Severus was grateful that there were no students staying in Hogwarts over the Christmas vacation, because there was no one to see him standing around (like a pillock) at the front gates waiting for Hermione.
Not that he wouldn't have Obliviated them in a trice, but Albus tended to get stroppy about that sort of thing, an the paperwork involved was horrendous.
Hermione was running late. Severus knew that women had a tendency to run late, and had factored that in when suggesting (he also knew about the unwisdom in telling a woman anything) that she be here for 10pm, but it was now 10.15pm, and things were getting a little tight.
Not as tight as her costume though.
"I suppose you think this is funny," Hermione said snippily from behind him.
Severus swung round to see a mutinous and scantily clad Hermione glaring at him. The costume was nothing more than a pair of green tights and a long shirt. The tights were living up the their description nicely, and the shirt, rather more of a shortish shirt really, barely covered her posterior. She was clutching a green hat, with a bell on the point, in her hand, in a grip that was turning her knuckles white.
So he did the only sensible thing you could do under the circumstances and prepared to lie his way out of trouble. "It's got nothing to do with me," he said. "Blame Lucius if you must. He's the one who insisted on Santa having a Little Helper, and he was the one who came up with the costume." It was a barefaced lie, but he doubted that Lucius and Hermione would ever be in a room long enough to compare notes.
It seemed to work. She was muttering something under her breath about posh perfumed pureblooded ponces, and how they should be strangled by their own hair, so her ire was now directed at the right, if entirely innocent, party. Not that Lucius was entirely innocent, and, when you thought about it, there were so many things that he had got away with, it was only right that he should be blamed for something that he hadn't done. It was poetic justice.
"You think you've got problems?" he replied, indicating his own outfit with a wave of the hand. He was going for the sympathy vote to get back into her good books. "At least you look erm well at least you're displayed to advantage."
"Displayed is right. Just look at it. I look a complete tart."
Well it would be rude not to, and she had asked, and he wouldn't say she looked like a complete tart, just incredibly sexy, and her legs were better than Trelawney's and he retained just enough sense not to mention any of that, particularly the bit about him looking at Trelawney's legs. "You look very nice," he said simply.
"Really?" Hermione peered over her shoulder, and tried to assess what she'd look like from the back. "You don't think it's too revealing?"
"I think it's just revealing enough," he said. "It's suggestive without crossing the line into bad taste at all. And, best of all, there's no white fur trim. It's very hard to look dignified with white fur trim."
She smiled weakly. "At least the fur will keep you warm."
"There's a thick carriage rug in the back of the sleigh." Slightly too small for two people unless they huddled together, at least he hoped so. "That should keep the worst of the cold out."
"Oh, all right. I'll do it," she said. "But I want you to know I'm not happy about it. And I'm not wearing the ruddy hat. It jingles when I walk."
"I'm sure it'll be fine tucked into your belt," he replied, knowing when to concede a point. "After you."
There were advantages to being polite and letting ladies go first; the view from the back was very nice as well.
Hagrid was waiting for them down by the sleigh, holding Rudolf's halter and offering last minute encouragement. "Now, I'd take it steady to start with if I was you. You don't want to go mad and go off at full tilt, not when your muscles are still cold. An' there's a colony o' 'ippogryphs round about Northumberland way, so I'd keep an eye out for them if you don't want to get et."
The Reindeer were getting restless, shifting their feet and dipping their heads as if to say 'let's get going'.
"Ah, there you are Professor, and 'Ermione. We all set then?"
"I think so." He handed Hermione into the passenger seat, and then went round to clamber in the driver's side. "On the count of three," he bellowed. "One. Two. Threeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee."
The acceleration was phenomenal. The reindeer went from stationary to flight velocity in under 6 seconds, and the sleigh shot into the air like a bolt. Severus, having seen what had happened to Trelawney, was prepared for it, and had braced himself against the dashboard but he very nearly went backwards.
He glanced at Hermione to see if she was all right. She was flushed and giggling, and her eyes were full of excitement. She peered over the side, down at the ground. "Wheeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee," shouted Hermione, her words whipped away by the wind. "This is fuuuuuuun. How fast do you think we're going?"
