Oh I'm re-re-ready for my heart attack
Oh I'm oh-oh-over everyone for that
So I smile, smile, smile for the fact that I am here
Hermione leafed through a stack of old files and financial statements, sub-dividing them into three piles—keep, discard, and undecided—while talking on the phone to Padma Patil, her second-in-command. Background voices and clatter on the other end made conversing more distracting than beneficial. Hermione had attempted to end the call three times, but Padma was more persistent than usual about this particular matter.
Weird, but not too abnormal.
"I certainly hope that your refusal has nothing to do with a certain childhood rivalry."
Her face hardened, not at all liking the tone of Padma's accusation. "Of course not." She was far beyond the puerility required to reject a client based on events that had transpired years before. Truthfully, Hermione just didn't want to take his company under her wing. "Now that wouldn't be very professional of me, now would it?" She kept her tone neutral, sarcastic even.
Padma didn't catch on to the underlying irritation in her business partner's voice because she was suddenly distracted by the heated argument between Zara Giguère, the head consultant of the new branch, and one of the movers. "Hold on."
After a brief pause, Hermione was treated to a side-conversation in French, starring Padma and Zara. The latter was upset because the movers were treating the furniture so carelessly. Hermione rolled her eyes and tried to stifle her impatience by working on the stack in her hand. Hermione wasn't exactly thrilled that Zara would be running the Parisian branch of PT Image Consulting (or P-TIC) after Padma returned to London, but had to begrudgingly admit there was no one better fit or equipped for the position. She had at least twenty years of experience on Hermione and came with a client list as long as her arm.
By the time Padma finished settling the disagreement, she was handing the discard pile to Intern One for shredding.
"So you'll agree to it then?"
"No," Hermione repeated, laughing to underscore her words.
Everyone briefly looked in her direction before returning to their work.
The level of activity in the office was mild for a Friday. She and the seven staff members that had been hand-picked to stay late and help—with pay and dinner, of course—had convened in the conference room to work on the dreaded task of office de-cluttering. Intern One was chewing gum, humming, and shredding paper. A junior accountant and Intern Two were sitting at the conference table that faced a corked wall, busily updating client files on company laptops. Interns Three and Four were steadily bringing in client folders from the file cabinets for Hermione and her secretary, Louisa, to look through and organise. Price, her personal assistant, was busy looking through the itinerary for the next week.
"Nothing against him, but I'd rather not."
Padma chose her next words carefully. If she'd been attempting to persuade anyone else, she would've talked to them calmly, implored them, reasoned with them, and even tried to guilt trip them into agreeing. But this was Hermione Granger. No one forced her to do anything. Ever. Padma had to do something she hated: she stopped deliberating and plotting…and just let the conversation take its course. "In my personal and professional opinion, his offer is—"
"I'm sure it's more than fair, but I don't want to take on a new client. I'm up to my eyeballs in clients." Hermione glanced at the uncertain pile, frowned, and adjusted her telephone headset. After computers, it had been the first thing she bought herself after she and Padma took on their first Muggle clients. She liked phones, thought they were more sensible and less intrusive than Fire Calls, but hated the way they kept her glued to her desk. It had always been a habit of hers to stay in motion, to work on several tasks at once, and the headset made it possible.
Ron thought it made her look stupid, but didn't dare say that to her face.
"You shouldn't be taking all these clients," Padma told her sternly, waving off one of her assistants who was trying to get her attention. "We just hired eight junior consultants that are more than eager to—"
"They need more training before I'm willing to set them loose on our clients."
Padma coughed, which drew more attention than she wanted. "They do not, and you know it." Exasperated, she rubbed the back of her neck with her free hand. It was time to take this conversation into a private room. She excused herself and went into Zara's future office. It smelled like freshly dried paint and cigarettes. Padma frowned and made a mental note to remind her that not everyone appreciated the smell of smoke. "Yuck."
"What was that?"
