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The Special

Chapter Text

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” 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.”

Chapter Text

November 21


“I’m sorry, what ?” 

Harry held the phone away from his ear for a moment to squint at the number on the screen, just to make sure this wasn’t some kind of transparent prank, but the number, based on a hasty google search, did appear to originate from CLN studios in Chicago, and beneath the headshot of a girl with frizzy ringlets and a determined close-mouthed smile was the name “Hermione Granger.”

“We’d like to cast you in our upcoming holiday special. We begin taping November thirtieth. Are you available?”

Excitement and suspicion were at war in Harry’s mind, but if this was some kind of a scam, they’d chosen their target poorly. He had, at last check, $85.72 in his bank account.

Harry thought through all the various ways he’d heard of people getting conned out of something based on phone calls and emails that were too good to be true, and asked warily, “I don’t have to advance payment for airfare?”

There was a moment’s pause before the woman on the other end of the phone said, slowly, “No. What?”

“Or give you my social security number and bank account information over the phone?"

“We’ll need your social security number at some point for tax reasons. Is that — is there some reason you’re asking these particular questions?”

“I’m just making sure.” Her tone made Harry feel a little silly. “That this is the real deal, you know. It’s pretty weird. Being called and asked to fly to — where was it again?”

“Titan, Ohio.”

“Ohio! In seven days.”

“I understand,” she said, sounding weary. “I know it’s short notice, and that makes all of this very strange. But when your name was raised at our last meeting we all felt like you were a vital addition, Mr. Potter.”

Hermione Granger didn’t sound much older than Harry, so hearing her call him “Mr. Potter” made the moment even more surreal.

“If it would make you feel more comfortable, I could fly down to St. Louis so we could talk in person.”

Harry leaned his elbows on the edge of the table. “I don’t think that’s necessary.” He glanced at the calendar displayed on his second monitor. The one that had a web of hairline cracks from the time he’d been reckless with a belt sander during a live stream. His calendar was displayed there. “I really can’t, anyway,” he said with a sigh. “I have to work.”

“Mr. Potter, this is work. I’m offering you a paid position on the cast.”

Harry scratched his head, perking up. “Oh? Paid?”

“Yes, of course! I’m sorry, it’s not — I usually don’t handle this part. I should have led with that. The compensation is expenses plus two thousand dollars base pay per round you avoid elimination. And the winner will receive a twenty-thousand-dollar grand prize.”

Harry didn’t say anything. He wasn’t great at math — but she’d said earlier in the call the contest had nine rounds, which put the potential earnings at — almost the entirety of his income the entire past year.

Not that that was saying much.

“Holy shit,” he breathed, then realized he'd just cursed and bit his lip. “Er, sorry.”

There was a surprised, soft chuckle from Hermione Granger. “It’s fine. So — that’s a yes, right?” She sounded relieved.

“Um,” Harry said, drawing out the m , and looked at his calendar again, wincing. “No. It’s a no.”

“Of course. I can negotiate compensation to a point, if you have a number in mind.”

“What?” Harry exclaimed. “No! Oh my God, it’s not the money! That’s...that’s a lot of money. To me.”

A moment’s pause. “Then, what…?”

Harry rubbed a hand through his hair so it stood up, a better reflection of his inner turmoil. “I’m scheduled for a job. I can’t just flake out.”

“We would be happy to assist in negotiating a contract termination with your client, Mr. Potter.”

Frustrated, Harry sighed. “Okay, hold on a sec. I’m going to have to ask you to stop calling me ‘Mr. Potter.’ It’s freaking me out.”

“Okay, Mr. — that is, um, Harry,” said Hermione Granger.

“I don’t have a contract, exactly. I just…” He felt, suddenly, like an idiot. “Well, I said I would.”

“And what is the...service?”

“Oh, some interior repainting, I think.” Mrs. Figg hadn’t been really clear, just saying she wanted to “spruce things up for her Christmas guests,” but she’d mentioned several times that she thought the maroon walls had created an unpleasant, cave-like quality. Harry couldn’t agree more.

Hermione Granger was quiet. Harry thought for a moment they might have been disconnected. Then she said, “I’m sure we can arrange for an alternative provider to fulfill the service.”

Harry didn’t think Mrs. Figg would particularly welcome strangers barging into her house, but the more he thought about it, the more he thought that if anyone would support Harry seizing an opportunity, she would. He had never once backed out of a job, but maybe she could be convinced to let a replacement do the work. Harry could even pay for it, he thought faintly, with just the first day’s pay even if he was eliminated right away. Hell, if he was eliminated right away, he’d still have time to paint her living room himself.

“Well,” he said, searching for another excuse, even as another part of him had wanted to say yes immediately.

While he hesitated, Hermione Granger uttered a muffled one-syllable word that told Harry his earlier swearing couldn’t have offended her sensibilities. 

“Are we back to compensation?”

“No!” Harry said, startled. Then, because he needed to make a point, “I accept all the original terms you gave me. Thank you very much.”

“Well!” Hermione Granger said, sounding relieved and like a real, sincere person for the first time since the call began. “Then it’s all settled. We’ll email your flight confirmation. How many checked bags will you need?”

“Er…” Harry gazed around his studio apartment. He didn’t own any luggage except his computer bag. “None?”

Hermione Granger laughed tightly. “I’ll put you down for TBD, and you can let them know when you check in. It’s hard to plan packing in advance for a business trip, I know.”

“Right,” Harry said. Just when he thought the call couldn’t become more surreal, he was now picturing himself bringing a month’s worth of clothing — if he was being optimistic about his chances — to Titan, Ohio — wherever that was? — in the same way he’d brought it from his last apartment to this one: in four large black trash bags.

“I’ll also send all my contact information and your itinerary via email, and an assistant producer will contact you in case you have questions in the morning or any time prior to your flight next week. I look forward to working with you, Mr. Potter.”

“You too,” Harry said, and waited until he heard a dial tone before slowly setting down his phone.

He glanced up at the computer screen. He’d been answering comments on his last vlog when he got the call from Hermione Granger. He had somehow gone from overthinking the phrasing of his response to one of his precious five regular commenters on the shaky, amateur videos he’d been publishing, to running through a checklist of what he’d have to do to prepare to travel out of state in a week then appear on live television in less than two.

An impulse seized him and he typed into the same search window he’d just used to legitimize Hermione Granger. “CLN holiday special,” he entered.

His shitty internet caused a few long seconds’ lag before the results popped up. At the top was a familiar, perfect, smiling face. Tom Riddle. To the left of the image was the caption: RIDDLE TO HOST AND JUDGE LIVE HOLIDAY SPECIAL. Twenty candidates will compete for a $20,000 grand prize over the course of the twenty-five days in December leading up to Christmas, live on CLN. These designers from across the US will be renovating a selection of abandoned homes in Titan, Ohio to restore an historic American neighborhood to its former glory, just in time for the Christmas!

Tom Riddle. Hermione Granger hadn’t mentioned Tom Riddle . Harry had looked up to him since he first saw his show, one night when Vernon had left the television on and a rerun played. Shortly thereafter, Harry, inspired, had dragged around the living room set to maximize the architecture and natural light. He was thirteen years old and the Dursleys hadn’t thanked him for it.

Harry only did the vlogs because he got a few hundred bucks a month in advertising dollars, and sometimes that made all the difference when business was slow. He didn’t mind the (small) spotlight, but it wasn’t something he’d ever sought out, either.

The immensely larger platform promised by the contest intimidated him, but the money baited the trap irresistibly. The prospect of meeting Tom Riddle in the process made Harry suddenly happy to go.

Chapter Text

Harry was in Titan, Ohio. He’d cashed in his plane ticket and taken a bus. Or rather, a series of buses. It had been an experience. A litany of young producers all wearing flannel and bright-colored scarves had been guiding him around the aptly-named site village, which seemed to cover at least a square mile of vacant land with a view of the high school football stadium in one direction and several fields of mown farmland in all the others.

While his head was still spinning, the producer he kept getting handed back to—whom he was fairly sure was named Violet—clapped her hands together. “Now for the most important thing! Your crew.” She struck off, leaving Harry with no choice but to follow.

