Disclaimer:  Anything you recognize belongs to the goddess, JKR.  I can only dream that Severus belongs to me ::sighs::.  This is a warm and sweet story and I hope you like it.  Of course, it features my favourite couple…Severus and Hermione.  Many thanks to Tessie and Amy who gave me lots of ideas on how to make this story more meaningful.  Merry Christmas!  Happy Hanukkah!  Happy  Kwanzaa, Joyous Eid, Happy Solstice…you get the picture.  Whatever you celebrate…I hope it is everything you are hoping for!!!

Precious Gifts

The snow was falling gently outside the Gryffindor common room window.  Hermione sat curled up on the window seat, watching the errant flakes coming down one by one, lazily swirling in the breeze before finally settling as part of the fluffy white blanket which covered the grounds at Hogwarts.  It was Christmas morning and no one else was up yet…because no one else was there.  She was alone and, for the moment, preferred it that way.

It had been four years since graduation and she had stayed on at Hogwarts as an assistant to Professor McGonagall.  Voldemort's grip on the wizarding world was strengthening and most students had already left to spend the holidays with their families.  Harry, Ron and Ginny were already at the Burrow, preparing celebrations for Christmas with the ever-expanding family of Weasleys.  They had wanted her to join them but she couldn't…despite their many entreaties to the contrary, she simply couldn't.  Neville and his grandmother were spending the holidays with his uncle.   Dean and Seamus' families were going to France together for a skiing vacation.  The Patils would be visiting family in India.  Even Draco Malfoy and his family were going to some expensive resort with the Crabbes and the Goyles.  It seemed that almost everyone had someone to go to or…at the very least…someone that was thinking about them. 

Everyone except her.

She had no one. 

Not anymore.

She thought back to how it had all ended….

Her parents had been killed by Death Eaters in late summer as they accompanied her to Diagon Alley to pick up supplies for the coming school year.  The funeral had been horrible.  Many of her friends had attended and most of the Hogwarts faculty.  Her muggle relations had resented their presence and viciously turned on her, blaming her for the deaths.

"It's because of you they died, you know," her cousin had whispered to her hatefully.  "It's because you are not like the rest of us.  You're not normal."

Her vision blurred and, for a moment, she thought she would faint.  A pair of strong arms held her up.  It had not been Harry or Ron or even Draco…it had been Professor Snape.  He looked at her with concern.

"Are you all right, Miss Granger?" his voice was soft.

"No," she could not tear her gaze away from those dark eyes.

He had turned to her cousin with barely repressed anger.

"What is not normal, young lady, is your behaviour towards your relative.  Perhaps we are different in the wizarding world, but we offer support and compassion when one of our own has lost loved ones.  We do not throw it back into their faces, especially when it is so undeserved," he said in a quiet voice that resonated with power.

Her cousin had paled and mumbled an apology before hurrying back to where a group of adults were tittering quietly.

"I don't think you changed her opinion of me," Hermione whispered, still somewhat unsteady…wondering if there was some truth to the comment.

"Do not concern yourself with such people, magical or not," he had said shortly, still holding her.  "They do not care about you and are not worth your time."

There was just the slightest emphasis on the first word…or had she imagined that?  She nodded mutely, wondering why his closeness did not bother her…why it somehow calmed the panic that was simmering below the surface….

Harry and the others had walked over at that moment and, after ascertaining quickly that she would not fall down, Professor Snape had let her go and walked over to where Remus and Sirius were standing.

She had looked at the grave and rested her head on Ron's shoulder.  His arms went around her automatically.  She could tell her best friend was at a complete loss…he had never experienced anything like this.

"It'll be okay, Hermione," he had whispered. 

                                                                                               

She was not so sure.  Harry placed a hand on her shoulder but could not say anything.  She glanced over at Professor Snape…not entirely surprised to see that he was watching her. 

