Note: Fluff. Fluffier than baby kittens wearing big red bows. You've been warned. But I'm not entirely sure I'd call Severus OOC in this…

Disclaimer: All characters are creations of JK Rowling and belong to her, Bloomsbury, Scholastic, and TimeWarner. No money is being made from this work.

OoOOoO

Four Times

She really had nothing to complain about, Hermione decided.

In the Great Hall, the trees glittered with their gold and silver decorations, while hundreds of candles and fairies hung in the air, imparting a soft glow that made the Hall feel as cozy as a hearthside. Hermione idly followed the criss-crossing boughs of holly near the ceiling with her eyes as she dabbled her fork in the remnants of bread sauce on her plate, her mind on neither one of the tasks. Instead, she was thinking about how many Christmases she had spent at Hogwarts, on both sides of the High Table.

My god, has it really been twenty-five years? Twenty-five years since I walked into this hall as a scared, nervous girl so eager to prove she belonged?

Hermione cast a glance to the untouched place setting alongside her. And almost ten years I've been married. That brought a small smile to her face. She had always thought most of the platitudes about married life to be the product of wry-faced, faded hipsters looking to boost the circulation of their women's magazines – that, or else the mantra chanted by females trying to make fairy tales out of the business of everyday living. But she believed she did love Severus a little bit more everyday, as they grew to have more and more of their lives in common.

She made sure to tell him so, as well, knowing that he needed to hear he was worthy from someone he respected, that the old wounds would never quite entirely heal and that it was up to her to provide the comfort and solace he would accept from no one else.

"I love you, Severus," she said to him every morning as they left for work.

In return, depending on his mood, he either kissed her on the hand or cheek (maybe the lips if it had been a particularly good evening before), wished her a good day with 'the dunderheads', or grunted.

Hermione shook her head fractionally. It would be nice to hear it from him once in a while.

She was under no illusions about Severus' emotional reticence. Being around him for the majority of her lifespan saw to that.

Yet, he had said "I love you" to her…three times.

Three times, in over ten years. Each occurrence was a treasure she kept in her heart.

Her woolgathering was interrupted by an astonishingly off-key version of "Deck the Halls" by Hagrid and Professor Flitwick. Once again, it seemed as if Hagrid had consumed a bit more nog than egg, and there was still the Christmas feast to get through tomorrow. The expressions of the handful of students present ranged from guiltily amused at their teachers' antics to nearly asleep on the younger ones' faces. Hermione rose from her chair, a bit stiff from having sat still too long, and made her goodnights to the staff and the Headmistress. Minerva rose as well, and hugged Hermione.

"You tell Severus the elves are planning to make a roast goose tomorrow just for him. He won't be allowed to use his 'critical moment in potion-brewing' excuse again," Minerva said with a warmth in her eyes belaying her words.

Hermione giggled. "Honest, Minerva, he really is brewing for Poppy. He doesn't want to be caught short when the students come back next term. You know how they're always picking up sneezes and sniffles during Winter Holidays. Besides, he's not exactly the social hermit he used to be."

"I know," answered the Headmistress, "but old habits die hard. Albus insisted that he attend the Christmas Feast each year, and so do I."

"We'll both be here, I promise. Maybe I can even get him to wear his green socks!"

They both laughed at that. Albus, in one of his mischievous touches, had, upon his death, bequeathed Severus all his socks. They sat carefully in a small chest in Severus' and Hermione's bedchamber. He never wore them, but neither would he allow the chest to be moved or touched, and Hermione had caught him on more than one occasion gazing at it with a thoughtful look.

"Happy Christmas, everyone!" called Hermione.

"Happy Christmas, Madam Snape!" and "Happy Christmas, Hermione!" chorused back at her from the joyous, well-fed group. She exited the Great Hall, two fairies accompanying her to provide a small light as she found her way back to the dungeons.

Her thoughts drifted again as she trod the familiar corridors. Another merry Christmas morning awaited her. She believed it would follow the familiar pattern: a late lie-in, a small exchange of their personal gifts, then a light breakfast in bed. Amazing how the older we get, the longer we sleep in on Christmas morning. They'd make love slowly and gently, then prepare to face the world.

But he still wouldn't say it, would he, Hermione?

OoOOoO

Hermione cast a critical eye at her reflection as she prepared for bed. Severus was almost done with the potion, but he would be coming to bed late that evening. He'd kissed her and told her to go on without him, and not to worry if she feel asleep waiting.

The grey hairs at her temples seemed to multiply during each night.