“Crew?” he asked her, hurrying to keep up.

“Did you think you were going to remodel an entire house by yourself?” she asked with a puzzled smile, and at the look on his face she laughed, then winced. “Oh, you did . Well, that’s not the case. Oh my God, can you imagine? And in one month? But no, you’ll have eight guys to help you fulfill your vision in each room!”

Harry, thinking that last line had to come from a script, followed after her, his racing thoughts turning inward. To be honest, he hadn’t really known how he would tackle each room in the allotted time frame, but he’d trusted there would at least be an even playing field and he was as capable as anyone else. The idea of being able to do real restoration or rebuilding excited him, but the idea of being forced to work with strangers made him nervous.

Violet looked down at the clipboard she was holding, then up at a cluster of men and women in hooded sweatshirts in various colors, printed with the special’s name across the front.

“Ron Weasley?” she called. A tall young man about Harry’s age, at least a head taller than the next tallest person in the group, swung around with an easy grace and smiled instantly at the sight of Harry, the most unreserved welcome Harry could ever remember receiving, somehow only enhanced by the fact he had his mouth full of something and was still chewing as he walked over.

Ron stuck his hand out and Harry shook it.

“Nice to meet you! Harry, isn’t it?” Ron shoved whatever he’d been eating in his pocket and Harry heard the crinkle of plastic wrappers, telling him that wasn’t Ron’s first snack that morning.

“Harry Potter,” Harry confirmed, liking him at once. Harry had learned he could trust his first impressions about people, and felt immense relief that he’d be working with Ron. He had a feeling they’d make a great team.

“I’ll leave you to introduce Harry to the others,” Violet said briskly. “Take care, Harry. I’ll see you soon I’m sure!” Off she went, colorful scarf trailing behind.

Ron was looking at Harry with interest. “So, ever done anything like this before?” 

“Not at all,” Harry said with a nervous laugh, looking around the part of the village where they’d wound up with trepidation and a total lack of orientation. “I’ve been lost ten times this morning.”

Ron smiled. “Well, I grew up doing this stuff, but I still get confused sometimes. Don’t worry about it. And if you have questions and don’t want to ask the producers, feel free to ask me! I’ll help however I can.”

Taken aback, Harry’s smile wavered, touched. “Thanks, Ron. That’s really great of you.”

Ron’s cheeks went briefly pink and he rubbed the back of his neck, making his sweatshirt hood flop. “Don’t mention it. Do you wanna see the rest of the shop?” He pointed to the large, industrial-looking building beyond, where more people in sweatshirts seemed to be trailing in and out. Harry had no idea what the shop entailed, but nodded gamely and followed Ron inside.

It was a veritable boutique lumberyard, full of all the basics: screws, nails, racks of tools and stacks of pristine new drywall. But there were also bundles of fine woods, stacks of luxury granite and marble, and random clusters of other fixtures and finishes sorted by style or era.

“Wow,” Harry said, sincerely impressed, though he supposed something like this was to be expected given the demands of a live production with work on several houses to be completed each day.

In a little makeshift workstation composed of a folding table and a randomly-situated jigsaw on a stand, two extension cords giving it power from the nearest outlet halfway across the space, Ron had apparently been making a complex drywall cutout to get a feel for the machine.

“I know lots of people lean toward plaster, or the pre-milled stuff, but there’s nothing I can’t make out of drywall,” Ron said proudly. “This would make a bold ceiling accent, wouldn’t it?” He held the ornate-cut drywall sheet above his head demonstratively, and a shower of drywall dust inundated him immediately, like drifting snow.

“Fuck,” he swore, coughing. Harry tried and failed not to laugh. Ron’s glare was rueful though as he wiped his face on his arm.

“I just did that to make you laugh,” Ron said, grinning. “You know, to break the ice. I’m that kind of guy.”

Harry’s laughter faded but he could still feel himself grinning wide. It felt good; the first sincere smile he’d managed in longer than he wanted to admit.

“We’re going to get along great, I can tell.” But when Harry looked around again, he felt a wave of unease at the obvious scale of the production. It was so far from a few half-assed YouTube videos that he felt a little bit like Cinderella, but in the darker version of the tale which he remembered including self-mutilation and attempted murder.

“Don’t worry, honestly,” Ron assured him, reaching out to squeeze his arm. “You won’t be the least-prepared person here, believe me. And even if you are, no one will mind. There’s much more irresistible drama to be had on-set.”

Harry looked over with a pained smile. “Are you sure about that?”

"Well," said Ron, leaning in close, a small shower of drywall dust falling from his hair and into Harry's face, making him glad he had on his glasses, "you didn't hear this from me, but supposedly someone was thrown out so they could sub another person in at the last minute."

Harry stared at him with dawning horror. Ron, oblivious, went on in a conspiratorial whisper.

"They say it was someone Riddle picked out personally. Went to the meeting and 'asked' for this contestant himself."

Harry could think of absolutely nothing to say, but Ron had already moved on. “Well, let me go introduce you to the rest of the crew, yeah?”

Harry followed Ron mindlessly through the milling crowds. Ron couldn’t really be talking about Harry , could he? On the one hand, who could have been a more last-minute addition than Harry, who hadn’t even said yes, let alone signed a contract, until a little over a week ago? On the other hand, it was utterly impossible that Tom Riddle had personally asked for Harry to be on the show. Maybe some of Ron’s information was correct—Harry was a last-minute substitution, almost certainly—but just as much of it must be bogus.

They came upon a group of people on the edge of the village where there were tables and chairs arranged in the center of a semicircle of food trucks. The trucks were shuttered in the downtime between breakfast and lunch. The group wore hoodies that were the same green color as Ron’s, and Harry realized suddenly that the crews were wearing color-coded attire, and apparently the bright emerald clothing meant they were working with Harry. 

“Hey, guys,” Ron called, and the group looked around. Ron introduced them one-by-one: Padma Patil, Lavender Brown, Dean Thomas, and Seamus Finnegan.

“We’ve got my brothers as well, but they’ve run off to fuck-knows-where,” Ron said, then his eyes widened as though only just realizing what he’d said. “I’m sorry, Harry. My language is fucking—I mean, er, terrible.”

Harry laughed. “You won’t offend me.”

Ron let out a deep breath, still red-faced. “That’s good, because to be honest I can’t filter it. Not even around my mom. Made Thanksgiving pretty difficult this week, let me tell you.”

“The trick is to ignore everything he says, and he’ll never offend you,” advised Lavender, tucking back a strand of blond hair that had escaped from her high, smooth ponytail. She shot Ron a sly look. 

“It’s great to meet you, Harry!” said Seamus. “I thought I’d heard of everyone here. I’m kind of a huge nerd for reno blogs.”

“Oh, well, I don’t have many followers,” Harry said slowly, looking awkwardly from one expectant face to the next.

“That’s fine,” Dean said smoothly, interrupting and sticking out his hand to shake Harry’s. “This show should be a great launch for a relative unknown.”

“So, Harry,” Ron said, clapping his hands together. “What do you have in mind for the prelims?”

“Er,” said Harry. He didn’t even know the task for the preliminary round yet. He kept meaning to ask the producers after it became obvious they thought he already knew. It must have been part of some earlier dissemination, from before he was brought on.

Lavender was watching him with careful attention. She bent over next to a backpack leaned up against the chair she’d been straddling and pulled out a slim bound volume about the size and shape of an owner’s manual.

“Want to see the script?”

Yes ,” Harry said at once, smiling at her gratefully. A thoughtful silence fell over the group and Harry realized he might have given too much away, and yet he also wasn’t sure he should be self-conscious. There wasn't anything wrong with being a regular person. “I don’t know anything about television,” he told them frankly. 

Ron was looking at him with vague mortification, and Harry realized that the moment they’d shared in the shop was replaying in Ron’s mind in a new light. He felt guiltily responsible for the blotchy flush that bloomed in Ron’s cheeks.l as he inevitably realized Harry was the last minute substitution.


