The Present Moment by phlox
Written for the DHr_Advent 2013. Thank you to whoever nominated me – it made my holiday season!
Hermione had always had a great respect for presentation, but that went double when it came to the holidays.
After all, if presents weren't meant to be a statement of effort and style, then she knew nothing about etymology. Of course, she more than just respected it; she adored the brightly colored paper, the lush, silky ribbons, and the glimmering bobs that served no practical purpose but to be decorative. Over the years, she cultivated both her skill with the presentation of presents she gave as well as her appreciation of those she received, and she would spend a good deal of time in admiring what lay before her on birthdays and Christmases, valuing them for far more than just what lay beneath the wrapping.
Naturally, it just wouldn't do to tear haphazardly into such a work of art, disregarding the care and thought that had gone into it.
So Hermione would slowly and painstakingly open each parcel with the aim of keeping each and every bit of paper, ribbon, and doodad in as pristine condition as possible. It could take her five, ten minutes at a time to open a package, and she simply refused to be rushed. Her parents had grown used to it and fed into her love (as good parents always do) by making them ever more ornate as the years passed. She was the same away from home; her friends' teasing and impatience fell on deaf ears each time as she coaxed the tape from the paper and the ribbons from the box. Conveniently, Hermione had learned expansion charms by the time the cupboard in her room proved too small to contain her collection of carefully preserved packaging.
But then everything changed.
Dumbledore fell from the Astronomy Tower, and their childhood ended with a sickening thud. A few months later, as Hermione was closing up her family's house after she'd sent her parents on their way to Australia, she looked into that storage cupboard. In the silence and the cold light of a late summer evening, the garish paper and shiny ribbon mocked her with their cheer. As keepsakes of the people who now walked the world with every thought of her wiped clean from their brains, her collection was heartbreakingly inadequate.
Then and there, and with a great deal of pent-up fury, Hermione disposed of every little bit of wrapping and decoration from that cupboard. The Muggle way. The bonfire she built in the back garden burned her eyes like the sunrise of the new life dawning before her.
That Christmas, she and Harry were alone in their drafty tent. Weeks after Ron had left and only a few hours since their brush with Nagini at Godric's Hollow, there seemed nothing else to do to mark the holiday but something completely irreverent. So they spent the evening presenting each other with ever more ridiculous 'presents,' scavenged from what they could find about, each packaged with more and more absurd wrapping.
Hermione gave Harry a banged-up pot from the kitchenette, which she placed in the center of her Gryffindor cloak, gathered it, and tied at the top with the matching red and gold tie. Harry gave her a half-eaten scone wrapped in slightly used tinfoil, on which he'd drawn the most pathetic Christmas trees she'd ever seen. She countered with an article torn from one of her women's magazines about how to spot the "Bad-Bet Blokes," which she folded within an old Daily Prophet into a rudimentary airplane, and Harry grandly presented her with a pair of his pants (recently worn), in a plastic Tesco bag, its handles tied up in a rather pathetic bow.
It felt like they'd rediscovered laughter that night, and Hermione would live a long time before she would have a memory of Harry Potter to replace that night as her most treasured.
But it was the Christmas after the war where Hermione's attitude changed for good. This time, she was safe and warm at the Weasley's, possessed with the means to buy real presents and to doll them up as much as she liked, but it didn't do much to help the Christmas spirit. The strained smile on Molly's face and the nervous laughter of all the siblings made the absence of Fred throb with the beat of every heart. There seemed to be collective agreement that to stop talking, eating, drinking, or opening presents for even one moment would let the howling grief in through the window. They all collaborated in this farce, running from the silence and stillness that threatened to overtake them. Hermione started ripping at the wrapping paper, sending the ribbon flying, and she never looked back.
She could never again look upon the presentation of any present as having any other purpose than as a transitory pleasure, a thing that had nothing to do with the vital presence of the loved one who gave it. By the time her parents had returned from abroad and something like forgiveness (if not understanding) shone from their eyes, Hermione knew in her heart that it was near blasphemy to treat with reverence something so shamefully unimportant.
Draco had always had a great love for the things money could buy.