The first time Severus said "I love you" to her, he'd been on bended knee, proposing marriage. They'd arrived at a tacit agreement several months earlier, but he insisted on doing things properly. She felt that had been very proper, indeed, and hearing those precious words escape from her stern lover's lips had sealed off the few, lingering doubts she had about the institution of marriage.

She frowned around her toothbrush at the beginnings of crow's feet. My skin isn't as firm and smooth as it used to be, either. When did that happen?

The second time Severus said "I love you" to her, she was still groggy from anæsthesia and painkilling potions. She had done her best to ignore the agonizing pain for days, knowing that at the end of term, the students needed her and the library available as much as possible – but that stoicism hadn't helped her when she collapsed and fell off a ladder in the library. The first thing that greeted her when she awoke at St. Mungo's was the shadowed, drawn face of her husband, dark circles ringing his eyes and his hand clutched around hers in a grip that might have been painful had she been able to feel it. Severus had buried his face in her shoulder and whispered how scared he had been, that even the best healers thought the infection might have been too far progressed, and that a bushy-haired, buck-toothed girl who fought off Death Eaters couldn't die on him of something as silly as a burst appendix.

As she dropped her robe and reached for her flannel nightgown, she stopped and looked at her naked reflection. Her waist was certainly thicker than it used to be. Hogwarts' cooking wasn't helping matters, although she swore she ate less with every meal. And are my breasts actually starting to sag?!?

The third time Severus said "I love you" to her, he was panting and sweaty, collapsed half-on, half-off her body. They had been trying a few new techniques in bed, and she felt a warm blush creep up her skin at the memory. She certainly had no complaints about Severus' performance, as he always insisted her pleasure gave him pleasure, and made sure she was sated during their lovemaking, but that evening had been something special , and she had been hoarse from screaming for the next two days.

Come to think on it, Hermione pondered as she slid between the sheets, we haven't made love in…there was the time right before term started, and then after Slytherin beat Gryffindor, Severus was so happy he had to do something, and…gods, has it been almost two months? Not very frequently over the summer, either, engrossed as he was in his experiments and she was in research for the new edition of Hogwarts, a History.

"Nox," she whispered, and the light vanished. She lay awake in the dim glow of the fireplace embers, and briefly recalled her childhood, when she had lain waiting for the tell-tale stir downstairs that signalled 'Father Christmas' had visited another year. Now, it wasn't nervous anticipation that kept her awake; it was worry.

I know he loves me, but maybe he doesn't love me as much as he used to. After all, I see the evidence every time I look in the mirror. I'm getting older, and I'm simply not as attractive as I used to be. Hermione thought grimly for a moment how unfair it was that wizards showed so few signs of aging until their sixties and seventies, while witches aged as rapidly as female muggles. Even with twenty years on her, Severus still looked much the same as he had when she was a student, a few greying whiskers in his morning stubble aside.

Their conversations lately were extremely constructive, full of debate and intellectual proposals, but sadly lacking in romance. Even in bed, when he lay alongside her or held her, he told her how lucky he was to be married to his best friend, and how proud he was of her and her achievements. I feel like such an ingrate to even be having these thoughts! He's so supportive…I couldn't have dreamed a better mate. Dwell on the good things, or you'll start to sound like a fishwife – or like one of those sourpuss magazine writers!

She wondered what he would surprise her with tomorrow, no, this morning. His gift last year had been a wonderful, unexpected pleasure. He had worked with Filius on charming a muggle laptop computer to work in Hogwarts, after listening to her complain one too many times about the difficulty of endless rewrites with quill and parchment.

Most of their gifts to each other were of the practical sort, rare potions ingredients and tools for him, parchments and writing equipment for her, and always plenty of books for the both of them. While she had appreciated each gift for the thoughtfulness it showed, Hermione worried now if Severus had ever really seen her as a woman rather than his match. She didn't show it very much or very often, but there were times when she just wanted to be coddled and cuddled and treated like some rare and precious gift, when she wanted to celebrate every female stereotype she normally detested.

You shouldn't have married Severus Snape if you wanted Mills and Boon. You have an intelligent, witty, thoughtful, and faithful husband. How many women are abused by the men in their lives? How many have to put up with affairs? How many wives stew silently in loveless marriages? How many morph into mums, even to their husbands, as the children come along?

Severus does love you, he just isn't one for hearts and flowers. And even if he doesn't love you as much as he used to, even if he doesn't love you at all like that any more, isn't it far better to have years and years of companionship and friendship without the passion, than just a few brief moments with it?

Once again, Hermione came to the conclusion that she had nothing to complain about. With that, she sighed, turned on her side, and concentrated on getting to sleep, conjuring up visions of sheep gaily wrapped in red ribbons.