Harry met his eye and tried to smile reassuringly to let him know there were no hard feelings. Ron swallowed, eyes still wide, and smiled back uncertainly.


Harry opened the script and looked at the first few pages, having no idea what to expect. Was he supposed to learn lines ?


The answer seemed to be no , or at least, if he had lines they weren’t in this script. It was much more general than that, just mentioning shots that needed to occur and a tentative order. They would all be introduced very briefly and their work given no more than a once-over. In order to see all twenty houses in the allotted hour and introduce the show as a whole, each preliminary round contestant was only allotted about four minutes of live action. 


Less than five minutes on screen with Tom Riddle.


Harry’s skin tingled. He bunched the script in his hands as he withheld the impulse to drop it and rub his hands up and down his forearms where he could feel gooseflesh.


“So,” he said briskly, looking up at the crew, all of whom were watching him with a range of expressions, from openly curious in Lavender’s case to doubtful in Seamus’. “Preliminary rounds are the front elevation. And we have six hours. Fantastic.” He handed Lavender the script and clapped his hands together. “This’ll be fun.” He wasn’t sure who he was trying to convince—them or himself—but it seemed to work better in the crew’s case than Harry’s. They all grinned and Ron even gave a half-serious cheer, pumping his arm above his head.


“Team Potter!” he cried, loud enough a few passersby turned to look, but Harry wasn’t embarrassed at all. He was just excited.


He could do this. He could. He’d give Tom Riddle the most impressive five minutes of screen time in his entire career.

Chapter Text

The house Harry was assigned was a charming 1920s bungalow. He walked the house with the entire crew, Lavender frowning the entire time, Ron grinning in delight, and Dean and Seamus with their heads bent together arguing alternately murmuring to each other and typing furiously on their phones.

Catching Harry’s look in their direction, Lavender rolled her eyes. “They can’t stay out of the comments section,” she explained.

The floors were beaten up. Someone had painted the woodwork at some point and it had recently been stripped. Harry could still smell the ammonia. The house was larger than it looked from the outside, with two interesting surprises for a house with just two bedrooms: on the ground floor there were well-preserved doors that led to a wood-paneled office with its own fireplace, and at the back of the house, hidden from view on the street, was a six-hundred-square-foot solarium.

“Wow,” Ron said with a short whistle, looking up at the broken upper windows.

Lavender frowned down at the floor and scuffed it with the toe of her boot. The solarium had obviously been abandoned for awhile; there was almost as much refuse on the floor as there was on the concrete driveway outside.

Harry pivoted slowly. “ Amazing .”

“I appreciate the sentiment,” Ron said, frowning, “but think practically, Harry. What can you do with this space before the whole-house walk-through? We should think about taking it off.”

Harry looked at Ron with the same look on his face he would have had if Ron was a surgeon recommending amputation of a healthy limb.

“Are you fucking with me ?”

Ron frowned but didn’t backpedal. He pointed to the anchorpoints where the framing for the glass panels met the wall. “They’ve already put in the separation,” he said, meaning the incongruous new construction that was the dubious exterior wall shutting off the solarium from the rest of the house, when in the original build it would have been integrated.

“Think about it, Harry,” said Lavender lowly. “You’d need about four specialists to get this thing functioning in the time we have. And even then it might not be enough. If you take it off, we could maybe add some French doors here. Create a patio. I’m a great bricklayer.”

Harry could barely look at them. The heathens. But he didn’t have time to have a tantrum. He had the front elevation to think of.

The house was certainly more charming inside than out. Part of the problem with the front elevation was that it lacked any real dimension, but of course building even a tiny porch or installing dormers on the ceiling were more than an afternoon’s work.

Ron’s twin brothers appeared just in time to erect the scaffolding and repaint. They were energetic and seemed to be laughing at Harry constantly, but not in a way that he could quite bring himself to take offense. He’d chosen green paint with dark red trim, a classic combination for a Craftsman-era build like this one and a shameless ploy to fact the show was a Christmas special.

Lavender and Ron helped him uninstall the hideous lattice porch railing someone had put in, probably in the nineties, and Harry welded a simple wrought-iron replacement together himself. The cameras took a lot of interest in this step, particularly when Harry shed his jacket in the heat of the shop and bent over the last few welds in his sweat-damp t-shirt.

Harry had initially decided he'd ignore the cameras, but he felt so stiff and awkward he was almost physically clumsy, something he’d never experienced before in his life. So he tried instead to actively engage with the cameramen—he learned their names and joked around with them a little until he looked at the cameras and just thought of the friendly people behind them. It wasn’t a perfect solution, but it at least let him get on with the work.

With an hour left and the sun starting to set, Harry stood on the sidewalk with Lavender.

“It looks good,” she said for the third time. “You need to chill out.”

Harry scratched his left wrist with his right thumbnail, a bad habit from childhood he’d never been able to break. “It’s not right. It’s so flat.”


“We could put in a couple more of those little evergreens,” Lavender suggested, tipping her head to one side.

The landscaping had helped pull the house forward, but it still wasn’t enough. 


“If only I could snap my fingers and conjure a porch.”


“I think you’re mixing metaphors; are you supposed to be a genie or a wizard?”


“Hi, Harry!” called a familiar voice.


Harry turned to find himself face to face with one Hermione Granger, in the flesh. She was smiling tautly, clutching a clipboard to her chest, and wearing a scarf with gold glitter in the thread. Even though he’d seen her picture, she was somehow very different than he’d envisioned her. For one thing, she couldn’t be more than a few months older than Harry. He felt a rush of respect for her that she’d risen to showrunner in her twenties. That had to be an achievement.


“Hey,” Harry said with a smile. She was surrounded by a cluster of assistant producers, some of whom Harry had already met. 


“We’re just checking in. They got some great footage of you today. It’s being reeled in production as we speak. And we go live in about two hours, so I wanted to be sure you’re camera-ready.”


“Harry only cares about impressing Tom Riddle, not the plebeian masses,” Ron said, having walked up at some point. He was peering at Hermione with open fascination. She noticed and seemed totally taken aback.


“Ron Weasley, right?” She glanced at her clipboard, like the name of a crew member would be on her first page of handwritten notes, then back up with pink cheeks.


Harry looked back and forth between them with a slowly-burgeoning realization that was sped along when Lavender caught his eye and smiled wickedly.


They’re fucking , she mouthed, and Harry choked on nothing.


“Are you okay?” Hermione asked. Ron pounded him helpfully on the back; the guy really didn’t know his own strength, Harry thought, wincing at the sensation of another breath being knocked out of him.


“I’m f-fine,” he said, stepping away from Ron just to be safe and holding up his hands to fend off further attempts at rescue. “And we’re nearly ready,” he added. He had an idea that struck him so suddenly and with such force he couldn’t doubt its perfection for a moment. “We have to build a pergola.”


A pergola in the front of the house was risky, sure, but Harry could visualize how it would amp up the house’s curb appeal in an instant, and they had just enough time to put something simple together. The twins created the basic frame while Harry and Ron worked out the details on the trim, going with an asymmetrical geometric look that tied in with the house’s square face, and Harry thought of silently as a nod to Tom Riddle’s known preoccupation with the clean lines of midcentury modern architecture. There wasn’t time to seal it but Harry spent every minute leading up to the shoot rubbing stain into it with painstaking attention to detail, sure the camera lights would somehow catch something he’d missed. Ron had to physically pull him away when it was time for the camera crew — and Tom Riddle — to have their look.


Like Hermione, Tom Riddle arrived with an entourage of producers in addition to the cameras and lights. It was like watching one of those cartoons where a storm cloud follows a single character across the scene, but inverted. The street was growing dim but it was like a perfect midday sun shone down on Tom Riddle, the host beside him an afterthought. (Though she was a pretty dark-haired woman who was vaguely familiar even to Harry which meant she had to be significantly famous.)


They wandered up to the bungalow and Harry watched Tom Riddle take in the house, riveted, even as a stylist brushed his hair, muttering under his breath, and hastily applied a little light makeup.


