It really is a beautiful thing…I hope you are able to use it…"

"All I really wanted for Christmas was you, Severus," she whispered and then grimaced.  "Gods, that sounded like something a Hufflepuff would say."

"You don't set very high expectations, do you?" he teased as she punched his shoulder in annoyance.

"Do you have to wax sarcastic every time I express my feelings?" she glared at him in a manner that seemed likely to skewer him on the spot…or reduce him to ashes.

He smirked, raising an eyebrow in a decidedly mocking manner.

"Don't answer that," she huffed, crossing her arms over her chest and walking over to the roaring fireplace.  "Typical Slytherin."

He walked over to her and gently extricated one hand to hold it within his own.  "I don't know how not to be sarcastic, Hermione…and I have never been particularly good at showing my true feelings about anything.  Being a spy made that quality rather dangerous."

"But that time is over," she murmured, staring into the fireplace.  "Voldemort is gone and the time of hiding behind masks, real or otherwise, is over as well."

"I know," he caressed her hand as he also looked into the fireplace.  "But it is difficult for me to change after all these years."

"You only have to change a little…I still want you to be the snarky, overbearing Potions Master that I…" she paused, blushing slightly.

"That you…what, exactly?" he reached out and touched her chin, turning her to face him.

"No," she said firmly.  "You have to say it first."

He swallowed and took a deep breath. He opened his mouth to speak when she suddenly placed her hand over it.

"Please," she pleaded.  "Please just tell me the truth, Severus.  Don't hide behind your sarcasm, your wry sense of humour or general biting snarkiness.  Just tell me the truth…I don't want to hear anything else.  It's Christmas…give me that, at least."

He nodded and she let her hand fall to his shoulder.

"Hermione," he began, feeling his throat seize slightly.  "Hermione, over the past few years I have realized that, while you are still an annoying know-it-all and possess many of the qualities that doomed you to be sorted into Gryffindor, I have come to admire and respect you in a way that sets you apart from anyone else."

Her eyes began to shimmer in the firelight.

"And it is not only respect and admiration, Hermione.  I feel that I am a better man when I am with you.  Not a good man…I don't think that I can ever be a truly good man…but a better man.  With you beside me these past few years, I have dared to hope that my life could have some meaning, that I could share it with someone.  I have been alone for far too long and sometimes I fear that I will not be able to make that transition," he continued quietly.

"Which transition?" She asked.

For a moment, he simply looked at her hand that still rested within his own.  Saying the words was so much more difficult than he had feared.

"The transition from being alone to spending the rest of my life with someone I admire, respect and…love," he finally replied.  Looking up at her, he and saw she was grinning cheekily.

"I hope you are not talking about Sybil," she remarked.  "She has had her inner eye on you for some time."

"And you accuse me of badly-timed sarcasm," he smirked, tapping her on the nose.

"I'm sorry, Severus.  You are absolutely right," she tilted her head, running a hand through his hair.  "I accept your invitation to dinner…and anything else you might like to do afterwards.  In fact, if you don't have any definite plans for the rest of your life, I…"

With a chuckle, he leaned down to kiss her…his lips pressing against hers gently.  She tasted of peppermint…and he quite liked peppermint.

The wine.  It was most assuredly the wine.  That was the reason why he had said what he had said. 

The fact that he loved this special woman had nothing to do with kissing her in the absence of the obligatory mistletoe and bothersome caroling ghosts.

Yes, it had turned out to be a very Happy Christmas, indeed.

A/N:  Acknowledgement of stuff I 'borrowed' from others and modified shamelessly to suit my purposes:

The line about calling yourself an overbearing bat and saving me the trouble comes from 'Everybody Loves Raymond'

The line about whichever is more geographically convenient comes from "If You Don't Know What Clevis Means" by Mike Kelley.

The line about not having any definite plans for the rest of your life sort of comes from Rocky II