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The Special

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November 20

 

It was a warm fall. Hermione was sweating when she arrived at work. She overheated easily. It still embarrassed her as much as it had when she was a kid. She hated arriving at a morning meeting damp under the arms, the back of her neck, and the tops of her shoulders where her hair fell.

This morning she wasn’t running late, but neither was she quite as early as she preferred to be. So she rushed up the stairs and went directly to the conference room for her morning meeting without stopping at her office. Usually she was the first to arrive in any room, so when she saw Draco Malfoy immediately upon opening the door, she was momentarily taken aback.

“Oh, there you are, Granger,” Malfoy drawled in the cheerful tone he always put on when he was about to be particularly passive-aggressive. Asshole . “We were wondering if the stairs had gotten the best of you.”

Hermione’s warm cheeks felt warmer. She was actually in excellent shape — health-conscious, deliberately active. So she wasn’t huffing and puffing from taking the stairs two at a time, but she was sweaty. She glanced at the clock, also taking in the empty chairs around the conference table. “It’s only five til,” she said half-defensively, but of course that was rather late for Hermione. “And are you really using the royal ‘we’ Malfoy? You’re the only one here.”

“Oh, no, actually,” said Neville, popping into sight on the far end of the table, beneath which he’d apparently been rummaging. His hair was messy and he was holding up a handful of haphazard folders taken from the satchel between his knees. “I’m here too.”

“I see,” Hermione said, with her first sincere smile of the morning. Though they kept things professional at work, she and Neville were old friends, though their relationship had been somewhat complicated by Neville’s abrupt transition from colleague to boss when his grandmother retired suddenly and handed him the reins. “Good morning, Mr. Longbottom. I didn’t know you were back from your holiday.”

“Oh, yes, we came back early,” Neville said, gesturing with the folders in a way that caused their contents to nearly slip free. The sight of so much organizational chaos made Hermione’s head throb, but she forced herself not to snatch everything from his hands and spend the next five minutes alphabetizing.

“I hope you had a nice time,” she said calmly instead, easing herself into a chair and ignoring Draco Malfoy’s ongoing snickers.

“Yeah, we did. Awesome time, really great. Hannah took a ton of photos. You can probably see them on Facebook.”

“I’ll definitely check it out.”

Hermione’s assistant showrunners, Oliver and Padma, came in, as well as Colin, Neville’s well-meaning but perpetually-nervous assistant. They all sat down and Hermione took out her notebook and pencil, laying them neatly on the table in front of her, anticipating that Neville would kick off the meeting but that she would take the lead. She could still hardly believe she was showrunner on a live holiday special that would feature the network’s hottest talent. If she was one for pinching herself, her arms would be sore.

But Neville just gazed at the door with a little frown, then looked at his watch.

“Who are we waiting on?” Malfoy asked. Hermione forced herself to look politely in his direction. He was leaning all the way back in his chair with his arms folded behind his head, which pulled his already excessively-fitted shirt tighter across his skinny chest. 

“Just the talent, I imagine,” Neville said, moving around the folders which he’d finally put down. “Isn’t your client famous for being on time, Malfoy?”

Draco sat bolt upright. Hermione frowned at the violence of his reaction, though she too was surprised.

“You don’t mean Riddle is coming to this meeting?”

Now Neville looked surprised too. “Didn’t you know?” Hermione’s expression must have been answer enough, because he looked to Draco. “Didn’t you know?”

“I did not,” Draco said tersely. He drummed his fingers on the tabletop.

“He hasn’t come to any of the other producers’ meetings,” Hermione said, baffled. “Why this one?”

Neville shrugged. “He wanted to approve the contestant list. Wrote a nice letter all about it. Scented stationery, very classy. Draco, you really didn’t know?”

“Obviously not , or I would never have worn last year’s suit , or consented to this...space.” Draco gestured wildly at the unobtrusive conference room. Granted there wasn’t much to be said for it, but it was suitably grand, as corporate headquarters went. Hermione began to wonder exactly what kind of a monster Tom Riddle actually was, if he had Malfoy this worked up. She’d always suspected that his sterling reputation was a veneer.