“Okay, they’re ready for you,” said Violet, Harry’s regular producer today, and she pushed him gently onto the sidewalk. He walked slowly the dozen steps it took to be embraced by the lights, which had now swelled to encompass most of the front of the house.


“You must be Harry Potter,” said Tom Riddle, turning to him without making eye contact or moving his hands from where they were wound behind his back. Harry had automatically begun to hold his hand out to be shaken, and now it fell back to his side. He felt frozen somehow. Deer in the headlights , he thought, but in this case it had less to do with the intense light and more to do with Tom Riddle.


“N-nice to meet you,” Harry said, wincing at his own awkwardness. He blinked at the nearest camera, but couldn’t even make out the dark-clothed person behind it. It wouldn’t be someone he’d met anyway; this was an entirely different crew than the one that had trailed Harry all day.


“Lots to take in at this location,” said the host, like she was trying to distract from Harry’s stilted energy. “A real mixture of classic and modern. I know I’m not the only one who’s dying to know — is there a story behind that tattoo?”


Harry stared at her. The cameras were on him and the silence was stretching; he didn’t have to be familiar with the industry to know that was forbidden on live television. How the fuck does she know about…? But of course—he’d thoughtlessly stripped to his t-shirt earlier in the shop, and it must have ridden up.


“Let the poor man retain some of his mystery,” Tom Riddle said in a low voice that sounded so much better in person than it did on television. Harry’s gaze snapped to him helplessly, but Riddle wasn’t looking at Harry; he was looking at the host with gentle retribution. She smiled in lighthearted apology.


“Anyway, I’m sure everyone wants to know what our judge thinks of the mysterious Harry Potter’s efforts on day one.” She indicated the front door, which Harry had painted by hand to make it look like it had more carved detail than it did, using the red contrast color to create the illusion of eight panels and a dental molding.


“We all know how you feel about paint, but the bold colors honor the house’s period, don’t they?”


“Indeed,” Tom Riddle said, a little of his earlier warmth gone. Harry had the first inkling that he might not like what Tom Riddle had to say about the house, after all, watching Tom Riddle’s frown deepen as he looked at the pergola and then quickly away, almost flinching.


“And the pergola!” exclaimed the host, finally looking away from the front door to study Riddle instead. “An undeniably daring choice.” She rested one hand on the wrought-iron fence that Harry had installed at the last minute then draped with an understated natural garland. He thought it gave the perfect, classy finish to the building’s bold street face. 


Standing next to the host, tall and composed and understated-festive in a black pea coat and red scarf, Tom was perfectly expressionless. 


“Well, Tom,” prompted the host, “what do you think?”


Harry waited, trying not to hold his breath, for Tom to answer.


Tom calmly looked at a spot over Harry’s head with a scathing expression. On camera it would look like he was pinning Harry to the spot, but in reality most of the effect was lost by the total absence of eye contact. It was like he knew where Harry was standing, but Harry was so beneath his notice he was invisible.


“I think,” he said slowly, “there are good reasons I don’t watch YouTube.”




“It could have been worse,” Ron said soothingly, sitting in a folding chair beside Harry outside the encampment back in the village.


Harry lifted his head from his hands and looked at Ron in disbelief. “No, it actually couldn’t.”


“Sure it could,” Ron insisted, tipping back his beer then explaining with perfect confidence, “you could have deserved his asshole comments. But you didn’t. The house looks great! And the viewers are the ones who vote.”


Harry should have been encouraged by that reminder, but instead he just felt worse. It was Tom Riddle he wanted to impress. He didn’t really care what a bunch of strangers watching the show thought; it was just like on YouTube. He couldn’t connect to the anonymous viewers. It was just the handful of regular commenters whose remarks he looked forward to.


Ron yawned so widely his jaw cracked.


“You should get some sleep,” Harry said at once. “It’ll be another long day tomorrow.”


“I could say the same for you,” Ron observer wryly. 


“Yeah, I’ll turn in in a sec.”


But after Ron went in, Harry found himself walking out of the village toward the house.


He hadn’t thought about how long it would take when he started off; the decision to go hadn’t even been conscious. In one of the dozens of white VW Jettas or Chevy pickup trucks the producers drove everywhere, it only took a few minutes. On foot it was more like a half hour, even cutting across the grounds of the school, dark and haunted looking as it was well past midnight.


The street lamps illuminated the front of the house and its porch light was on. Harry stood leaning against the decorative fence and stared until his eyes were sore. Then he walked up the walk just beyond the pergola and admired his work on the door.


“What are you smiling about?”


Harry jumped at the voice, twisting around to find that Tom Riddle was behind him, hands in his coat pockets, appearing out of nowhere and in silence. He looked just like he had earlier except the shadows made him look colorless, carved from onyx and ivory. Harry shivered.


“I was just checking,” Harry said faintly. Riddle stood no more than ten feet away, and he slowly took one step, shortening the distance by a third. “I wanted to make sure I still liked the work, even though you hate it.”


Harry was surprised by his own boldness. Not that it was out of character, but he mouthing off to the average asshole was different than doing it to Tom Riddle…


“Who said I hate it?” Riddle asked idly, and took another step. Harry caught a whiff of something subtle and expensive. It made him hurry to unstick his feet and move away—further up the walk, under the pergola. 


You did ,” Harry reminded him incredulously. “In so many words.”


“Oh, Harry,” Riddle said so quietly Harry shivered again, though for a December night in the Midwest it was still and mild. “Don’t believe a word I say when the cameras are on. That man is a persona.”


Riddle finally closed the distance between them, even as Harry took another fumbling backward step to evade him and wound up with his back pressed against the door.


Riddle smelled even more intoxicating up close and he was so tall, a head taller than Harry, who had never thought of himself as petite. But that’s what he felt like, chest to chest with Riddle—small. This time when he shivered the trembling didn’t stop, only intensified as Riddle carded his fingers through Harry’s hair and rested his other hand on Harry’s hip, as casually possessive as if Harry, like anything else that caught his eye, belonged to him.


“What—?” was all Harry managed to breathe before Riddle bent his head and kissed him with expert thoroughness. Harry wondered if he’d been hit by a bus during his walk and was now dreaming the vivid dreams of the comatose.


But when Riddle pressed his thigh between Harry’s and the hard, long line of his leg made firm contact with Harry’s intensely interested cock, the jolt of energy that went through his entire body made him sure this was all very real.


He gasped against Riddle’s mouth and Riddle took advantage, sucking Harry’s tongue insistently into his own mouth, a technique Harry had always abhorred but with Riddle it felt natural and suitably domineering. Then he moved onto Harry’s bottom lip, using his teeth.


Harry, basically pinned to the door til now, decided to take a more active role. But when he lifted his hand to grasp Riddle’s waist, Riddle snatched his wrist and lifted his head. Their eyes met for a brief, dizzying moment. With the light behind him, Riddle’s eyes were opaque, almost inhumanly black. Then he pulled Harry toward him and spun him around, stepping up behind him so their hips were snug together and Harry, feeling a reciprocating hardness between his ass cheeks that he was apparently responsible for, went weak kneed and had to brace himself against the door with both hands. Riddle pulled his hands together so he could hold Harry’s wrists tightly in one hand and ground into his ass.


Harry had always wanted to meet Tom Riddle, but he hadn’t expected that it would ever happen at all. Or if it did, not like this: shoved face-first against the door he’d hand-painted that afternoon. A door which was barely dry and still smelled so strongly of fumes it went straight to Harry’s head. Or maybe his dizziness was the result of having his hands pinned above his head while Tom Riddle, television star and icon, reached around Harry’s waist and dipped his hand into his jeans.


Fuck ,” Harry managed when Riddle’s hand cupped him through his boxers.


“So hard,” Riddle murmured approvingly, straight into his ear, then nipped Harry’s ear and withdrew his hand so he could maneuver it around and shove it down the back of Harry’s jeans instead.


Around that moment, Harry remembered where they were.


“T—R—Mr. Riddle,” he stammered. The name sounded ridiculously formal given the fact Riddle’s smooth fingertip was circling his hole, but Harry couldn’t bring himself to call him anything else. “We—anyone could see.”