"About sixty miles an hour, give or take."
Driving the sleigh was easier than he'd expected, once they were off the ground. Rudolf seemed to know where he was going, and needed only the very lightest of guidance from the reins. It was cold though, very cold, as the wind whistled past their ears. He expected that his nose would also be red by the end of the night.
Hermione had her arms crossed, trying to keep warm. "There's that blanket in the back. Just in front of the presents," he said.
Hermione nodded to show that she'd heard him, and then leaned over the seat to rummage around in search of the blanket. She found it after a couple of seconds, and began unfolding it. "It's a bit small," she said, looking at it doubtfully. "I'm not sure there's room for both of us."
"Oh dear," he said. He was sure that she wouldn't allow him to be a gentleman and give her the blanket, and she was too cold to let him have the blanket, which only left one option.
"I could transfigure it larger," she said.
"You could." Damn. Damn. Damn.
But she didn't, she just shifted a bit nearer and wrapped the rugs over their legs, so he took a chance and put an arm round her. She snuggled even closer, put her head on his shoulder, and made a contented noise.
By the time Malfoy Manor appeared, a pale gleam in the middle distance, his arm was killing him. It was a bloody uncomfortable position to maintain for so long, there was a horrible draught down the back of his neck, but every time he thought of moving she'd burrow that bit closer and he hadn't got the heart to do it.
"We're here," he said.
She sat up and yawned, covering her mouth with her hand. "What time is it?"
"Quarter to midnight. So we've made good time."
"Good. I'd hate to think that we'd disappointed Lucius," she said ironically. "Have you any idea where you're going to land."
"He's got two acres of front lawn. I think that I can manage to put the sleigh down somewhere on it without crashing into his roses."
"I think you should crash into his roses," she said mischievously. "Just think how much more convincing the whole charade would be. He can take the sprog outside on Christmas Day and point out where Santa landed, perhaps even find some reindeer droppings."
"I'll be sure to mention that to Rudolf, once we've landed," he replied, shortening the reins. Rudolf looked over his shoulder to confirm that this was the landing, and then they swooped down at breakneck speed."
"Ooooooooooooooohhhhhhhhhhhhhhh sssssssssssssssshhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiitttttttttttttttttttttttt," Severus said. The ground was coming up to meet them at high speed, and there didn't seem to be any brakes. Rudolf was still sulking about the Sobrietas potion then. At the last minute, they flattened out and shed some speed, though they were still travelling uncomfortably fast when the runners touched down. They clipped the lawn, bounced a couple of times, and then finally ground to a shuddering halt.
Severus just sat there for a moment whilst the thundering in his ears receded and his heart rate settled back to normal. He really was getting too old for this kind of excitement.
Even Hermione was quiet for a moment, though the shock didn't last long.
"What's the plan then?" she asked, folding the blanket up and putting it away.
"Lucius should come outside and greet Santa and His Little Helper, then invite us into the Manor for a drink or two, we deliver the presents and we're off. All the while little Chloe will be peering out of the window or through the banisters, watching what's going on."
"I hope he's got the kettle on. I could do with a nice cup of tea."
"Mince pies and a bottle of beer are traditional," Severus replied. "And Lucius is nothing if not a traditionalist. There's a carrot for Rudolf as well, though I'm not aware that Santa's Little Helper gets anything at all."
"She'd better get a cup of tea at least, or there'll be a mutiny."
A light came on over the front door, which would conveniently illuminate the scene for any watchers, and a tall figure made its way along the terrace and down the steps to greet them. Lucius had obviously prepared for bed, and was wearing a very fine dressing gown of dark blue embroidered with entirely apposite peacocks. "Santa, old chap, how nice of you to drop in," Lucius drawled. "And you've brought a guest; how delightful. The pair of you must come in for some refreshments. I insist."
"How kind," Severus replied.
He lifted the bag down from the sleigh and slung it over his shoulder, wincing at the twinges in his arm. He'd need to get some rheumatism treatment on that soon. Perhaps Hermione could help him reach all those difficult places, though he didn't think it was particularly romantic asking someone to rub embrocation on his back, even if it was nicely scented. Mind you, judging from the way she was rubbing her own back, she may well be up for it provided the application were mutual.