OoOOoO

When Hermione awoke the next morning, she smiled sleepily at the steaming pot of tea on the bedside table, before she realized with a start that Severus was not in bed with her.

A small noise from the loo calmed the spike of irrational fear, and she snuggled back down into the warm bedclothes. Damn cold dungeons! Hope he's finished in there soon…

Severus emerged in his grey nightshirt a short time later. "Happy Christmas, Dearest," he greeted her. Hermione returned his words as he climbed into his side of the bed. He leaned over and placed a light kiss on her lips. "I was beginning to despair of you ever waking," he told her, reclining back on his pillows.

"How late did I sleep this year?"

"I'm afraid you've set a new record; it's nearly ten."

"Ten! Well, so much for the excitement of Christmas morning!"

"Indeed. Would you like me to summon your gift now?"

"In a moment," she replied, throwing back the covers and wincing against the chill. She hurried across the room to the toilet, knees cracking, missing entirely the appreciative look that crossed Severus' face. Emerging a few minutes later, she stopped to pour two cups of tea, adding sugar to one and honey to the other, and handed the honeyed cup to Severus, who was now sitting up in bed, having started a fire.

"Thank you."

"You're welcome," she replied, climbing back into the warm bed.

"Now do you want your gift?"

"You're awfully eager this morning!" Hermione laughed. "What is it…did you get something that won't keep?…I know! It's a blast-ended screwt that shoots red and green sparks!"

"Thank you for the idea for next year."

Hermione mock-swatted at her husband's arm as he pointed his wand. "Accio Hermione's present!"

A medium sized, flat box wrapped in silver foil sailed into the bedroom and neatly settled onto Hermione's lap. Having braced herself for impact, she was surprised to find it was nearly weightless.

"Whatever could this be…" she muttered to herself as she lifted the feather-light gift and gave it a gentle shake, much to Severus' amusement.

"Are you going to open it, or are you going to attempt to divine the contents? Let me check your tea leaves…I do believe I bought you a Grim," he mocked as he peered into her cup.

She gave him a sideways glare, then neatly separated the paper along the seams. Severus studied his wife's face surreptitiously as she opened the box, peeled back the tissue paper with its pattern of shooting silver stars…and gazed in bewilderment at the contents.

Pulling it out, she realized it was a negligée. Silken and in apricot, it flowed through her hands without trying, almost as if the fabric was running away from her touch. There was no weight to the gown; it felt as if it was made from air itself.

"Severus…what on earth?"

"It's made from Chinese acromantula silk. A certain clan has been breeding captive acromantulas for centuries and weaving silk from their webs. It's nearly indestructible, but also nearly weightless. It's also supposed to convey a sense of health and well-being to those who wear it."

"How did you get this? I've never heard-"

"My clever wife doesn't know quite everything. I reserve the right to keep some mystery about me in my old age. I shall just mention that I have certain contacts with ingredient suppliers in the Orient, and leave it at that."

"It's…it's beautiful…and it's for me?"

"Of course, as well as the note I respectfully request you read."

Hermione was still gobsmacked. "Note? Oh yes, there it is," and she fished out a roll of parchment from the abandoned tissue paper. She cracked open the seal and began to read, once again completely failing to notice the unusual slightly anxious and nervous expression upon her husband's face.

December 24th and 25th

My Dearest One-

No doubt you are wondering if I might be under the influence of Imperio, for why else would I present you with a gift so out of keeping with our past Christmases? I assure you I am not under any spell other than the one you wove over me years ago.

I am a quiet man by nature, and a quieter one by experience. But those experiences taught me how to observe, how to see below the surface to the essence of a matter. I do not like what I have seen in you these past months, but not for the reasons you might think. Read on…

Dear wife, I see you frowning at your reflection in the mirror, smoothing the grey hairs at your temples and patting the skin of your cheek. I see you pushing away your plate at the High Table, when I know you are still hungry after your long hours of work. I see you growing older as we all do, as we all must in life.

But all those changes are to the exterior.

You married the Greasy Git, despite the objections of your friends. You married a former Death Eater, despite the objections of your society. You married someone who thought he would never, could never show such a weakness as caring for another person, and made him believe in love, despite all his objections.

Dearest One, you who saw my truth within my shell, how could you think I could ever love you less as we grow older together? How could you think I would love you less?

I see the woman inside, the woman I fell in love after I thought love was impossible. You are an amazing person, so smart, so strong, so confident in your abilities. Every day I am with you I am grateful for having such an incredible witch with whom to share my life.

I also see the woman outside, the woman who always lights a fire inside me when she walks across a room, the woman who I imagine wearing that gown only when I am alone…I am sorry I have not been more expressive of that lately. Rest assured that I desire you as much if not more than I ever have, but it seems as if time is one commodity I cannot create. (And, Dear One, given your history with Time-Turners, I am sure I shouldn't want to!)