“Yes,” Riddle crooned in his ear. “And I can see you’d like that, wouldn’t you?” His finger pushed in dry past Harry’s rim, on the verge of painful. But he went no further, on crooked the knuckle enough to tug at the tight skin. “Some stranger walking by and seeing you here, moaning to be fucked.”


Harry did moan, though the invading finger hurt a little and the idea of someone seeing mortified him, the pain and the mortification were—mixed into the cocktail of Riddle , his attention and his vicious kisses, his smell and his lean, broad body pressed against Harry’s back—


Riddle pulled back his hand and Harry felt his chin on Harry’s shoulder. Then he jerked down Harry’s jeans and they dropped to his knees. 


It was December in Ohio , and a public street was feet away. The rush or cold air on Harry’s body made him gasp and he was about to scream and pull away when a blunt pressure was shoved up against his hole, steady and insistent and slicked with lube.


What are you …”


That was as far as Harry got before Riddle leaned in hard to the thrust and punched the air out of Harry in time with his bottoming out. Harry’s experiences with bottoming had always been gradual, with tons of prep and lots of worried questions from his partners at every step. This—this was practically instant, all-consuming, and not a little bit painful. He tore his hands free from Riddle’s hold and scrambled for purchase against the door. A distant part of him worried he’d spoil the paint job in his instinctive attempts to escape.


“Oh, now,” Riddle breathed against the top of his head, locking his arm around Harry’s waist in a way that lifted Harry onto his toes, pulling slowly back and then rocking fully in once more. “Don’t be coy. Just take it like you know you want to.”


Harry felt equal parts indignant and bizarrely transparent, like Riddle had noticed something about Harry even Harry hadn’t.


God, ” Harry half-sobbed, his face falling onto his forearms as Riddle snapped against him a few times, shallow, so their bodies stayed pressed together but Harry felt him bottom out again and again.


Riddle’s hand crept back around to cup him by the balls and the base of his cock. His palms were huge, his fingers long and narrow. Harry had softened a bit at the shock of coldness and the brutal stretch, but he filled up again fast in the heat of Riddle’s hand, Riddle tugging on his shaft and alternately stroking his cock, teasing the tip.


“Just as I knew you’d be,” Riddle said, but instead of smug he sounded wondering. “I bet you wish the cameras were here to see me take you.”


Harry whimpered at the unnecessary reminder that anyone could see , and thrust against Riddle’s hand as best he could speared fully on Riddle’s cock.


“You feel extraordinary,” Riddle said more softly. “I can’t wait,” he added. Harry thought dizzily that Riddle hadn’t waited, had he? Then he realized what Riddle meant when he leaned back, held Harry by the hips, and fucked him so hard he had no choice but to just spread his legs and grit his teeth and take it. In his ringing ears he was conscious of the noises —the squelch of lube, the slapping of their thighs, and Riddle’s grunts—


It was that, the little involuntary sounds, the evidence of abandon in a man that had seemed earlier so aloof, so untouchable— that , and the way the angle shifted when Riddle pulled Harry back against him and leaned over him again—and Harry came.


Harry came so hard his come hit the door on the first pulse. Riddle felt him spasm and murmured approvingly, “Can’t help yourself can you? Just as I knew you’d—“ and he came too.

Chapter Text

Harry woke to the sound of someone pounding on his door at five a.m. He blinked, disoriented by the dim space — low ceilings, sparsely furnished — until he remembered through the haze of fitful sleep that he was in his temporary apartment in the site village. Where he’d just made over a home exterior in an afternoon. And been broadcast live on TV.


Another round of pounding truncated that thought and Harry swung his legs out of bed. He hesitated a moment, not sure he’d should open his door to a stranger’s violent knocking, and then he heard a muffled but familiar voice say, “Harry, have you seen the vote?!”

He opened the door to frown at Ron. His eyes were gritty and dry from the hours he’d lain awake staring at the ceiling before finally drifting off into an unrestful sleep no more than an hour or two before. He was still wearing his clothes, which smelled faintly of Tom Riddle’s expensive cologne and faintly of Tom Riddle’s expensive lube. At that realization, he shuffled backward from Ron, feeling his cheeks burn.

But it was dark and Ron was too distracted to notice his discomfort. He was holding up his phone, the screen a bright square in the gloom of the parking lot outside in the pre-sunrise darkness, but it illuminated enough of Ron’s face to reveal his wide eyes and grin.

“You were second place! In the public vote! You beat Amanda Nelson ,” he added, a vaguely familiar name that Harry thought belonged to a popular blogger he’d never gotten around to checking out.

“Cool,” Harry said, which was clearly not the response Ron was expecting, because his smile fell and he narrowed his eyes on Harry with sudden concern.

“‘Cool’?” he echoed incredulously. “Are you sick or something? It’s amazing! We’re on to the next round!”

Harry hid a yawn against his shoulder, letting the idea settle in. He was happy and relieved to move on. He liked what they did the day before, whatever Tom Riddle said. Or didn’t say. Or did. Harry remembered why he’d lain awake so late. What the fuck was Tom Riddle’s deal ?

“Okay, yeah, it’s amazing,” he agreed, grinning back at Ron. “Though I’m kind of offended by how obviously shocked you are.”

Ron hesitated but, reassured by the good humor in Harry, grinned again, more broadly yet, and shoved his phone in his pocket. “Well, people love Riddle. And he did hate it. But when we watched the playback it was—I don’t know, kind of out of character? He’s not usually like that. Just—downright mean, you know?” He looked expectantly at Harry, and when Harry didn’t chime in, his eyebrows climbed up toward his hairline. “Wait. You—you watched the playback, right?”

Harry fidgeted. He definitely hadn’t. Ron laughed and tilted his head to one side with a slight squint, like Harry was a mythical creature or at the very least like no one he’d ever seen before. It should have been more embarrassing than it was, but somehow nothing Ron said or did felt like it invited any offense.

“Okay, so, you’re the only person ever who could be on broadcast television for the first time and just be like ‘eh, I’ll watch later.’ Cool. Got it. So, the highlights: you looked great. I would have gone a little heavier on the hair product if it was me, but scruffy suits you much better on camera, so I’ll yield to the stylist. He was right. You seemed confident but humble, enthusiastic, etcetera. One of the only contestants who obviously knew the cameramen by name by the way. And the house looked really good under the lights. Then Riddle seemed way too mean, and you looked like God had smote you—”

Harry winced, and Ron paused, wincing, too.

“Sorry, but you totally did.”

Harry held up his hands. “I’m sure I did,” he said with an uneasy laugh, feeling a pulse of heat in every bite mark on his neck and every bruise on his ass with a wave of fresh confusion.

“And it really worked, I guess? People liked you anyway, and the way Riddle acted made it seem like you were at risk, so they actually called in their votes. That’s half the battle, engaging the audience to the point where they’ll vote,” Ron added almost like an afterthought. “It’s only a small fraction of the viewers who are really compelled to vote you know. The statistic is something like…” He seemed to catch himself, falling abruptly silent and looking at Harry sidelong. “Anyway, not that I would really know.” He shrugged awkwardly. “Not my area.”

So , Harry thought, remembering Violet’s comment about Harry and the showrunner, Hermione, they’re fucking in secret.

“Now that you’ve woken me up, let’s get a headstart on the living room,” Harry suggested, stretching. “Just give me five minutes to get dressed.” He wrinkled his nose. “Um, ten. I’m going to grab a shower.”

Ron, still distracted by whatever indiscretion he thought he’d just revealed, nodded and backed out of the doorway. Harry grabbed his towel and clean clothes and went down to the showers, a separate building but already lit up. Harry realized there were probably contestants who had barely slept, but forced back the strange competitive energy that was mostly alien to him. He knew that he wouldn’t make it through a whole month, or even a whole week, without setting the work aside for at least a few hours at night. He’d just try not to compare himself to anyone else, not even the dark-haired young woman in full tasteful makeup and careful sausage curls who opened the door just as he was reaching for the handle.

“Hi,” she said, giving him a once-over. “You’re Harry Potter.”