"Nothing important," Padma leaned against the desk. "Back to the original subject. The junior consultants are exactly what you wanted and what the company needs: bright, efficient, and trustworthy. You're just being stubborn, Hermione. We went through this same thing when we decided to start taking Muggle clients, and again when we decided to open the firm in Paris. I—"
"I'm not." Hermione retorted as she decided to keep all the 'uncertain' papers, at least until tonight when the phone calls stopped and everyone left. "I just—" She realised she was in a room full of listening members of her staff and silenced herself. "Nevermind."
Padma knew her well enough. "I know that you don't want to become obsolete, neither do I, but remember why we're doing all this expanding. We are growing. We're not just some hole-in-the-wall business anymore. This is your dream, right? You wanted to take P-TIC to a new level, right?"
"Well, the only way we're going to do it is if we make some changes, bring in new blood, and spread the workload. I know this has been our show for the last six years, but business is booming at a rate that we can't keep up with on our own. You haven't taken a vacation in years because you've felt like you couldn't, but I'm working hard to—"
"I understand that—"
"We can't do everything and be everywhere. You've got to start having faith."
Hermione gave a great sigh because, deep down, she knew Padma was right.
This was her ultimate dream for her company. She'd had the idea to start an image consulting firm two months after the war, when the mourning period was over and the entire wizarding world fell into post-war chaos. Things were awful. Hermione still felt a little naïve for thinking that all the problems would die with Voldemort. They hadn't. Even when the dust settled, the Ministry was at its most vulnerable: the economy had completely collapsed, the Ministry was completely disorganised, and people were living in terror because rouge Death Eaters were roaming the countryside, killing when they could and being pursued by very inexperienced Aurors. To make matters worse, the dementor-less Azkaban was full of Death Eaters awaiting trial and there were several breakouts, and the Interim-Minister was determined to keep the Ministry's going-ons internal.
His decision had led to a complete lack of trust in the Ministry, which quickly dissolved into riots in the streets, more vandalism and talks of overthrowing Shacklebolt and placing Harry Potter into power. The Ministry had needed someone—an outsider—to fix their image and convince the people to put their faith back into the very people who had helped save them from Voldemort.
And the idea was born.
Hermione shook the thoughts from her head and cleared her throat. "Fine."
Padma perked up. Well, that had been remarkably easy. "Are you saying 'fine' to letting the new consultants be more involved, or 'fine' to meeting Draco Malfoy to discuss taking on his company as a client?"
"The former. The latter still gets a firm 'no'."
"You're being unreasonable."
"I'm not sure how. I don't need him or his company. Not only would it completely muck up my credibility, but I'm almost certain that this will come with a string or two attached. It's unlike Malfoy to be too generous."
Padma spun around in her chair. "Regardless, you should capitalise on this."
Hermione rolled her eyes. "Don't be absurd."
"He's offering to pay you four thousand Galleons. Four times the amount of the normal fee."
She paused. "Per year?"
"Really? That much?" Hermione chuckled to herself as she leaned back in her chair and considered her options.
Intern Three and Price shared a quick glance from the places they were working at. If more than reasonable fees were being discussed, they knew their boss might compromise her principles regarding taste and decorum to take on a new client, even if she wasn't that excited at the prospect of working with them.
"Well, he must be desperate. Or stupid." Hermione finally said. Most of their clients usually were. PT Image Consulting had a reputation of being the first firm corporations called before a major scandal hit. "This could be a great opportunity for one of our new junior consul—"
"He wants you."
"Of course he does." She frowned; thoughts and theories flooding her brain.
Padma could almost hear Hermione's distaste, but knew her well enough to know that she would concede. The offer and intrigue were just too much. Finally, after several moments of silence, she heard a sigh.
"Have his secretary contact Price to confirm a meeting for Thursday at six o'clock at The Greenhouse."