He'd formed his opinion of the world around him based on the certainty that, should his parents be capable of buying it, he would always have anything he desired. The most elaborate toys, the most lush, stylish clothing, and all things that could be considered excessive or 'top-of-the-line' would always find their way beneath the Malfoy tree. As for the packaging, that was conspicuously moneyed.
When he received his Nimbus 2001 in his second year, not only did the wrapping paper have charmed Snitches, fluttering to and fro, but atop the shimmering, bedecked package sat a miniature replica of the Hogwarts Quidditch Pitch made out of sugar. Draco had torn into it like a charging Hippogriff, and half the pitch was already half-gobbled by the time the broom had been revealed. On another occasion, his entire winter wardrobe hung around a garment rack, the lot encased in golden, transparent cellophane that lasted less than a minute against his excited rampage. And the Christmas he got the Complete Potioneering Professional's Practicum, a room full of cauldrons, ingredients, books, and assorted accessories, he attacked each and every parcel of it with such abandon that he was perspiring by the time he finished, his parents' delighted laughter ringing in his ears.
You see, shiny new things were not only a regular occurrence for Draco, but he quite simply considered them his right. Anything that stood in between him and the latest, nicest, most exciting whatever was not something worth his attention. The packaging was only important insomuch as it made everything look that much more opulent and more obviously valuable. Disregarding it was expected of one so privileged as Draco.
But then everything changed.
The Dark Lord moved into his home, and the darkness around the edges of his world grew daily to cover everything around him in a sinister gloom. That was when his father was newly returned, broken from his stint in Azkaban, and his mother's face was frozen with such a brittle smile it threatened to splinter into a million pieces at the slightest disturbance. Under the Malfoy tree that Christmas, however, everything seemed perfectly normal on the surface.
There were as many presents as ever, the packaging as lush, and the contents as valuable. But the cackling of his aunt Bellatrix bounced off the walls and rang off the silver tree ornaments in a mockery of 'Jingle Bells.' The hiss of the Dark Lord was ever-present in the background, the faint note of what could only loosely be called 'cheer' lending a tone to it that was downright chilling. It was the silence of his parents, however, that disturbed Draco most of all. Lucius and Narcissa couldn't find joy or even the slightest bit of normalcy in watching their only child enjoy their spoiling, and that was what made him truly despair.
But, unlike most of the time he'd spent in the presence of the Dark Lord, on that day he had something to do to take his attention away from his surroundings. Draco had over two dozen presents, intricately and lushly wrapped, ready for him to open and enjoy, and this time he found he wasn't in any hurry.
He'd never given it a moment's thought before, but he realized the lavish packaging must have always been the painstaking work of either the girls in the high-end shops or of the family house-elves under his mum's artistic direction. To think that there were still people out there who took the time to carefully fold and tape with beautiful paper and to construct intricate bows that were there only to be ripped apart to reach the presents beneath… it was something he could barely conceive of in his dark existence. It seemed suddenly to be a heroic notion, to bring such beauty into the world, and he couldn't help but respect the hopefulness of it.
Keeping his head down, pulling gently at the adhesive, wrapping the ribbon of each carefully around his fist, and pausing over the poetry of each card before moving on to the next were all merciful distractions from the darkness and fear. Draco spent a blissful hour and a half opening his presents that day. As the world around him blurred into the background, he focused only on the colors, the textures, and the beautiful frivolity of it all.
Draco had learned a lot about keeping his head down and staying busy by the end of the war and through the seemingly endless arrests and trials that followed, and he'd done a lot of it by the time he found himself facing another Christmas tree. But this time, there were only two presents staring back. One was from his mother, wrapped in shimmering silver, and the other from his father, a package of deep green.
He would never remember what was within those parcels; the actual presents were soon forgotten. But Draco would always recall the scent of his mum clinging to her gift, signifying she'd wrapped it lovingly herself during the long hours they were both serving under house-arrest at Malfoy Manor. And he would never forget the unadorned, masculine-looking parcel from his father. The penmanship on the card was strong and assured, belying the anxiety he must have felt facing a term in Azkaban. All of it must have been bought, wrapped, and written that summer, as Lucius knew he wouldn't be there to celebrate the holiday itself with his family.