The school year had been her only salvation.  She threw herself into her teaching, drowning out the awful ache in her heart by revising lessons and researching each night until sheer exhaustion forced her eyes closed.  Her only links to sanity were the excellent results coming from her research of various methods by which the madness caused by the Cruciatus Curse might be cured.   This, for a brief shining moment, made her feel worthwhile.  But the feeling never lasted very long.  

It was not enough.

It was never enough. 

Her friends had noticed and had commented on how hard she was driving herself, concerned that she would become ill…or worse.  She told them not to worry so much.  She was fine.

She was fine.

That was what she had been telling herself for the past several months.

"If I tell myself enough times, I can make it real," she had thought.

She was wrong.

She was not fine…and it did not go unnoticed…a pair of dark eyes silently watched her with concern…she could feel his gaze and it warmed her somewhat for reasons she did not want to explore too deeply…

…watching her with concern…

…and perhaps something more…

"No," she said loudly, trying to bring herself back to the here and now.  "I am imagining things."

Shivering, she drew her robes tightly around herself and looked outside again.  The snow glistened in the early morning light.  It looked so lovely.  It looked so tranquil and peaceful.  To her tortured soul, it was quite calming to look out over the undisturbed whiteness that sparkled and shone like so many diamonds cast down from the ungrateful heavens.  Oh, to have that sort of peace…it really was so irresistible…

Getting up, she carefully stepped through the portrait door entrance and made her way through the corridors.  No need to worry about meeting up with anyone…there were no students here.  No need to worry about breaking any rules…the professors had had a party the previous night and they were in no shape to interrupt her.  She finally reached a side doorway that led outside.  She opened the door carefully and paused, looking back for a moment.  Should she talk to the Headmaster?  He really had been instrumental in allowing her to stay over the holidays…convincing the Weasleys that she needed some time alone had been a daunting task.  Shaking her head, she resolutely closed the door carefully behind her.

There was a slight breeze in the air…just enough to make the snowflakes dance in a rather haphazard fashion.  She smiled and walked further out onto the grounds, not feeling the cold at all, despite the fact that her slippers and the hem of her thin robes were now thoroughly soaked.  Her feet left deep impressions in the virgin snow and she looked around her…at the vast expanses of snowy whiteness.

"I want to dance," she thought suddenly and started running through the snow, sometimes pirhouetting, sometimes jumping…oftentimes falling and getting her robes covered with snow.  Her cheeks were flushed, shining with the sheen of perspiration and her eyes were unusually bright.

And, from a window, the dark eyes watched for a moment, then disappeared…

"It is so beautiful," she thought dazedly, "I never want to leave it."

She continued dancing and frolicking in the snow until her strength would no longer permit her to do so.  Sighing, she sat down in the snow and thought about her parents.  She missed them so much.  They had always been so proud of her, defying their families in allowing her to attend Hogwarts.  They had been such wonderful parents.  Why did they have to leave her like that?  No one loved her anymore.  No one cared.

The tears came to her eyes unbidden and she sat there, sobbing uncontrollably…shivering with the cold that was now dangerously seeping into the very core of her body.

"No one cares," she thought dismally as her world began to shift in and out of focus.

But was that really true?  Had he not offered to talk with her about the incident?  Had he not caught her sleeping in the library several times and, rather than issuing detentions, gently admonished her for not taking better care of herself?  Had she not noticed that his attitude towards her in the last several years had changed from utterly cold and harsh to something decidedly warmer…something that caused her cheeks to warm when she thought about it…

She suddenly felt warm as she lay there in the snow…no longer shivering…

"This is not so bad…dying…like this…" she thought as the darkness beckoned her…a comforting quiet she felt she was yearning for…

But then she felt something very strange.  Abruptly, she felt herself pulled upwards and thought she was going to fall over when she realized that she was floating…above her inert body.

"I look so sad," she noted quietly, "I was not always so sad."