“Well, it’s not quite nine yet. He’s got time,” Neville said comfortably, apparently oblivious to Draco’s rising hysteria.

Before Malfoy could combust, the door opened, revealing Tom Riddle himself. He was even taller and more airbrushed-looking in person than he was on television. Hermione, reluctantly impressed, got out of her chair and smoothed her skirt, glad she’d cooled down so her palm was dry when she held out her hand. But before she could introduce herself, Malfoy had sprung to his feet as well.

Fully transformed from the sarcastic bastard lounging in the chair when Hermione arrived into a painfully-harried-looking version of himself, Malfoy bodily inserted himself between Hermione and his client.

“Good morning, Mr. Riddle,” he said brightly. “How was the drive?”

Hermione bit back her irritation and took the opportunity to study the star of the network. She’d once seen him pass through a room, but he’d been surrounded by a flurry of other people and she hadn’t gotten a good look. He was just as lean and elegantly-dressed as he was on television or in print, in his trademark black suit with a bright tie, emerald and gold, in an intricate print. His cheeks were remarkably smooth for a man with such dark hair, and his eyes were intense, focused on Malfoy with a sort of puzzled amusement, like they’d never met.

“Oh, it was very nice, Draco. Thank you for asking.” He looked around the room, taking in the table that someone had probably spent five figures on, the sleek minimalist chairs and the unimposing art as though he’d be sullied by mere proximity. But when his gaze landed first on Neville and then on Hermione, his expression resettled into a pleasant, razor-sharp attention that made Hermione worry she was going to overheat again. Before she could overthink it, she stepped around Malfoy and extended her hand a second time.

“Mr. Riddle. I’m Hermione Granger. The new showrunner.”

“Great meeting you,” he said, taking her hand at once. His palm engulfed hers, cool and smooth, and she caught a faint scent of something vaguely spicy. Expensive. He let go of her with a pleasant smile, then took a few steps to shake Neville’s hand as well.

“And young Mr. Longbottom, our executive savant,” he said. People were constantly remarking on Neville’s age in a way that made Hermione grind her teeth, but somehow when Tom Riddle did it, it just seemed like sincere flattery. Neville seemed to take it that way; she saw his cheeks go pink and his shy smile as he shook the offered hand.

“Oh, well, it’s nice to see you again, Mr. Riddle,” he said, looking bashfully down at the table before sinking back into his chair. 

“Tom, please,” said Tom Riddle magnanimously, and circled back around the table to introduce himself to each and every person, including the hovering Colin, who had taken a chair in the corner, the unofficial position of an assistant. Hermione was reluctantly impressed.

Riddle settled one chair to Draco’s right, so he faced the door and Hermione. “I apologize for making you wait.” 

“Not at all!” Neville assured him at once. “We’d only just sat down. We’re glad you could make time to join us. I appreciate how invested you are in seeing that we have a great pool of contestants.” 

Tom Riddle smiled serenely at the head of the network, crossing his legs in one smooth motion, and loosely clasped his hands together on his elevated knee. “It’s no problem at all.”

“Great! Well, here we have them,” Neville said, tapping the messy pile of folders. “Sorry they’re not on a screen.” He pointed with an exaggerated shudder to the dark and neglected screen on the far wall.

Riddle smiled warmly. “I’ve also been called old-fashioned.”

Colin passed around the folders while Neville explained how impersonal it felt to him to look at photographs of people on a projector, instead of on paper, and Riddle nodded along with solemn attention. 

Hermione opened the cover of her folder to see the first of several familiar headshots. She’d carefully assembled all the people in the final cut from the original, vast pool of six thousand, based on a painstaking process derived from sixteen separate measures. She had a graph and three charts she hadn’t bothered to load on her flash drive for the meeting, knowing Neville would keep things analog.

Malfoy was giving his copies a cursory once-over. He’d informally approved everything weeks before with a one-word email. 