He put two and two together at once. “And you’re Amanda Nelson,” he said, twisting his towel between his hands. “Nice to meet you.”

She wrinkled her nose. “Mhmm.” She looked over his shoulder for a moment, and in the strained silence Harry wondered if this was some kind of challenge, like he should back down the metal portable staircase rather than requiring her to move out of the way by stepping to the side of the platform. But before he could decide, she looked him straight in the eye.

“I liked what you did with the evergreens,” she said, narrowing her eyes like the compliment was a test and she was expecting a wrong answer. “Transplanting the little volunteers from along the property line instead of dipping into your total project budget for landscaping. Interesting.”

“Well, laying sod in December seems like a cheap trick, knowing it’ll never take,” Harry murmured, referencing the first suggestion that Seamus had when they were contemplating what to do with the yard. Harry then immediately worried that Amanda had lain sod and he’d just inadvertently insulted her, but she was nodding.

“Yes, but there were better trees the nursery brought over. So you must have been trying to conserve the budget. Big plans inside I bet? Some showstopper, like a gourmet kitchen or floor-to-ceiling marble in the master bath?”

Harry laughed uncomfortably. “Uh, no. I just, um. Those trees were fine? And they’re already established on the property, so we know they like the soil and the light. They’re low maintenance? I mean, some average person is going to live in these houses, probably. Will any of them know how to keep a greenhouse cypress alive for more than a year?”

Silence again. Those narrowed dark-brown eyes. Then she pursed her lips and took a step back on the platform and gestured for him to walk past her through the door. “Anyway. You were going in here. I won’t delay you.”

“Um, okay,” Harry said, inching past her with a nervous smile. “Thanks.” She smelled like something expensive too, but it was flowery instead of spicy. Still, she was bossy enough that Harry felt a flare of fascination that made him question his sexuality again, an issue he’d officially tabled again after the tenth round of internal debate. 

He took a quick, thorough shower, towel-dried his hair so he wouldn’t completely freeze in the brisk outdoors, then shrugged into his standard long-sleeved t-shirt, jeans, work boots and denim jacket, the warmer one with the lining and down fill, and jogged down to craft services where the number of contestants and crew members milling around between the coffee and the buffet tables had doubled since he’d gone into the showers. Amanda Nelson was nowhere to be seen, probably already deep into the day’s work somewhere, but he saw a few other people he was beginning to recognize, surrounded by their color-coded crews, and exchanged strained but polite greetings and polite questions about how the day had gone for them.

There were a few people missing, he realized already, but whether they were eliminated or had just been earlier or slower to get started he obviously couldn’t be sure. He got out his phone, opened a browser and started looking for some coverage of yesterday’s round that would give him more clues.

Bizarrely, he saw his own name in several of the headlines, and was so flustered he just scrolled down as fast as he could, clicking on something that seemed more nonspecific and therefore safe. It listed the bare minimum of details — the number of viewers, the number of votes — all in the hundreds of thousands, which was staggering to Harry — and then the eliminations. Two names were ones Harry recognized; one was a popular vlogger that Harry had probably subconsciously imitated a lot in his own videos. He’d been one of the reasons Harry had enough confidence to start a vlog himself. The idea that someone who had more experience, and a bigger base following by far than Harry, had already been eliminated while Harry had not, was a strange feeling.

Harry looked up from his phone enough to navigate the crowd away from craft service, and bumped into his producer waiting outside the vinyl barrier.

“Harry! Great!” Violet was smiling broadly, revealing two crooked canines. “I’m so excited about the results. Can we talk on your way to the site?”

Harry climbed into the backseat of one of the ubiquitous Jettas, driven by another producer who waved to him in the rearview but let Violet do the talking.

“So,” she said, leaning over her own skinny lap with her hands clasped together to look at him intently. “Obviously Tom didn’t receive your design the way you hoped. But then again, that’s to be expected, sort of? I mean, he’s a traditionalist. And you already had an uphill battle because he’s a traditionalist who’s bored by the Craftsman style.”

“Yeah,” Harry agreed, but he wasn’t sure what she was getting at.

“The viewers like you, Harry, obviously. But they’re also more inclined to vote for someone they like if they think there’s a real threat they’ll be eliminated, right?”

That’s basically what Ron had said. “Yeah.”

“Also, I privately think they like to stand up for someone who’s an underdog—someone the big bad celebrity judge is unkind to. So maybe that’s your strategy,” Violet suggested, looking sly. “Do something you know he’ll hate, the cameras roll on him being a dick to you, and then the viewers will vote for you to put him in his place.”

Harry’s thoughts had gotten completely derailed by the phrasing “dick to you” as “cameras roll.” He’d been seized all night by vivid imaginings that someone had walked by or the cameras were on all along. But he knew they’d acted in perfect secrecy. The set village was just the same this morning as the morning before. The assistant producers in flannel; the bad coffee; the perfunctory hellos with the other contestants at craft services. 

“I don’t know,” Harry said, glancing out the window to hide the expression on his face which he was sure would give too much away. “I don’t want to make this all about him.”

It was true. Harry felt a spark of excitement this morning that hadn’t been there the day before when he was zeroed in on the task at hand. The overarching possibilities struck him now. What if he could get his work out there? Help someone? Help himself? His fledgling repair business was the only thing he enjoyed about his day-to-day life. It certainly wasn’t his various day jobs flipping burgers at whatever place hadn’t driven him to quitting yet, or worrying about paying for the basic bills from month to month.

He was good at this stuff, and he’d never had any desire to imitate anyone’s design or work. He could admire and respect their output but then rethink everything the way he would have done it and enjoy it that much more. That confidence in his own vision gave him a high he hadn’t felt in any other aspect of his life. And it was what told him, in this moment, he could do this, too. He could create rooms people would like, earn their votes, and make it—if not to the finale, at least through enough rounds that he might have more work waiting for him when he got back home than he’d had when he left. He didn’t need Tom Riddle for any of it.


Chapter Text


Harry Potter, Relative Unknown, Claims Second-Most Votes on the Premiere of CLN’s Holiday Special

by Eric Betterman, staff writer

CLN pulled out all the stops—and its checkbook—for its daring voyage into uncharted waters this December. The much anticipated Holiday Special, starring the network's big-ticket star Tom Riddle, combines reality television, audience voting, and home improvement in a unique fashion and with an irresistible holiday theme.

Viewers tuned in. Ratings soared over what the network has lately been collecting on the average Tuesday night. Fans’ expectations were understandably high, and for this first broadcast at least, CLN didn’t disappoint.

Twenty up-and-coming internet personalities make up the contestants in the Holiday Special, ranging from faces like Amanda Nelson’s, familiar even to those who can’t tell a wrench from a pair of pliers, to the earnest young YouTube vlogger Harry Potter, who has all the charm of a star but the notoriety of an ordinary guy.

If you missed last night’s episode, Potter's name may still be unfamiliar to you. And it’s possible that Potter’s affable smile and creative flare were a fluke, or enhanced by producers’ manipulations, and that he really isn’t the rising star he seemed so obviously to be on Tuesday night.

But our money’s on Potter to take a successful premiere and really launch CLN’s Special into super-popularity, and maybe even inspire a meme or two (this writer, at least, would welcome a slow-motion gif of him peeling off that sweatshirt—I’m only human).

No one can predict the future, but I will say that the Huffpost watch party for the show Thursday has tripled from a much more modest turnout on Tuesday. The excitement in our office isn't over Amanda Nelson’s sleek designs or anticipation of at least six farmhouse kitchens (what real human can pull off open shelves and who else is sick of shiplap?)—no, what intrigues us is Potter's smile and ability to make small, reasonable updates to a serviceable house outshine expensive upgrades. Nothing could be more off-brand for CLN, which has made its fortunes showcasing down-to-the-studs renovations that are more like rebuilds that no more mere mortal could ever afford.

Our opinion of Potter's talents isn't just based on his efforts last night, though the way he pulled together an exterior makeover without buying anything but a little paint still has us dazzled. Potter’s YouTube presence may involve a lot of amateur camerawork on low-grade devices and a sometimes painful, total lack of trimming or other edits, but his talent is on display in each and every one. Check them out to tide you over ‘til Thursday!