For the first time then, and for every present he opened thereafter, Draco understood down to his bones that the love of the person who gives the gift is inextricably woven into its packaging. It wasn't just about extravagance and an easy way of flaunting one's wealth; it was about putting a piece of oneself into the creation of something beautiful. More than just something for the person to admire and enjoy, it was a tangible expression of affection and esteem, its fleeting nature making it all the more precious.
"Oh. You're off, then?" she said.
It was a catastrophic miscalculation. Draco thought he'd arranged this perfectly, given the time since this afternoon when he'd placed the present on her desk while she was away in a meeting. Allowing for how long it would take for her to get back to her cubicle and clean up any lingering work (as he'd known she would before anything else), and even taking into account that there would be other presents to contend with, he was sure she would have been so overwhelmed by his gift she couldn't have resisted opening it by now.
And having thus been taken aback by the style, beauty, and thoughtfulness of his present, Hermione's views on Draco Malfoy would surely undergo a profound change. She would abandon any reservations she might have (or have ever had) and move from this year-long, maddening flirtation they'd shared and into a whirlwind relationship. Of course she'd throw herself at him, immediately demanding he woo her, court her, and ravish her (not necessarily in that order), preferably by ducking out early on this, the last day before the holidays.
Hermione was terribly forceful and dominant in all Draco's fantasy scenarios. He had it all worked out.
In preparation, he'd gotten himself ready to go, so he was clearly on his way out: scarf wrapped about his neck and coat over his arm. Hermione looked up as he appeared before her, just as his eyes fell on the present he'd given her. There it sat, along with all the other measly parcels she'd received, on a corner of her desk, ignored for the sake of her work.
So there he was, standing there dressed to leave, and there was nothing for it.
"Err, I was just leaving, yes," Draco answered. And, because he had a tendency to take leave of all style and presence when under Hermione's wide-eyed gaze, he inexplicably added, "Quite."
"Ah, well… I guess senior staff can make their own hours," she said, leaning back in her chair while stretching her arms over her head.
Normally, this posture, coupled with the soft and rather furry looking cranberry jumper Hermione was wearing, would have rendered Draco useless for at least a few minutes. But he suddenly took notice of the note of disappointment in her tone when she'd realized he was leaving. It was slight, but it was there.
"That's only the half of it," he said pompously, leaning against the partition of her cubicle, every inch a man with nowhere else to be. "I could tell you all about the secret clubhouse and the initiation ceremony, but I think it's best you wait your turn, Granger."
Hermione pursed her lips, and Draco suspected she knew just what that did to him, since she seemed to do it often enough around him. If he were honest though, he would have to admit he was not above annoying her just to see those pouty lips showing their ire.
"Yes, yes… I'm sure success will taste all the sweeter and all that," she said, her averted eyes and sudden busy shuffling of papers hinting at a very real insecurity beneath.
He knew she was envious of his promotion to Deputy Communications Director, Ministry of Magic International Relations, but Draco had no doubt she was on the same track with Magical Law Enforcement, and soon. Hermione never had quite the same faith in herself others had, though; that was half of her problem with advancing in a world where confidence and outright bluster was sometimes worth more than competence. Draco excelled at both.
But he couldn't have her mood dampened, as that would mess with all his plans for wooing, courting, and ravishing. He quickly switched tacks to what he was there for in the first place and nodded toward the pile of presents on her desk. "Quite a haul you've got there. Hadn't you better start in on them?"
Startled by the change of subject, she looked up at him before flicking her eyes to the collection of parcels. Her gaze seemed to linger on the one closest to her; though not the largest, it was by far the most ornately wrapped and beribboned. Her eyes were bright as she dragged them slowly back to meet his.
"Have you an interest in any of them in particular, Malfoy?" she said, eyebrow raised.
At this, he pushed off from his casual lean against her cubicle, tossed his coat over the partition, and languidly settled himself on the corner of her desk. He smiled. "Guess," he said lowly.