Sometimes romance had to take a back seat; romance was difficult to achieve when the wrong portions of your anatomy were stiff.
They followed Lucius into Malfoy Manor. Hermione was tugging down her shirt to cover as much of her legs as possible, and not really succeeding very well.
The hallway was dominated by an enormous Christmas tree tastefully decorated in red and gold, which made Hermione smile; Gryffindor colours! A closer inspection revealed that there were a few handmade ornaments that didn't fit into the colour way, obviously the handiwork of children. Lucius and Narcissa were clearly doting grandparents.
A House Elf was standing at attention with a silver tray, holding one carrot, two pewter mugs of what looked like hot posset and a mince pie apiece.
"I would ask you to stay a little longer," Lucius said, every inch the gracious host. "But I know that you're very busy tonight."
"Indeed," Severus replied, not wanting to say too much in case his voice was recognised.
"How are things in the old Santa trade?" Lucius continued, clearly enjoying every minute of Severus' humiliation.
Severus picked up a mince pie and took a large bite out of it. Now he couldn't be expected to talk, as his mouth was full; Santa was never rude.
Lucius accepted his – temporary – defeat with a faint smile, and turned his attention to other prey. "What a very fetching outfit," he said, his eyes wandering all over Hermione's body in a way that made her – and Severus – want to slap him.
"I don't suppose you were ever a good boy," Hermione said irritably.
Lucius surprised both of them by laughing. "Not often. Not if I could help it," he admitted. "Though I always ate my greens and went to bed on time."
Hermione glanced up at the top of the stairs, where a little face could be seen peering out. "I'm glad to hear it. People who eat their greens and go to bed on time always end up on the List. There's many a child without a present tonight who simply wouldn't eat their broccoli. Their Mummy and Daddy warned them, but they wouldn't listen."
"There are only Good Children here," Lucius said gravely.
Hermione knew what Lucius Malfoy was, but he was clearly fond of his grandchildren. It made him seem almost human.
Only almost though - she hadn't lost her senses completely.
Whether it was Christmas, or whether she was thinking of her future promotion prospects, she decided that Chloe should get the full Santa experience. "It's very tiring delivering these presents," she said. "Do you think there's someone who could help us feed Rudolf his carrot?"
There was a gasp, and then a little girl came hurtling down the stairs to wrap herself round Lucius' leg. "Can I Grandpa Lucy? Can I?"
Severus didn't dare look at Hermione, because if he did, he would disgrace himself. Grandpa Lucy? No, he wouldn't laugh, he couldn't laugh, and he didn't laugh, but it was a close run thing.
"We'll have to ask Santa," Lucius said, looking down at the little girl fondly. "What do you say, Santa, can she feed the reindeer?"
Severus nodded, and the little girl detached herself from Lucius to grab hold of Santa's leg. "Oh thank you, thank you, thank you. I wuv you, Santa," she said passionately.
Severus looked at her in horror. There was a child. Erp. It was on his leg. Erp. It wouldn't let go. Erp. It liked him. Erp.
Lucius and Hermione's eyes met in an unlikely moment of shared amusement. Severus' expression couldn't be clearly seen, hidden as it was by his beard, but they could imagine what it was.
Hermione took pity on him and prised Chloe free. "I'm sure Santa loves you too," she said. "Now why don't you take that carrot and go and see Rudolf."
Chloe seemed to have difficult standing unaided, and reattached herself to Grandpa Lucy. "Will you come wiv me?" she said. "We can feed them together."
Lucius patted her on the head, and said, "Of course I will."
Hermione watched, immensely entertained, as Grandpa Lucy and Chloe and the House Elf butler passed in solemn procession across the lawn.
"Right, drink up, Severus and we can get out of here." Severus didn't move. "Severus? Severus? The nasty child has gone away now, and it's safe," she said, waving a hand in front of his face. "Grandpa Lucy has saved you."
He smirked. "Remind me to thank Grandpa Lucy for that." He finished his drink, stuffed the last of the mince pie in his mouth and mumbled, "Let's go."