Harry didn’t care about Tom Riddle’s opinions or approval. Really, he didn’t. But he couldn’t help revisiting the scene of the—well, not crime, but incident—late Wednesday night.

He hadn’t expected to see anyone there. He’d planned to stand outside in the cold darkness and seek the clarity that had escaped him ever since he and Tom Riddle parted the night before. What exactly had happened there? Was it just Harry’s imagination, or had Tom Riddle seemed hungry for him? Had Tom Riddle really held him tightly for long moments after coming inside, then carefully rearranged Harry’s disrupted clothing with gentle hands?

Had he said into Harry’s hair, almost too soft to hear, “Until next time”?

All Harry'd planned was to see whether his memory was any clearer in the spot where it happened, with the same murky streetlight pouring down. It was much colder tonight, but otherwise everything looked just as it had.

Including the fact that Tom Riddle was there.

Harry jumped like he'd seen a ghost, but it was just Tom Riddle, his dark hair and his long dark coat melding him in to the shadows where he stood in the yard, studying one of Harry’s rescued evergreens with an inscrutable expression.

Harry stared at him for a long second, sure he was a figment of his imagination, then finally managed, “What are you doing here?” in a slightly choked voice.

Riddle glanced up briefly, not even fully lifting his head, like he’d known where Harry was all along. “Are you sure this will transplant?” He fingered one leggy branch like he was checking for a pulse and couldn’t find it. “Trees are difficult like that.”

“It’s hardy,” Harry said, shrugging. “Worth a shot. What are you doing here?” He swallowed. Did Riddle expect—? A reprise? And if he did, would Harry allow it?

Since their encounter, his near-constant reflections always circled back to whether he should have protested at some point. He knew he should have spoken up at the very least. Should have demanded an opportunity to say “yes,” instead of just—he hated the word, but—surrendering.

But all the while he'd wrestled the question of what he should have done, he had been thinking of everything strictly in the past tense. That meant it had never occurred to him to deliberate what he should do if he found himself alone in the dark with Tom Riddle a second time. Harry had assumed that would never happen; he'd never given any alternative a thought.

But he’d said “Until next time.”

Harry imagined himself as the most fleeting of interests for Riddle, one he’d sated without exerting much effort at all. Riddle was rarely seen with the same person twice, and Harry hadn’t even made him work for it. He’d probably forget Harry in record time.

But he remembered Riddle panting in his ear as his thrusts picked up speed and force:

“...just as I knew you’d be.”

“I didn’t know you could look at the sites before tomorrow,” Harry said, desperate to escape his own thoughts. Speaking focused him on his surroundings instead of his circuitous thoughts, but unfortunately for his composure, Riddle wasn't just in his head. He was also standing a few feet away.

“Oh, I’m sure the producers wouldn’t appreciate it,” Riddle said absently, finally concluding his inspection of the evergreen, and angled his face toward Harry. “You walked here.”

It was a statement, not a question, so Harry just shrugged.

Riddle’s eyes narrowed. “You walked back to the set village last night.”

“Well, yeah,” Harry said, wondering why Riddle’s eyes were narrowing, why his mouth was tightening, and why Harry was looking at his mouth in the first place.

Riddle reached into his pocket, his jaw tight, and turned and walked up toward the door to the house. “I’ll arrange a ride for you while you go over the living room with me.”

“Go over?” Harry said, forgetting his awkwardness in favor of indignation. “Why?”

“So that I can give my advice. Feedback. You know.” He opened the door and stepped through. The lights were already on.

Confused but incensed, Harry followed, pausing to look out at the street as he pulled the door closed. The quick glance over his shoulder revealed the street was empty. But now he knew that the streets around the project site had all been closed down three days before the start of production, so the lack of traffic shouldn’t surprise him.

Riddle had already wandered through the foyer and was making his way to the living room, which he’d obviously visited before Harry arrived, based on how he immediately launched into his opinion of the best way to showcase the built-ins on either side of the fire, what remained of the original tiled hearth, and speculated as to the authenticity of what appeared to be a period ceiling light fixture.

Harry was too flustered to think of any word to say except “No!” which he did say, loudly. Riddle looked over at him with a faint smile and a raised brow.

“What's that?”

“I don’t want or need your help. And even if I did, it’s cheating!”

Riddle paused at that, his small smile replaced with a frown. Harry didn’t know what he expected to hear, but he was shocked when Riddle just shrugged and said, “So?”

Harry folded his arms tightly over his chest, upset. “I don’t want you to help me. It isn’t…” he shook his head and then, frustrated into brutal honesty, added, “I think it’s cheating whether you do or not, and also, I don’t like your ideas.”

He’d hoped to anger Riddle. He was in the mood for a fight and he couldn’t help picking one. He also couldn’t help the several reprehensible fantasies that flashed one by one in his mind. Riddle, furious, pinning him down to show him a lesson. Riddle using him slowly and cooing in his ear til he forfeited almost as though it was his own idea…

Anyway, Riddle didn’t look angry. He just looked thoughtful and vaguely amused, which was somehow worse. It was humiliating, and what was wrong with Harry’s wiring that somehow humiliating equated to hot?

Harry slammed the door on his subconscious. “I’m going to go get some sleep,” he announced, then felt an immediate wave of regret. If he hadn’t said something so definitive, he could have left the door open for Riddle to try talking him into something else.

But Riddle just nodded coolly. “That would be for the best. There should be a car waiting outside.”

Harry felt oddly off-balance, like he was being sent away in the midst of something that he’d rather stay and complete, whatever that meant.

Riddle’s gaze was fastened on Harry’s face. “Oh, you thought I’d fuck you in here, didn’t you?”

While Harry tried to find the words to formulate a response to that remark, Riddle looked pensively around the room. It was presently furnished in nothing but dust and two old dining chairs with the cushion springs showing.

“Not tonight, but tomorrow. If I like what you do in here, that is.” He winked solemnly at Harry and then nodded toward the door. “Go on. Car’s waiting.”

Harry should have been offended. He should have said something that was both cutting and witty. Instead he nodded and retraced his steps through the house with one predominant question on his mind, unanswered. Does that mean he liked the front elevation after all?

Chapter Text

“Harry, really, you’re just supposed to stand around looking marketable,” Ron complained from the foot of the ladder. “Not actually do things. Being truly useful is my job, not yours.”

Harry, standing on the tips of his toes on the second-to-highest rung, strained his arm another half-inch and finally grasped the wire that kept slipping from between his fingertips.

“I’ve got it,” he declared when the wires were all severed, and plucked the fixture from its original installation, holding it against his chest with one hand as he came down the ladder. He took it up to the same room where he’d piled his tools. Ron followed and immediately began poking at it when Harry set it down.

“What’s wrong with this light?” Ron asked, frowning at it and twisting each bulb to and fro. “Looks good to me.”

“Yeah, but Riddle likes it,” Harry said, grimacing. “So it’s definitely not going back in the room.”

“Okay,” Ron said, nodding. “Going with Lavender’s strategy, then.”

Harry looked over, surprised. “What?”

But Lavender came in to speak for herself, balancing a paint tray on one hip and the water-based sealant Harry had asked for on the other. “Trying to make Riddle hate you, for pity votes.”

It was just an impolite rephrasing of what Violet had said the day before, but still, Harry couldn’t help taking some offense. “I don’t think they were pity votes,” he muttered. “Well, not all of them, anyway.”

“No,” Lavender agreed. “When I voted, at least, it was out of self-preservation, not pity.”

“Thanks, Lav,” Harry said, laughing, and took the gallon of sealant from her, looking approvingly at the label. “Yeah, that’s the stuff.”

Ron looked down at his feet, his hands on his hips, like Harry had asked them to stand on their heads.

“You’re sure?” he asked for the twentieth time. The floors were lovely — in places — with a muted gleam. But in rooms throughout the house, including this one — the living room — they had been carpeted over and were marred by residual adhesive, tack strips and in a few distinctly semicircular stained places, pet urine.