She looked back at the collection of packages for only a moment before reaching for it. He'd outdone himself this time, if he could be so immodest to say so. He'd started with vintage hand-painted paper from the eighteenth century: gold foil with bright red sleighs charmed to whoosh endlessly down powdery slopes and around lush evergreens. He'd stifled his Slytherin nature and gone full-tilt Gryffindor colors by adding a red velvet ribbon he'd fashioned himself with a handy spell he'd learned long ago (though if any of his mates were around, he wouldn't have admitted it) into an enormous floral bow.
But the part he was most proud of was the antique toy he'd used for the topper. It was a red sleigh carved out of wood, with a man and a woman inside. They were bundled in their wintry coats and scarves, and cuddled up to each other in a twist of arms and clutched hands. Draco had bought it in a fit of sentimentality, because the woman in the sled reminded him of Hermione, with her curly locks spilling down from the hat on her head and the delighted grin on her face.
The package was a work of art, a declaration of all Draco felt and could not express, and he was desperate to know her reaction. Picking it up, she turned it about in her hands for a moment and cradled it gently in her graceful fingers. Draco became short of breath looking at those beautiful hands, imagining them threading through his hair, smoothing down his chest, just as gentle yet sure as she—
At once, those lovely hands turned into vengeful claws.
Hermione suddenly tore into his creation with startling relish, and Draco lost his breath entirely as he stared agape. Ruthlessly ripping and tugging, she appeared crazed as she sent paper and ribbon flying. Worst of all, she set aside the toy sleigh with nothing more than an interested 'huh,' as she carried on without reverence. She was through the presentation and to the far less important present underneath in a matter of seconds. And there was certainly no reverence or excitement as she looked at that, but it wasn't the point, anyway.
Draco's heart sank as he struggled to keep the smile on his face.
And thus, he saw his holiday stretched before him with all the duty and family, the visiting of friends and professional schmoozing, the cold days and colder nights he'd been enduring year-in and year-out. This would not be the Merry Christmas he'd envisioned. With a sigh, he accepted his lot: one with absolutely no wickedness or wooing whatsoever.
It was a book.
Hermione loved books. It was, in fact, a great book involving the long-term effects of memory charms on Muggles that she'd heard a lot about and which she'd intended to buy herself, as there were still some issues with her parents since the war. Draco knew her quite well, having bought this for her. It was lovely, really it was.
It was, however, if she were to offer one note of disappointment, rather impersonal. Of course, it wasn't like they had what anyone (least of all she) would call a personal relationship. They didn't. It was strictly professional, in the way people who don't really have anything to do with each other's work-business have a general acquaintance that's mostly amusing and about killing time when waiting in line at the cafeteria or during interminable meetings and office parties. In that sense, it was a perfectly appropriate, lovely, friendly present.
Oh, bugger it all! She'd been hoping and wishing for something more from the infuriating git in the immaculately pressed wool trousers for a while now. She'd just about lost her hold on whatever patience she had left, and Hermione had never really been blessed with much in that regard.
Oh, it was certainly wrapped beautifully – probably the best the Malfoy house-elves produced – and the paper was so fine it had given with a very satisfying rip. There was something to be said for him having gotten her a present at all though, and truthfully, she hadn't expected it. She'd been so unsure if he was going to get her anything this year that she had held back what she'd bought him, as she had last year, feeling awkward about giving him something if it wasn't reciprocated.
"Thank you, Draco, this is wonderful. I've been looking forward to getting my hands on this since I read the review in the Daily Prophet," she said, and her smile was sincere, though pained.
This was nothing like what she'd gotten him. She'd put such thought into Draco's gift—
"Oh! I actually— I have something here for you too," she blurted, just as he was gathering his things and making to leave. "I just— wait." She spun around in her chair aimlessly for a second before pointing herself toward the nearly empty bag shoved behind the file cabinet. It was the last present in the bag, as she'd distributed all the rest earlier in the day. Draco's face lit up when she announced she had a present for him, but that changed to a rather startled look when she held it out. He took it from her gingerly, eying the package warily.
"Cheers," he said, turning it over in his hands.