As she floated there, watching, a figure appeared in the distance…running as quickly as possible…robes streaming…

He reached her side in mere moments.  Quickly, he checked her pulse and she could hear him utter a curse as he scooped her up off the ground and carried her back towards the castle.  Automatically, she followed, curious at this turn of events.

The strange trio entered Hogwarts and, for a moment, he looked in the direction of the infirmary but then shook his head.

"Still hung-over," he muttered darkly as he hurried towards another corridor that led to the dungeons…

She followed them through the corridors until they reached a door she had never seen before.  She supposed it led to his private chambers.  He opened the door awkwardly and kicked it open with his foot before going inside.  With great interest, she watched as he lay her physical body on a small bed and proceeded to cast a number of warming and drying spells on her, summoning several fur coverlets with which to keep her comfortable and her body temperature stable.

He quickly went into an adjacent room and brought out a number of oddly shaped bottles and containers as well as a small pewter cauldron.  Setting up the apparatus quickly, he magically conjured a flame and began measuring out ingredients in very specific amounts.  Fascinated, she watched as his deft fingers handled the materials with an expert touch.  She had always loved and envied his natural flair for this.  It was something she had tried to emulate.  Somehow, this crafting of something from nothing was far more fascinating and personally satisfying than any silly wand waving or chanting.  Something of the person went into creating a potion which made the whole experience a much more intimate one than simply learning how to make feathers fly…or changing hedgehogs into pincushions.

Was that how it started?  That admiration for someone so cold and harsh?  Was it her desire to somehow make him notice her…acknowledge the fact that she was his equal in talent, ambition and drive?  Why did she always go out of her way to exceed the high expectations he had set for her?  Did she not want to disappoint him?  Did she want him to be proud of her?  Did she want his admiration?  Did she want more?

If only…

He stirred the cauldron carefully, looking back on the bed's occupant every so often to ensure that her condition did not deteriorate further.

She flitted around the room, watching him work quickly and effectively.  There was concern on his face, which hastened his efforts.  There was also much sadness and she knew it was because he thought he might be too late…

Finally, it was ready…it glowed a gentle orange and he carefully ladled it into a cup.  Sitting down beside her physical body, he carefully lifted her into a semi-seated position and slowly forced the medicine down her throat.  He was very gentle and, once it had all been consumed, he lay her down again, rearranging the coverlets on top of her.  He ran a shaking hand through his hair and sighed heavily.

"Why did you do it, Hermione?" he asked quietly, stroking her cheek.

For a moment, the spirit was stunned.  He had called her by her name!

"I know the loss of your parents hit you very hard but it was not your fault," he whispered, needlessly straightening her hair.

He looked so sad and so scared. 

"You cannot blame yourself and you cannot give up like this.  Your parents would not have wanted that."

The spirit floated slightly lower, coming closer to the man, reaching out to touch him…not making contact…her hand passing right through him.  She was suddenly reminded of an image from a work of muggle literature…spirits of lovers…always together but never able to touch…punishment for forbidden love…

She wanted to touch him.

If only…

"I know you have been in pain but you must overcome the pain. This will make you stronger.  And I know you are strong, Hermione.  You never were one to give up.  Don't make the mistake of giving up now."

He reached under the covers and pulled out her hand, clutching it tightly in his.  He seemed to be fighting his own demons as he looked at the unconscious figure cocooned in his bed.

"I have made mistakes as well, far worse than anything you could imagine.  I was almost consumed by darkness because of my fears…my insecurities.  When you first came to Hogwarts, I sensed the same fears and insecurities in you.  The desire for knowledge and for being the best among your peers are things I am well familiar with.  You have always defined yourself by your academic successes just as I did."

He sighed softly, possibly remembering something from his youth, something decidedly unpleasant.