Rudolf was behaving himself for once. He was telling little Chloe all about life at the North Pole, and how nice Santa was, though he had no regard for table manners at all and was quite happy chatting with his mouth full. Chloe seemed to think that being splattered with carrot pieces was all part of the fun, and was squealing with excitement.
Severus winced. "Remind me never to have children," he said, politely helping Hermione into the sleigh. "I'm not sure that shouldn't be classed as an Unforgivable."
"Now. Now. Don't let nice Grandpa Lucy here you say that or he'll hex your nose off."
Lucius glared at them. He couldn't hear what they were saying but he assumed it was something about him. He was the most interesting person there, after all. "Come along, Chloe. We have to let the nice Santa leave. He's got other presents to deliver, and he has to go."
Chloe nodded, all bouncing ringlets.
"Now what do we say?" Lucius said.
"Fanku Rudolf and fanky Mr Santa," she chanted. "And Merry Christmas."
Hermione nudged Severus in the ribs. "Go on. Say it. You know she wants to hear it."
"I'm not going to say it."
"Go on," she urged.
"O, bloo… erm. Ho. Ho. Ho."
It wasn't the most convincing Ho Ho Ho she had ever heard. It wasn't remotely jolly, but it was the best that they were going to get. Chloe didn't seem to mind.
Lucius bent down to put an arm round the little girl, so they could wave bye bye properly. His knees gave an audible crack, which made Severus smile; at least he wasn't the only one getting old.
He gave one last wave to the girl, and clambered into the sleigh himself. "I'd stand back if I were you," he told Lucius. "They're a bit wild, if you know what I mean. Ho ho ho."
"That sounded almost cheerful," Hermione said, leaning across him to wave at Chloe.
"That's because we're getting out of here. Give it half an hour and I intend to be tucked up in bed, and not to get out again until tomorrow lunchtime at the earliest."
"That sounds like a bloody good idea. I think I'll join you."
Encouraged by that sentiment, he slipped an arm round Hermione's shoulders, only to have it shrugged off. "Not in front of Chloe," she hissed, before he had a chance to start sulking. "She doesn't want to see Santa canoodling with His Little Helper."
He was a mite annoyed that his canoodling had to be postponed until they were out the little girl's sight, but rather pleased that his entirely-innocent-arm-round-the-shoulders had been viewed as canoodling and not rejected. The only inference to be drawn from that was that additional canoodling of a more advanced nature would also be perfectly acceptable.
He clicked his tongue, he flipped the reins, and they were off. Not as quickly as before, the reindeer were obviously tired, but they still managed an impressive rate of knots.
Hermione was peering behind them, watching the figures recede until they were little dots, then turned to face the front. "They're out of sight now," she said with some satisfaction, and was rewarded with an arm snaking round her waist and pulling her closer.
"You know," she said confidingly as she rested her head on his shoulder. "This would be almost romantic if it weren't for that fact that all you can see is reindeer's bottoms."
"You're a dreadful woman," he said, squeezing her tighter. "Next year, I'll leave you at home."
"Is that a threat or a promise?"
"Either. Both. Now hush and let me concentrate on getting us home in one piece."
"I love it when you get masterful."
The journey home seemed to take twice as long as the outwards trip. Maybe the reindeer were slower because they were tired, or maybe he had other things on his mind now that Operation Santa had been successfully concluded.
It had all gone rather well in the end, due to his superior management skills. Obviously, this wasn't something to be mentioned to Albus, as he would only find more work for him to do.
Eventually the towers of Hogwarts hoved into view. He swerved to avoid the Whomping Willow, which shook its branches at him irritable, and he neatly brought the sleigh to rest on the Quidditch Pitch. A large shape loomed up out of the dark, and Hagrid narrowly escaped being hexed.
"All done then," he asked cheerfully. "I'll put they animules to bed then, and you two go and find yours."
It was a tired couple that stumbled up the steps to the front door. Hermione was yawning, and Severus was surreptitiously rubbing his aching shoulder.
"Well," he said awkwardly.
"Well," she replied.
"Erm, well, erm," he continued.
"Severus," she said, putting a hand on his shoulder. "Look up."
There, stuck over the door, was a large sprig of mistletoe. He could take a hint, and promptly did. Repeatedly.
Ho ho ho indeed.