The wrapping was from Weasleys' Wizarding Wheezes' holiday collection. It was charmed to show a Santa Claus (the wizarding version: the same except for the outfit he wore, which inexplicably was green) trying to stuff himself down a chimney, only to find himself stuck in it, again and again. Hermione thought it was wonderfully clever and detailed, and it had made her think of Draco when she saw it. At the Ministry of Magic's Annual Meeting that summer, they'd had the most absurd conversation about fat gophers and whether or not they required plus-sized gopher holes when they got too big. She wasn't sure how they'd happened on that topic, but she did recall there was wine involved.
But from the look on his face as he started to unwrap it, she realized he wasn't making the connection. He seemed rather careful to not hurt the paper though, and Hermione would never have figured him for being so exacting. It gave her pause as she wondered what she actually knew of Draco versus what she might have filled in simply by wishing. He might be more into appearances and incidentals than she figured.
"Oh…" he said, eyebrows raised, as he pulled the lid off the box and plucked the silver item from its bed of blue velvet.
Hermione had to fight to keep herself from launching toward the box to show him the wonder of the thing. "See, it's a Muggle pocket compass. They use them to show which direction they're facing." At his perplexed look, she continued, "It's an antique – they don't really use these anymore for basic travel. But I've charmed this so that— see the map of the world in the lid?" She stretched across her desk, pointing toward it in a rather futile show, as she couldn't reach, and she was still trying to avoid throwing herself at him. "You can pick a point on the map, and if you concentrate on it, you can Apparate there even without having visited before."
Draco whistled. "Bloody hell, Granger, that's impressive. You should really use your powers for good. Or at least for profit."
Hermione was really pleased with herself over this bit of magic; she was contemplating whether or not to take it to George for mass production or to patent it herself. But her motive for developing it in the first place had to do with Draco. At a moment of unusual vulnerability (i.e., drunkenness at Hogwarts' annual Victory Day commemorating the end of the Second Wizarding War), he'd talked openly about the terror of having the Dark Lord living in his home. Hermione had seen, for the first time, the scared young man he'd been, and what peace of mind it had cost him.
Specifically, he'd mentioned that a coping mechanism he'd developed was to look at a globe in the manor library and imagine he really was somewhere on that map, far away. He would make up entire towns and elaborate houses just to visit them in his mind, and he wished and wished that merely seeing them so clearly would be enough to bring them into existence and magic him there. Once the war was over, there wasn't any time or permission to travel under his plea arrangement. But that boy who longed to escape and discover and find new worlds that even he couldn't imagine was still in there.
Hermione had been totally captivated by his tale, and if she were to pinpoint the moment she really started seriously considering Draco Malfoy, it would have been that night.
Blushing and preening from his praise, she said, "Anyway… you can go wherever you want, Draco." He looked at her blankly for a moment, and she held his gaze, frozen, knowing she wasn't quite explaining it the way she would like. She wasn't at all sure that he recalled the moment they'd shared last May, and she was hesitant to remind him of it. Perhaps he hadn't intended to share that sort of intimacy after all.
"Yes," he said with a sigh, and her words seemed to remind him that he was leaving. "I guess I should at that." He gave her a slight smile and that charming bow of his that made her knees weak. "Happy Christmas, Hermione."
And before she could really respond, he was gone. With him, she thought bitterly, went all her hopes for avoiding spinsterhood. She flounced back in her chair with a sigh, as Hermione was always a little bit emotional (and dramatic) around the holidays, and she started to brainstorm what to buy him for his birthday. After all, it was less than six months away.
And so it was that the Christmas Spirit (because it is in fact an actual thing, I'll have you know, and it hung around just looking for sad cases such as this) pressed two young men into temporary service as Christmas Elves.
One ginger head and one messy black-haired one appeared above the partitions that sat behind Hermione's cubicle, silently concurring in utter exasperation at the sheer obliviousness of the two would-be lovers. Again, without words and with only a few eyebrow raises and head gestures (both in the direction of the departing male as well as to the despondent female nearby), along with one or two hand gestures (not in the least bit obscene), they hatched what both agreed was a very satisfactory plan.
Because some misunderstandings and miscommunications were inevitable and intractable, and some people were just truly hopeless. But there were dozens of pubs and parties between now and Christmas, and loads of opportunities for holiday cheer. And after all, there was very little that a bit of liquor couldn't fix.
Even the seemingly impossible fix-up of Draco and Hermione.