"Will do." Padma flipped her mobile shut. She basked in the glow of victory for only a moment before making a second call. There were two rings before a voice she recognized immediately answered. "Hey. She's in. Good luck not getting hexed." Padma chuckled at his response and swiftly ended the call.
There was much to be done and very little time in which to do it in.
Hermione slipped the mouth piece up over her head, and frowned at the new predicament she'd gotten herself into. "If anyone needs me or has any questions about file organisation, I will be in my office."
She stood and picked up her handy notepad and pen.
"Price, pencil in that appointment for me, please. Also, be on the look-out for a confirmation call from Dunder-Malfoy." Now that she was semi-committed to taking a meeting with him, she would, at the very least, treat the meeting with the respect it deserved. She had a lot of research to do. "Oh, and hold all my calls for the afternoon."
Hermione arrived at The Greenhouse a full fifteen minutes before the designated meeting time, expecting to have over forty minutes to herself. She knew several CEOs, and tardiness was the rule, instead of the exception. Especially for the initial meeting. Tardiness usually annoyed her. It showed an obvious lack of respect and regard for her time. However, her day had been so mentally wearing that she welcomed it.
And she'd welcome some food, too.
The only thing she had eaten was toast and half an apple, and her low blood sugar was having an adverse effect on her mood. She wanted nothing more than to sit at the delightful table in the corner that she had requested, and order a decent glass of wine and Limousin veal sweetbread to tide her over. More than food or wine, Hermione wanted a few minutes to collect herself, clear her mind, and prepare herself for whatever Malfoy had to throw at her.
It had to be something.
She'd spent hours—no, days—researching Dunder-Malfoy, studying the reports his assistant had sent over, and talking to every one of her contacts. Not only had she been unable to find anything about his company that would warrant him paying her four thousand Galleons for her services, Hermione had learned that Malfoy was actually ran a tight and efficient parchment company that had minor problems.
No scandals. No illegal use of funds. No recalls. No illegal production. No house-elves.
It was perplexing, and Hermione didn't like that one bit.
For the most part, her clients weren't complicated—greedy and inconsiderate, but easy to decipher. Some complied with her demands, some compromised, and some made her want to hex them into the next century, but overall, it was satisfying work. Companies needed her to fix their image and respected her opinions. They took her harsh criticisms and sought her advice long after their contracts ended. And even though Hermione rarely respected or even liked her clients, she admired the ones who stuck with her, got their act together, and succeeded. It took a lot of time, faith, and resilience.
Draco Malfoy had the latter in spades.
The maître d', who walked alongside her, tall and unblinking, informed that they had only been waiting ten minutes for her. "They haven't ordered. They are waiting for you, Miss."
Hermione blinked in confusion. "Excuse me, 'they'?"
She looked and the sight made her fists clench, hard.
It wasn't the sight of a prompt Draco Malfoy sitting at their table, looking completely…like himself. No. It wasn't even that he had come prepared with a ridiculous looking quill and a bit of parchment. No. What really sent her careening over the edge was the fact that he was sitting with her best friend, Harry Potter. Her first instinct had been to turn on her heels and walk out, but Hermione was nothing if not a professional. Besides, this was her only chance at getting a decent dinner by someone else's hand, and she was famished. Her stomach grumbled in agreement. So with carefully calculated strides, Hermione shook off the maître d' and seated herself.
Draco saw her coming from the corner of his eye and politely rose to his feet as she took the seat across from him. Potter greeted Granger with a crooked smile that fell when her eyes narrow into mere slits.
She was not a happy witch.
"You're early," she said in lieu of a greeting. "And Harry," her voice was full of accusation. "I thought you were having dinner with Ron."
Harry flushed, remembering the conversation they'd had earlier that day. There really was no excuse he could give, but it didn't stop him from trying. "I—err—erm—"
Potter was a piss poor liar if he ever saw one. Draco had no idea how he'd been convinced into letting him come along. "You're early as well, Granger," Draco replied, settling down once again.