Tom Riddle hadn’t looked at them at all. He continued to sit with his hands on his knee, his shoulders at a slight angle so his tie fell to one side. Considering her business Hermione should really have been better at this kind of thing, but she still hadn’t identified the pattern on the tie. She knew it was classic, she knew it had a name, and it was definitely familiar, but she couldn’t put her finger on it.

“I have a suggestion,” said Riddle. 

Hermione participated in the room’s collective deep breath. When the talent made a “suggestion,” particularly talent on the scale of Tom Riddle, it was a mandate

Seeing he had their attention, he reached into his jacket pocket and removed a photograph. Hermione caught enough of a glimpse to see that it was a YouTube screenshot of a dark-haired young man, but there must have been something off about the quality, because his eyes were unnaturally green. He had a pleasing smile, Hermione noticed instantly, with professional detachment. Good teeth. Nice bone structure. Overall, a very marketable look.

“Harry Potter,” Tom Riddle said, sliding the photograph toward Neville in a little motion designed to attract Colin. It worked, of course; he rushed to pick it up from the table and walk it over to his boss, who took it without looking away from Riddle, a fixed, pleasant smile on his face. 

“He would be a valuable addition,” Riddle went on.

“The vlogger?” Draco asked skeptically, apparently recognizing the name. When Riddle gave him a cool look, he blanched and swallowed. “I’m familiar with him. That’s a very novel idea, Mr. Riddle.”

“Thank you,” Riddle said tonelessly. “I do value your opinion, of course, Draco.” He turned his expectant look toward Nevillle. “And what do you think, Mr. Longbottom?”

“Well,” Neville frowned at the photo. “I’m not sure I understand. Is this someone you know, Mr. Riddle?”

“I don’t know him,” Riddle said. “I’ve seen his videos. I think he has talent, and a dedicated following.”

Hermione wasn’t sure one thousand subscribers was a sufficient guarantee of this Harry Potter’s appeal, dedicated though they might be. 

“I’m sure you’re right, Mr. Riddle. Was he one of the original applicants?” Neville glanced apologetically at Hermione, but she understood his hands were tied.

So were hers. If Riddle wanted the kid, they’d have to try and get him.

“He was not,” Hermione said. She didn’t have to look back at her records to know. She remembered quite a bit about each of the thousands of applicants. It was just the way her mind worked. Harry Potter had not been among them. “But, of course, I trust Mr. Riddle’s judgment.” She smiled at Riddle, who smiled back with satisfaction and unclasped his hands.

“And I trust yours,” he said with a quick smile that made Hermione forgive him instantly for all the trouble he had just caused. “Which is why I’ll leave the rest of the final details in your capable hands.” He stood up, and so did the rest of them, in the manner of peasants in the presence of a king. But even as Hermione was annoyed, she felt her heart rate speed up when Riddle turned his attention on her a final time, coming back around the table to clap Neville on his shoulder, then pausing in front of Hermione.

“It was a pleasure to meet you, Ms. Granger.”

“Thank you,” she said, and because she was flustered and it was at eye level, she blurted, “That’s a great tie.”

“Why, thank you,” Riddle said at once, as though nothing she said could ever be ridiculous. Then he leaned in, so she got another whiff of his cologne. “It’s toile,” he murmured, and pulled back with a wink and a final squeeze of her hand.

She felt a little dazed as he swept from the room, but it was clear that at least one aspect of Tom Riddle’s reputation was certain. Everyone who met him fell a little in love with him. 

“So,” Neville said, drawing her back to the present. He was slouching in his chair with a furrow in his brow. “How many days til production starts, again?”

Hermione pressed her lips together. “December 1. A solid...ten days.”

“Oh, plenty of time,” Neville moaned, rolling his eyes. “I’m sorry, Hermione.”

“No, no,” she said at once, with confidence she didn’t really feel. “It’s fine. It’s the nature of live television. I can handle it. That’s why you chose me as showrunner,” she reminded him.

Neville smiled, looking relieved. “Of course, Hermione. I can always count on you. So, this Harry Potter? You’ll get him?”

Hermione’s smile stayed steady even as her stomach turned over. “Absolutely.”