With a thorough and extensive sanding and refinish, they would look like new. But Harry didn’t have time for that, and putting a product over original floors felt even worse than what he was about to do — the ultimate restoration faux pas — painting them .

“I think the people may turn on you over this,” said Ron’s brother Fred, appearing with a miniature rotary sander slung over his shoulder and his constant smirk. Behind him, George nodded with a toothier grin. 

“No one paints wood on CLN.”

“That’s not true,” Harry said. “I’ll bet you a hundred bucks Amanda Nelson painted the trim mauve or something.”

Ron snorted and rolled his eyes. “No, Harry. She’s a strategist. She might be into that edgy stuff on her blog but on the show? No, she’s going to play to Tom Riddle and keep things classic. And she has his dream house with that midcentury modern ranch.” He looked sincerely unhappy about it. “The game is rigged. Not that anyone is surprised by that.”

Harry tried not to catch Ron’s melancholy. They had a long day ahead. Yesterday they’d repaired the pockmarked plaster walls and repainted everything in a deep ivory and Harry had cleaned a decade of grime from the oak built-ins until they shone. Their leaded-glass door panes were also freshly scrubbed and glittered in the light of the custom miniature chandelier Harry had installed where Riddle’s favored light fixture had been. He gave it a fond, smug glance then clapped his hands together.

“Okay, I think you guys have things under control here. I’ve got to go pick out furniture for staging, but let me know if you need anything from me?”

Lavender gave a mock salute, already spreading out some plastic for the paint trays. Dean and Seamus were coming in with brushes and rollers.

“Before furniture, Harry, they’re going to interview you outside for the compilation later,” said Violet, having appeared in the hallway with her omnipresent clipboard and a cheery little wave. She was so thin she was birdlike, her braided pigtails straw-yellow. She kept stealing glances at Lavender, who eventually gave her a deliberate look and a long wink.

Ron smirked and mouthed, They’re fucking .

Harry couldn’t stop himself before a small laugh escaped him, and Violet looked over at once, startled, with a tentative smile. “Everything okay?”

“Yep,” Harry said, picking up the leather bag Violet had given him to carry his things around after taking one look at his grubby backpack on the day he arrived.

Outside the crew had set up a director’s chair and lighting in the yard, so the house would be in soft focus in the background. Harry held still while his stylist, Sasha, plucked a leaf from his hair and hurriedly added a little more citrus-scented product.

“You’re a mess,” Sasha reminded Harry for the third time that day, but sounded fond. His voice was surprisingly soft for someone half again Harry’s size but Harry found the dichotomy charming the more he got to know him.

“Hi, Harry,” said one of the cameramen—Greg, with the cute gap between his front teeth. Harry waved back as he hopped up into the chair. A producer he hadn’t worked with a lot named Ariel smiled quickly at Harry without hardly looking up from her notes, standing outside of the shot.

“Remember, Harry, my questions don’t belong in the sound bite. So wherever possible I’m going to prompt you for answers that will stand alone, okay? It should just sound like you talking about yourself and your project.”

Harry nodded. He’d finally watched the playback from Tuesday and had a better idea of how they patched together the short little interview clips with film from in and around the site to consolidate a sense of the vision and process for each designer. 

“Ready,” said Greg, and Ariel launched into her questions.

“So, we have to ask—painting hardwood floors? Is that a cardinal sin?”

Harry laughed at her phrasing, trying not to let the camera make him uneasy. It helped him that Greg leaned out from behind the viewfinder to grin.

“I know that when you mention painting wood floors, people can be horrified, especially in a house like this that has so much of its original character. And I would hate to see someone just slap down paint on great floors like the ones in this house,” Harry admitted. “But right now the crew is carefully preparing the floor with sanding and protective sealant, so that when we prime and paint, the floor will have a protective barrier and the paint won’t penetrate the wood. Some day, a future owner who has the resources to hire an expert could have these floors restored with no issues. Refinishing removes the uppermost layer of the wood and any of the finish laying on top.”

“Why not just put down something new? CLN has given each designer a budget of $50,000 to spend on finishes.”

Harry thought that over. He still wasn’t sure what he was saving that fifty thousand for, but there was an honest answer he could give here. “It just isn’t necessary. The right move here is restoring the floor, but we don’t have enough time to do everything that would take—patch, sand, refinish, seal. Putting down more product feels like a huge waste, both of the awesome potential in the existing floor and also the new product that would go over it. Plus, painting a floor like this is something anyone can do. I know people who save up for years for new flooring and maybe they could like the floors they have in the meantime—or forever—if they just brightened them up or toned them down with paint.”

Ariel was looking at him now, pushing her glasses up the bridge of her nose. “On one of the videos on your vlog, you painted some linoleum in a friend’s kitchen.”

“Yeah, I did,” Harry said, and at Ariel’s go on gesture he remembered they wouldn’t incorporate Ariel’s questions into what they prepared for the air, and rephrased. “Once I painted my friend’s kitchen floor to surprise her. It was regular sheet linoleum but in a really ugly pattern. It’s a high-traffic area and it’s held up great. I used a stencil and some shading to give it the look of stone tile, but you don’t have to be artistic at all. You can just copy a design you find on the internet using a stencil and flat colors.”

“Would you say you’ve catered to clients in the past who needed to do something affordably?”

Harry grinned ruefully and lifted his hand, almost running it through his hair before he remembered how mad Sasha would be and rubbed the back of his neck instead. “I really wouldn’t call most of the people that I’ve helped ‘clients,’ because most of the creative work I’ve done has been for friends or friends of friends, and I’ve always felt like if they let me use their floor or cabinets or walls to practice on, they don’t really owe me anything for it. But yeah, I like to go into the homes of people who’ve kind of given up on loving where they live, because, I don’t know, they can’t afford the stuff you see on TV.” He realized who he was talking to, the CTV logo seeming to glare at him from the top of Greg’s camera, and cleared his throat. “Not that I don’t really enjoy seeing an amazing luxury home renovation. We can all appreciate that. But there’s a lot of things ordinary people can do in their homes, too, without taking out a second mortgage, you know?”

When Harry got in the Jetta with Violet, he didn’t get a chance to ask her how she thought he’d done before she launched into excited chatter, beaming.

“Harry, that was great!”

He relaxed against the seat. “Really? It felt kind of, rambling?”

She gestured dismissively. “They’ll edit out all the stops and starts, don’t worry. The essence of it was great. The audience is going to love it. You definitely provide a unique perspective in the contestant pool. You’re really building a brand here, between the landscaping in preliminaries and the floors in this first round.”

Harry nodded, but he hadn’t really been thinking of a “brand,” he’d just been trying to do the best he could in the allotted time, which honestly left very little time for strategic thinking and made him work mostly off instinct.

“Thanks,” he said belatedly. Violet hadn’t noticed his hesitation, going on about how to be sure that he kept his message in the back of his mind at all times so that he would be ready when someone offered him an opportunity to connect to it. The idea of trying to stay three steps ahead of every conversation he had on camera made Harry’s head hurt, but he tried to listen and nod and take her advice seriously. She certainly knew better than he did what she was doing, and she really seemed like she was on Harry’s side.

He checked his phone, noticed the number of unread emails, and felt slightly ill.

“Do you need some what?” Violet asked, seeing his face and looking alarmed. Harry tried to ease his expression.

“No, it’s just...I’ve got like a thousand notifications from my YouTube channel.”

“Oh my gosh! Well, of course you do.” She picked up her phone. “You were trending on Twitter earlier for almost an hour.”

Harry looked down at the home screen on his phone, oddly terrified.

“Do you think the stuff they’re saying is good or bad?”

Violet’s brows rose. “You mean you haven’t looked?” 

Harry shrugged one shoulder. “Not really.” 

Violet smiled and shrugged back. “Well, I’m sure some of it isn’t nice, because at least five percent of every comment thread has to be full of barely-relevant, toxic shouting, but based on what I’ve heard I’d say most of what they’re saying is really good. You should take a look, maybe?”

Harry fiddled with his phone another moment then dropped it on the seat. “Maybe later.”