"Well, I like to have a few minutes to myself before meetings," she told him primly, voice heavily laced with the infuriation she felt. "I also do it to avoid walking into surprises."
Both wizards started to speak simultaneously, but Hermione cut them off with a look Harry had dubbed 'The Ron'. It was usually accompanied by hard breathing and a bulging vein on the side of her neck. Since neither had yet to make an appearance, Harry figured they were safe. For now. He glanced over at Malfoy before making eye-contact with his best friend. No matter what Malfoy had said and no matter how hard Padma laughed at him over the phone all week, Harry was their only hope at convincing Hermione to help. He was sure of it.
Now, if only she'd give him a word in edgewise. "Hermione, I—"
She held up her hand. "Harry, I'm not sure what's going on, but I don't plan on speaking to either of you until I've had a glass of wine and some carbs."
And she didn't.
Hermione scanned the room, quickly finding what she was looking for. It only took a moment before one of her favourite waiters, Mandel, came over, questioning her as to what she desired in a soft, muted voice.
"I'd like a bottle of pinot noir," she told him. "And three glasses."
Draco tried not to look affected. Pinot noir was a good choice of wine, he had to admit. It wasn't his ideal selection, but it was red, soft, and would go well with just about anything on the menu. She probably knew that, too. How accommodating. Draco eyed the witch across from him. So Granger knew a little about wine?
Surprising, but not too.
"Does Madame have a preference tonight?"
"No," Hermione answered, sounding more dismissive than intended. She paused and tried again. "I trust your judgement, Mandel," and gave him a small smile. "We're not exactly ready to order just yet, but I would like to order the Duck foie gras terrine as my starter, please."
The waiter returned less than two minutes later with their wine and menus.
Draco kept his eyes on Granger while she watched the uncorking, carefully scrutinising her. He'd seen Granger a handful of times since Pansy had fallen for Weasley—the one without table manners—and decided to drag him along for the ride. Granger was never late, but always left early, which annoyed Weasley into inserting his giant foot into his mouth. Watching her verbally cut him to bits had always been the highlight of the day. Draco leaned back in his chair when Granger accepted the glass from the waiter and took the obligatory first taste. She must have done something since Draco had seen her last because she looked go—bugger.
Every bloody time he saw her, he felt this strange…attraction for her. There had to be a reason for it, but Draco couldn't identify it. It definitely wasn't her personality. Granger was a slightly irritating, know-it-all. Time hadn't changed that. But… she was also incredibly witty and had a dry charm about her. Nothing too special. He wasn't drawn to her hair, which was currently pulled back into a bun. It was plebeian, at best. There was nothing special about her clothes: navy, pin-stripped, and professional. Insipid. She even wore plain jewellery. No engagement ring. Draco blanched slightly. Had he actually looked at her finger?
Harry kicked Malfoy under the table and grinned brightly upon receiving a glare that could easily freeze a fire. "Welcome back, Malfoy. Now if you could stop staring at Hermione long enough to order, that would be great."
"I wasn't staring." He tried to hide his discomfort with curt words, but it was apparent that he'd failed when Potter started chuckling and Granger's cheeks took on a bit of colour.
"Actually," she shifted in her seat awkwardly. "You were."
"See anything you li—oww!" Harry grimaced. "Did you both have to kick me at the same time?"
Looks were exchanged, smiles were repressed, and answers were given simultaneously.
"Yes," Draco replied curtly.
"I felt it was necessary," she agreed.
Harry glared at them both.
Hermione sipped her wine. "Take your time ordering, Malfoy."
The look she gave him made his cheeks start to heat, but Draco took a large gulp of wine to counteract it. He hadn't so much as glanced at the menu. To save himself any future embarrassment, he said the first thing that came to mind: "I'll have what she's having."
"Saddle of venison, it is. Excellent choice." Mandel excused himself and left.