As I write this, I cannot wait to see you in your present, sharing your beautiful body with me, allowing me to touch you, to kiss you, to make love with you. I do see the grey hairs and the tiny marks and the adorable little jiggle of your stomach, but they do not matter. They are part of you, and you are beautiful, and they are beautiful too. You are an exceptional, desirable, all-around incredible woman, and I wake up every day grateful to be part of your life.

I love you for all the parts of your soul, not for any sole part.

I love you, Hermione, more today than yesterday, and more tomorrow than today, and for all the tomorrows together we may be granted.

With all my love,

Severus

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For a long moment, Hermione kept her head bowed over the parchment, which she held loosely in a slightly trembling hand. When she raised her head to look at Severus, she could feel the wetness slide down her cheeks. I didn't even know I was crying.

Severus looked somber, yet expectant. He reached out a finger and gently touched away a tear from her cheek.

"Is this…this how you truly feel? About me?" she asked.

"It is. I do not say it, but I know you need to hear the words. I wrote this for you, so that you may read it every time you begin to doubt, every time the world weighs upon you and you forget how special you are. I am here for you, Dearest One. For as long as you shall have me."

A great gasp escaped Hermione's throat as she threw herself into her husband's welcoming arms. "I love you so much," she sobbed into his chest. "How could you ever think I wouldn't want to be with you, you great silly git?!? You wrote the most heart-wrenching letter I've ever read, just for me, just to spare my feelings. You…you…" Hermione ran out of words, so she settled for being held against Severus' warmth as he gently caressed her back and shoulders.

After a short while, she broke away and looked at his face. He looked as happy and content as she had ever seen him, a slight smile curving underneath his formidable nose.

"How can I ever repay you for such a precious gift?" Hermione asked him, her arms going up to curve over his shoulders.

"A gift given in consideration of reciprocity is not a gift. But I do believe I have an idea if you simply must insist…"

"I do."

"Please put on your gift, my Dearest. I want to see you in all your beauty." Severus' voice caught for the merest fraction of a syllable, but it was enough for Hermione to know her husband wasn't just saying what she wanted to hear. He truly desired her, and that knowledge sent her spirits soaring.

Hermione felt her heart speed up, and the familiar flutter at the base of her stomach begin. "As you wish, my love. I'll be out in a moment," she said, sliding out from the bed with the small bundle of silk in her hand and heading back to the bathroom.

Inside, she shed her flannel nightgown and donned the negligée, barely feeling it settle into place over her breasts and hips. Hermione again looked at herself in the mirror, only this time with none of the doubt that had plagued her last night. Oh, my… The acromantula silk was nearly transparent without being too revealing; she saw the points of her nipples and the dark triangle between her legs appear and disappear as the fabric swirled with the slightest of draughts. The soft apricot color brought out deep gold tones in the brown of her hair and eyes that she hadn't known to be there, and she loosened her hair and let the bushy mass cascade down her shoulders. The cut of the gown showed her at her most flattering, and Hermione finally knew what Severus saw when he looked at her with desire.

She emerged into the bedroom. Severus' sharply indrawn breath sent the tingle in her stomach to other, more pleasurable places. Unable to resist, she turned around and modelled the lovely gown with a radiant smile on her face. "Thank you, Severus. This is more beautiful than I ever could have imagined. What do you think?"

"I think," and she saw him swallow, "you are the most beautiful woman I have ever seen. Come here."

She walked to their bed, the negligée undulating around her in whispers against her movement. She perched on the edge of the mattress, only to be pulled sharply into a hungry kiss. A long, long moment later, Severus withdrew slightly, just enough that she could see the naked desire in his eyes. He took her face reverently between his hands. "I love you, Hermione. Now let me show you how much. Let me make love to you, my Dearest One, My Love."

And so he did.

End

OoOOoO

Credit Where Credit is Due Dept.

The name "Dearest One", while probably common between lovers, is in this case taken from Ayn Rand's novella Anthem.

CordeliaV is the name of the Live Journal user who wrote the excellent essay on the likelihood of Hermione being a historian (and by extension, a librarian) rather than a professor. (Thanks to Rhiannon on Ashwinder for her name!) I think that if anyone were to attempt to write a new edition of Hogwarts: a History to include the beliefs that led to Voldemort Parts One and Two, it would be Hermione. And I quite firmly believe she would be far too practical to attempt to write a book using nothing but quills and parchment in the 21st century.

The bread sauce and roast goose is a shoutout to one of the finest Snape/Hermione writers going, Azazello. Thank you.