"I can't tell you why I joined with Voldemort, Hermione.  I don't think there is a single reason that sums it up…it is much more…complex…than that.  Perhaps it all stemmed from my pursuit of the ultimate knowledge…the knowledge of life and death…to have power over both.  The Dark Lord promised it to me.  Instinctively, he knew my weakness.  He used that knowledge to his full advantage…profiting from my talent with Potions in order to carry out his plans.  I can't even tell you why I turned back.  Perhaps because I finally realized that knowledge was not enough to sustain me.  That realization brought me to despair because I realized what I had done and I, much as yourself, attempted to destroy myself in a futile attempt at redemption.  But, someone stopped me.  Albus found me perched on the Astronomy Tower, ready to simply end it all.  It was his words, which made me realize that there was still something worthwhile inside me.  Sometimes, I still can't believe that he was right.  I know you probably don't."

Again, slender fingers traced her jawline…affectionately…lovingly.

"I see so much of myself in you.  I see how I might have been if I had not always shut myself away and been so lonely.  Your innate gift with Potions certainly made you stand out in my classes…forced me to take notice of you…shining with a light very much your own.  At first, I thought that was all it was.  After all, a student like yourself doesn't come along every year.   I have taught my share of highly intelligent students…but there has never been anyone quite like you.  Over the course of the last six years, I have found that my…professional admiration has somehow changed into something…different…disturbing.  I did not ask for this.  The last thing I could have wanted was to care deeply about a student, least of all a Gryffindor."

A pained expression crossed his face as he noticed that her lips were tinged with blue.

The spirit moved closer to the still body on the bed.

If only…

"I care about you, Hermione.  I need you here with me.  I cannot tell you to come back and threaten to take points from your house if you don't.  I can only ask."

The spirit moved still closer…

"I have never told anyone I loved them.  No one.  Not even my parents.  I…I want to tell you.  But I need you to come back.  I will help you through this.  I promise.  I could not help you when you were petrified.  I could not help you during the Second Task, even though I tried to convince the Headmaster to choose someone else.  I could not help you in seventh year when Lucius kidnapped you, although I did manage to keep him from…well…I managed at least that.  I could not help your parents.  But, I can help you now if you give me the chance…"

He did not let go of her hand and closed his eyes…

"I need you, Hermione.  Don't leave me now."

The spirit took hold of Hermione's heart and soul and did not waver…

Coughing slightly, Hermione opened her eyes looked around the semi-lit room.  She felt disoriented and, for a moment, wondered where she was.  She was lying down in bed, Professor Snape was sitting next to her and she did not feel at all well. 

"What happened?  How did I end up here?"

For several moments, he did not say a word…just looked at her.  This feeling of calm.  Somehow she did not feel threatened or scared or anything like that…and then…memories came filtering through her mind…memories of what she had seen and heard…

She turned to look at him carefully…and her stomach fluttered nervously as she looked into his eyes and found a truth in his gaze that caused her heart to ache profoundly.

It was there! 

"You frightened me, Hermione," he said finally in a voice that shook slightly.  "I thought…l thought I had gotten to you too late."

"What happened?" Hermione asked, not really caring what had happened to bring her here…just basking in the warmth of his gaze…delighting in simply hearing him speak….that soothing baritone voice that caressed her ears.

"You played in the snow and forgot to come back in," he replied seriously.

"I'm sorry," she whispered contritely as she raised her hand to caress his cheek.  His nostrils suddenly flared with the sharp intake of breath at the slight contact and his eyes grew wide.

He took her hand in his and kissed it gently. 

"Do you love me?" She asked shyly.  Somehow, despite everything, the question had to be asked.

"Very much," he replied sincerely, his face now only inches from hers.  "Do you love me, Hermione?"

"Yes."

The realization of what they had just said to one another hung in the air between them…like a most precious exchange of gifts…

…but not for long…

He leaned forward and kissed her, brushing his lips softly against hers.

"Am I dreaming?"

"No, Hermione."

Silence.

"Good."

A/N:  Ten Galleons will be credited to your vault at Gringotts if you can tell me where the reference to the spirit lovers comes from.  My e-mail is stregabrava@yahoo.ca