Hermione unfolded the white napkin and draped it across her lap. "You trust my taste?"
"Trust has very little to do with it. I've never eaten here before, but the staff knows you fairly well. It was only—" Draco was interrupted by the arrival of Granger's starter.
Hermione thanked Mandel with a quiet nod, glared at Harry when he boldly asked for a taste, and picked up her fork. The first bite was heaven on earth. The second was epic. It made her giddy in a way that was almost unbecoming for a witch of twenty-six. She attempted to stifle the growing smile on her face, but couldn't. The food was so meltingly tender it was humbling, so flavourful it almost made her forget that there was something fishy going on around her, and so incoherently delicious it almost made her stop listing all her conspiracy theories.
A few more bites and sips of wine quieted the suspicious part of her brain and allowed Harry to drag her into a conversation about nothing important. She hadn't seen him in nearly two weeks, but he had so much to talk about. Their jobs. Ginny, who was training with the Harpies in Cyprus. Hermione's abysmal date with Dean Thomas that Padma had set up. Seamus' birthday party next week. Hermione's trip to Paris for work. Cho's wedding next month. It went on.
Draco mentally checked out of their inane conversation the moment it had begun. He hadn't been so keen with having Potter at this meeting, but his presence was working out for the better. Not only was the focus off of him, but Granger's mood was improving. Perhaps he would get exactly what he wanted, after all. Draco sipped his wine and unintentionally allowed his mind to wander. He found himself consciously watching Granger. She was almost fondling her fork as she spoke to Potter, running her fingertips up and down the handle. It was an unconscious action, he knew, but Draco was almost incoherent with the bizarre desire to become that fork. He stared at it, imagining Granger's fingers and how they would feel on his skin, running up and down his…
"Would you pour me another glass of wine, Malfoy?" When he only blinked at her as if she were speaking an archaic dialect, she gestured to the bottle. "It's sitting right next to you."
Malfoy's hand shook slightly as he filled Hermione's glass and she could only imagine what was wrong with him. Perhaps he was playing mental games with her. Her suspicion reawakened. "Do you not like the wine? You've barely touched it."
"It's a good choice, but I'm not here to eat, drink, and be merry."
After chewing on her latest bite of food, Hermione quipped, "Can't say that I'm wholly surprised." She took a large sip of wine before she finally asked the question of the hour. "What is it that you want? And how did you manage to drag Harry into your scheme?"
"Scheme?" Draco drawled. "I should be offended."
"But you're not," Harry said simply.
"Not at all," was his smug reply. "However, you should know that your precious Potter came on his own accord."
Hermione found that very hard to believe.
"I did," Harry confessed, straightening his glasses.
"Because we need your help."
"'We?'" Hermione snorted. "Oh, now this is rich. Since when have you and Malfoy been a 'we'? And does Ginny know?"
Harry missed the double entendre. "Of course she does, she was the one who suggested it."
Draco almost choked on his drink while Potter glared. "You're not funny."
"I like to think I am," she replied primly. "I must have some sense of humour. If I didn't, I'd be hexing you both right about now, Statute of Secrecy be damned." Hermione sipped her wine. "I think I'm ready to find out why I'm here."
Fresh fork in hand, Potter attempted to steal the last bite of her food, only to be rejected when she swatted his hand. Like a child. Once again, Draco hid his facial expression by lifting the wine glass to his lips. While the speckled wizard sulked, he told her everything he knew about the situation. "Last week while you were gallivanting in Paris, Weasley gave Pansy a promise ring. For a reason unbeknownst to me, the action led to a huge row and ended when she walked out on him. She says it's for good."
Hermione held up a finger. "First of all, I don't gallivant. It was a business trip." She added a finger. "Second, I fail to see the issue here. They're completely smitten with each other. They'll work it out like they always do, and you both will see that all this scheming was for naught."
Simultaneously, Malfoy snorted and Harry shook his head. "We're not so certain."
"Oh?" she questioned as she took another sip of wine.
"She's moved out. Completely."
Hermione set her glass down and leaned back in her chair, thoughtfully. Now that was interesting. She'd had a strong opinion about them impulsively moving in together after only three months of dating, but kept her mouth shut. As much as she cared about being right, she cared more about keeping the peace between her and Ron. Besides, he was a big boy; he could make his own mistakes and everything. "What happened?"
"Ron says she completely flipped when he gave her the ring and started saying all these things that really irritated him, so naturally, he put his foot in his mouth in a spectacular way," Harry shook his head. "He didn't tell me what he said, but it was bad enough for Pansy to storm out the house in a robe with nothing but her wand."
"What an idiot," she rolled her eyes. "Both of them."
Draco agreed with her there. "While I think that leaving him was the best—" He scowled when Potter kicked him, but kept his eyes on the frowning Granger. "Pansy's a good actress, but I know she's not happy."
"Again," she said dryly. "I fail to see what I have to do with any of this."
Harry sighed and started recounting his adventure with his heartbroken best friend. "Ron's crushed."
"I'm sorry to hear that, but—"
"Look Hermione. I know you'd rather not get involved, but this is important. Ron's been staying at with me until he finds another place because—well, he can't stay at theirs without thinking about her. And…" Harry sighed. "He won't snap out of it. His mood is all over the place and I'm not sure what to do. I can't keep my cupboards stocked because he eats everything. Last night, I woke up in the middle of the night and he was sitting on my kitchen floor, eating a stick of margarine. Margarine!"
"We both know that Ron has arteries of steel."
"I think you're missing the point, Granger," Draco said.
"Because you haven't made a point, Malfoy," she retorted brusquely.
"Okay, here's the point," Harry adjusted his glasses. "We want you to help us get them back together."
"I'm an image consultant, not a counsellor."
Harry knew he wasn't explaining this as eloquently as Malfoy could, but he was just sitting there looking at him. "Well, Malfoy wanted you to work for his company and, maybe, set up a way for them to get back together…"
But Hermione did something neither expected. She tilted her head back…and laughed.
Neither shared her amusement.
"It's not funny, Hermione."
"You and Malfoy, teaming up to play love doctor…that's not funny, it's hilarious!"
Draco glared at her. "So are you going to do this?"
She sobered and replied with no hesitation. "Not a chance." When Harry opened his mouth to argue, she held her hand up. "I haven't interfered with Ron's love life since I starred in it. When we broke up, we agreed not to stick our noses into each other's relationships. And that works for us. I don't expect either of you to understand."
"But this is different! He wants your help. It's obvious she still cares about him or else she wouldn't—"
Hermione felt the distinct buzzing of her pager on her hip and checked it. "Hold that thought."
"What the hell is that?" Draco eyed the little device curiously.
"It's a pager. Muggles use it all the time to communicate. When there's an emergency and no one can reach me by mobile, they page me. It's quite efficient, and unlike a Messenger Patronus, I can receive messages from anyone at any time."
"Nifty," he drawled.
"So you have to go?" Harry looked a little disappointed.
"Yes, sorry, but it's Padma and I know it's nothing frivolous. We've been having a few issues at the Paris branch today and whatever she needs me for has to be handled straightaway. You understand, right?"
"Of course I do." Hermione smiled at him, picked up her purse, and plucked out her wallet. She started to take out a few banknotes to pay her portion of the bill, but Harry stopped her. "I'll pay." There was a grin on his face when he added, "And I'll make sure to eat your food for you, too."
"Wonderful," she replied dryly and stood up, purse in hand. Hermione was pushing in her chair when she caught Malfoy's eyes on her. "Oh, and so we're clear, my answer is still no. I'm not going to interfere." And she left before either could argue.
"Well, I guess that's it then," Potter said to him, sighing with defeat.
Draco snorted. "Hardly."